Poppi had hurt her bad this time, worse than usual. She’d known it would be bad as soon as he’d walked in the door. It was after ten p.m., he was late and her baby-sitter Heather from down the street had left at seven.
She was sprawled in front of the blaring TV, working on an Aladdin coloring book she’d bought last year with lunch money she had secretly saved. She hadn’t seen the movie, of course, but she liked to look at the bright printed scenes on the cover and the line drawings inside and pretend that she had. With her box of sixty-four Crayon colors, she could make the movie within the drawings look the way it did in her imagination. She liked the pictures in her head because they were all hers; Poppi couldn’t touch them.
When he’d come in he was muttering under his breath. He immediately crossed to the television set and lowered the volume to an inaudible level.
“Christ almighty, Stacey, you always have to blast the goddamn TV? Last thing I need is some complaint from the neighbors.”
As he turned, his foot kicked the box of Crayons, and they flew in a multihued arc across the room. “Aw, what is this . . . ?”
Poppi picked up the coloring book, glanced at it once and then shook it in her face. “Stacey, how many times do I have to tell you, you’re too old for this nonsense. You’re ten years old, too old to play with this little-kid bullshit.”
Stacey heard her crayons crack under his shoes. Vermilion, Burnt Sienna, Cornflower Blue, three broken colors she’d never use again.
She knew Poppi was right, though—ten year-olds weren’t supposed to play with coloring books, or Fisher-Price Farm Sets, or stuffed animals. The other kids in her class at school already had favorite bands, they could win video games and had posters up in their rooms of handsome TV stars. Not Stacey. She knew they thought she was weird or stupid; one teacher had used the word “remedial.” That had been when Poppi had taped a funnel into her mouth and force-fed her a bad-tasting vitamin mash he said would make her smarter.
Tonight, though, she knew it wouldn’t be that. He was already halfway out of his clothes, the heavy genuine-leather belt tugging loose from the loops in his expensive slacks. She didn’t understand what he was saying; something about a boy in the office today who had screamed and bitten him. He showed her a tiny red mark on one finger. Stacey didn’t understand; the marks he left on her once or twice a month were a lot worse than that.
He told her to go into her room and lay on her stomach on her bed. She didn’t fight or try to escape; she knew that would just make it worse. She went into her room and grabbed Baloo her stuffed bear. If she held onto Baloo very tightly it helped a little bit. Not much, but a little bit.
Poppi had his belt off and held in both hands when he lumbered in. He reached up under her little skirt, flipped it up and tugged her tights and panties down. She didn’t realize she was biting Baloo’s ear. The leather whistled, and she tried not to cry out or jerk—sometimes that just made it worse. All she could do was let the tears squirt out silently and hope Poppi was tired tonight.
• • • •
When it was over he took her by the wrist and put her in the closet. She heard the latch he’d installed click into place, then he left the room and she was alone at last.
What Poppi didn’t know was that she liked being in the closet. Her friends were there, Babar the Elephant and Pluto in his fuzzy orange fur. The tiny Watchman TV her Auntie Gina had given her last year was there. She even kept pillows and an old blanket in there; when she pushed her shoes aside it was really pretty comfortable. Or would have been, if it hadn’t hurt so much to just lay.
She snuggled her animals close to her and turned on the TV. It was tuned to a station that started showing cartoons at five in the morning, but Stacey didn’t really care what was on. The tinny voices and moving pictures lulled her, made her feel a little less lonely.
After a while she dozed off. When she awoke she was hot all over, her bottom an excruciating fire. She tried to find a comfortable position, and ended up on her side with her face only inches from the screen. There was a man on it, he was talking in front of some curtains, he had on a funny suit and a funnier accent. Then the man finished talking and words came on, but Stacey wasn’t a very good reader. She didn’t care what they said anyway. There were eyes spinning behind the words . . .
Stacey was sick, she knew what a fever was and that she had one. She remembered when Mommi had been alive, the way she’d lay a hand on Stacey’s forehead when she was sick, and could tell just by that how sick Stacey was. She remembered one time when she’d had a very bad flu with a very high fever, Mommi had gone into the bathtub with her and held her in the cool water, rocking her until the temperature had gone down . . .
