“Monsters” by Michael Horton

Outside, monsters gathered. Waiting. Patient. Arthur could sense their presence. They weren’t there for shopping or the dentist or to do someone’s yardwork. They weren’t just hanging around—they gathered for Arthur. Arthur and his mother.

 And they were out of luck. The boy had plans. He was the smartest in his sixth-grade class—Hey, Fatty. Hey, Weirdo, they might call him but his classmates knew he was the smartest.  

He had more than enough time to himself to plan. He had prepared for the long haul. Over time, and at some physical cost, he had badgered his mother into supplying him with a stockpile of canned goods. Enough for a month. She never paid any real attention to what he was asking for at the store, or where it went. She made him push the cart, load the groceries. If she thought about it, she assumed he was feeding himself when she wasn’t home, when she didn’t feel like cooking, or ordering out. She could care less about cans of beans, mini beef raviolis.

Arthur hid water in plastic gallon milk jugs. He stored light sticks, two LED flashlights, extra batteries, his favorite books on Kindle, and a white-gas two burner camp stove—his father’s before his mother ran him off.

And, just as Arthur knew they would, they came. Were out there now. Arthur stared one-eyed through the slit in the curtains. Across the street the Pearson’s yard was a pristine green, park-like with grooming—Mr. Pearson obsessive about yard chores and home maintenance. Not a likely hiding place. Yet Arthur knew the unlikely was exactly what a monster would count on. That element of surprise, the heart-stopping shock, the sudden leering appearance as if from thin air—stock in trade for monsters.  The hedges in his own front yard hid anything on the sidewalk under four feet tall—or something large crawling on its belly.

The huge, shaggy Russian spruce that cast its gloomy shadow across one third of the front porch–it was a foregone conclusion monsters lurked there. And his mother, as if intentionally, tauntingly, pulled her chair deep into its purple shadow, clinking ice in her glass of gin and tonic, pushing the green crescent of lime down with her finger, then licking her finger. Later, when it turned to straight gin, she would declare it a martini.

Letting the fuck down, she said. My reward for another god-awful day at work. She laughed, the sound like a shaken box of rocks. Another day at the freak house—at the shit factory, she said. She sat in the gloom of that shaggy giant as if it was the least of her worries. As if she wasn’t being studied, appraised, the very sound of her pulse digested in the depth of those shadows. The boy kept to the house, only came out when she hollered.

He had tried to tell her. Tried and tried, until she would get tired of his voice and smack him, just in warning. Not as hard as she could, that was for special occasions. Back off, buster, she would say. I don’t want any of your shit tonight. No fucking shit. Not tonight. She would sink into her chair as though she were melting, her bones turning to water, her face sagging like candle-wax.

She would sit and stare into the air over the yard as if she was watching a TV show. A show she had no particular interest in, but without interest enough to turn it off. If she moved, it was to jab her glass at the boy to refill. Then she would clink down its contents, crack the ice cubes in her jaws like a bulldog cracking bones, and, after the third or fourth, threaten him in general. No shit, you little fuck. No shit tonight. I can’t take anymore. You and your stupid shit.

She had to talk nice to customers—clients—all day over the phone. She didn’t bring it home with her—the talk-nice. It wasn’t a big deal for Arthur anymore. He was fine. He’d gotten used to it. For his father, though, Arthur thought it might have made a difference. If she’d tried to talk nice just a little, before his father left. If she’d tried, she might have coaxed him back, the boy thought. He’d pleaded with her until he was black and blue.

I’d want that pitiful excuse back, why? She’d slap Arthur’s head, pinch his arm until his eyes grew bright, and say,You—you’re just like him. She would slump in her chair, or sit on the couch and turn on her TV shows. She would kick off her shoes, massage her swollen ankles. Christ, she would say. Christ O’Mighty. Then she would tell him to bring the chips. Put some gin in this glass. And fucking don’t forget the ice.

When his father had been gone for months, not a word from him, the boy sensed a darkness beginning to grow as if his father’s absence had released it. Things were moving. Closing in—something bad was coming.

Something bad was going to happen. Arthur had done his best. Done his best to warn her. Over and over. If only things were different, he tried to tell her. If only she would listen. Only listen. And, finally, how they needed to be ready. How she needed to be ready.

What did I ever do to deserve this, she had said, narrowing her eyes and shaking her head. Saddled with a moron, she said and swatted the back of his head, cracked ice cubes in her jaws like gun shots.

Before things reached this stage, he had invited her down to show her the space he’d made in the furnace room in the basement—the lock, the bar he put up on door. The blankets, cans, his LED flashlights. She didn’t want to see. Couldn’t care less. Get the fuck away from me. Can’t you see how beaten up I am? I’ve worked all goddamned day. Don’t I deserve a little peace?

With no choice left to him, he gave up. Spent hours by himself in his safe space. He would disappear down there when he came home from school. He took his sandwiches downstairs and ate in the dark, shining his flashlight first here, then there. Shined it on his tower of cans stacked on the shelves, along with the dried-out paint cans, boxes of nails and screws, mineral spirits, the yellow carton of rat poison, weed-killer, the rusting hedge-trimmers his father had keep the hedges neat with before he went away. Before she drove him away.

You have to try, he told her. Make him come back, he said. For everyone’s sake. Said it more than once. But after her third gin and ice, she would refuse to look at him or listen. She didn’t care. She would sit and drink and stare and eat without tasting what she ate. When she shouted Arthur brought her cheese doodles, powdered sugar donuts that whitened her lips, weight-watchers chicken stir-fry in its microwave container. If he was slow, if forgot something, she’d swear, pinch her mouth together like she was going to spit. Eventually, she would stagger off like the ground was quaking beneath her feet. Off to the bathroom, her bedroom—oblivious to the danger the boy knew was growing. Inching closer and closer. She refused to see it.

He’d done his best. If she wouldn’t listen, how was it his fault? His father wasn’t to blame. He didn’t live there anymore. When he had, he’d been blamed for everything. Arthur’s mother would scream blame at him over and over, stomping around the house, up and down the stairs, like she would bring the whole thing down on top of them. In the end, he escaped. Alone. The boy didn’t blame him. His mother did, but most of the time Arthur didn’t.

And now the moment had come, despite all his trying and pleading. All his wanting things to be different. The time had come as he knew it would. As he had been preparing for. He imagined it as if he’d already witnessed it. The monsters were too powerful. It stood to reason—they were monsters. They had come for him.

But it was her—sitting in that purple shadow as if nothing mattered, as if none of it was her fault—it was her they had come for first. He handed her a fresh gin and tonic.

Mr. Horton says about his life:

“I’ve worked as a janitor, factory worker, bookmobile librarian, prep cook, head of university housekeeping, purchasing agent, and IT guy at different times but writing is what I do. I have been lucky enough to attend the Sewanee Writers Conference (my mini MFA) where I learned from the remarkable Alice McDermott and Tony Earley.”


One thought on ““Monsters” by Michael Horton

  1. The descriptions are breathtaking — the shadows, the mother’s jaws on the ice first compared to a dog cracking bones, then gunshots. Suspense building without there really being any action; really good. Who was the monster? The mother with her crap attitude? The father who gave up and left his son to her untender unmercies? Or the boy, slowly losing his grip? Very creepy.

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