Stacey awoke from the dream of her mother and found herself face to face with the dream on the TV. There was a man who looked like her Poppi, a man with dark hair and sunken eyes and thin lips. The man and his friend, who was bent all crooked and walked with a little cane, were cutting somebody down from a wooden bar. The man who looked like Poppi said the body was broken and useless.
Stacey couldn’t really sleep, but her eyes would close until the pain forced them open again. The next time she saw the man, he was wearing the same kind of white coat Poppi wore at his work. He was showing the man with the funny accent how he had sewn a hand onto an arm it wasn’t born onto. Somehow Stacey understood that the man who looked like Poppi had built this other man—monster, they called it—from all kinds of different parts. The monster was scary-looking, but it was afraid of being burned, of being whipped, of being chained up, of getting a shot. Stacey understood all those things.
She even understood when a little girl—who wasn’t much younger than she—used flowers to ask the monster to throw her into a lake.
Stacey did fall asleep after that, relieved to know she wasn’t alone.
• • • •
Poppi let her out in the morning, of course. She went to school dressed as always in heavy sweaters, skirt and tights, although it was nearly eighty degrees. She thought of the lovely blue swimming pool in their next-door neighbor’s backyard and knew she’d never be able to use it. If Stacey’s mode of dress was ever questioned, there was a standard response: Her father was a pediatrician and said she suffered from a neurological disorder.
That covered a lot of the questions. Why Stacey often fell asleep in class, why she sometimes seemed to ache too much to participate in recess, why she had trouble concentrating or relating or remembering. There was also, of course, the story of how Stacey’s mother had died of cancer six years ago, and her father had raised her alone since.
In fact, many felt sorry for Stacey’s father, that a young pediatrician with such obvious concern for children should be left alone to care for such a dull-witted and sickly girl.
• • • •
That night, Poppi got home early enough to send the sitter off and fix dinner for them. He made Stacey a ghastly-smelling soup and told her to eat it while it was hot.
She could see the steam curling off it, but she picked up a spoon and ladled some of the stuff in. It burned her tongue and the roof of her mouth, but Poppi insisted it was good for her. He made her eat it all while it was still steaming.
After that she did the dishes, then went to her room, where she laid on the bed snuggling Baloo. Her mind drifted through images from the movie that had played last night on her TV. She floated with them, forgetting the burning in her mouth for a while.
Poppi is dressed in his white coat, but his office is bigger, darker, made of rocks. There’s lots of equipment she doesn’t understand lining the walls, some of it spitting sparks like 4th of July fireworks. Poppi is hunched over a worktable, his back to her, his hands moving rhythmically. The viewpoint moves around him until Stacey can see plainly what he’s doing.
There’s a figure on the table before him, a human figure but one that’s unfinished, lacking. It has arms but no hands, legs but no feet, head but no face. Stacey sees a needle and thread in Poppi’s fingers and realizes he’s sewing, like Mommi used to when Stacey tore buttons off or ripped holes in her pants.
Stacey gets close enough to see what he’s sewing. He’s working on the mouth, which gapes like a blank black hole. There’s a lump of dead gray flesh in his left hand, one end dark with stitches, while his right moves up and down, up and down.
He’s sewing a tongue in.
The monster is begun.
• • • •
The next day, Stacey’s own tongue is badly blistered. Poppi has treated the welts on her backside and they feel better, but the tongue causes her to be even more closemouthed than usual. Finally Miss Washington, of all people, who works in the cafeteria, sees the tongue and asks her what happened.
Stacey doesn’t want to answer, but the image of Poppi with needle and thread rears up before her vision. Unable to stop, she blurts it out.
“Poppi made me eat something hot.”
Miss Washington, who has never spoken to Stacey before, knows only her face, not her name, asks who Poppi is.
“My daddy,” Stacey says thickly.
Miss Washington, who runs the cash register, hesitates a long while. Then she says softly to Stacey, “Next time you say no, you hear?”
Stacey hurriedly gives Miss Washington her money and flees. She can’t even taste the lunch, can only feel.
• • • •
A week later, Poppi comes home with a bitter smell of beer clinging to him. Stacey is writing a letter to an imaginary pen pal, carefully penning the words and laboring over the spelling; the letter is about Poppi. Poppi finds it, reads the first sentence, and tells Stacey if she likes those words so much she can eat them. Poppi tears the page into strips and forces them into Stacey’s mouth, holding it closed until she has no choice but to swallow. She is made to consume the entire page that way, then sent to bed with no other dinner.
• • • •
That night Stacey sees Poppi at work again. His creation is more fully formed—there are the beginnings of features on the face now. Poppi has cut it up the middle, and he’s lowering in something that looks like a shimmery blue gray balloon full of jelly, with tubes dangling from either end. As she watches, he connects the tubes to those already within the monster, then begins to sew it shut.
The thing has guts now.
• • • •
Stacey is in the middle of 4th period the next day when she vomits. She’s sent home immediately; the other students are dismissed on an extra recess while the janitor cleans the mess up. He’s dipping his mop back in the bucket when something catches his eye, and he leans over. There in the bile is a half-chewed scrap of paper with the crayoned words “then Poppi made” plainly visible.
He considers informing the teacher, then shrugs and goes about his work.
• • • •
Nearly a month passes without major incident. Stacey is beginning to think Poppi may have given up his monster when he comes home early actually crying. It would have been Mommi’s birthday today, and Poppi stares at a framed picture of her while he drinks from a bottle of sour liquor. He’s talking but to no one at all, about how he could have saved Mommi from the cancer if he’d been a real doctor instead of a pediatrician. When he sees Stacey looking at him he lunges at her; she unthinkingly puts out her hands to ward him off. Poppi takes her small hands in his and rubs them roughly along his unshaven jaw while he sobs. Finally he releases Stacey, lost in his grief. She flees to her room. Although there’s no physical pain this time, the remembrance of Poppi’s skin under her fingertips is as bad in its own way.
• • • •
She watches as Poppi attaches the hands. She sees he’s been hard at work—the figure looks almost human now, beneath the bandages. She knows it’ll be over soon.
The monster is almost done.
• • • •
They’re working on an art project at school the following afternoon when Stacey’s teacher, Mr. Torres, notices that Stacey is not applying her brush to paper but to her own arms. He takes Stacey into the back to talk to her about the strange red marks she has meticulously painted on each wrist. Stacey tells him that’s how Poppi makes sure the hands will stay on. Mr. Torres looks around to make sure the other students are occupied, then he takes Stacey outside and sits with her on the steps.
“Stacey,” he asks carefully, “does Poppi ever do things to hurt you?”
Stacey, who has never been asked this question before and so doesn’t know how to answer, just shrugs.
“Would it be alright if we let the school nurse look you over, Stacey?”
Again, Stacey shrugs. Mr. Torres gives her a hall pass and sends her to the nurse, but Stacey never makes it. She gets halfway there, then is seized by an inexplicable panic. Her heart groans in her throat; she feels like she’s going to wet her panties. She runs for home as fast as she can and buries herself in her closet, clutching Baloo and Babar and Pluto to her tightly.
• • • •
Stacey’s own birthday is two weeks later. Poppi buys her a new “eleventh-birthday celebration” dress and takes her out to a fancy restaurant, where Poppi has so much to drink, even the waiter in his little short jacket and bowtie questions him. Poppi brushes the polite enquiry off with a wave of his credit card; when he giggles as the man walks off, Stacey actually joins him. Poppi even gives her a little drink of his wine—“now that she’s getting to be such a big girl”—and Stacey feels a surge of affection for Poppi, forgetting the monster for the moment.
On the ride home Poppi stops by a liquor store and tells Stacey she can have anything she wants from the ice-cream case. She takes a pineapple Push-Up, Poppi gets himself a bottle, and they laugh all the way home about the messy yellow sherbet oozing out of the paper tube.
In the house Poppi takes a long gulp from his bottle, then sees how Stacey has stained her chin and part of the new dress with sherbet. She expects him to become angry, she tenses in anticipation . . . instead he smiles sweetly and takes her into the kitchen. He wets a paper towel, gently wipes off her chin, then starts on the dress. The dress is beautiful crushed velvet, though, and he tells Stacey he doesn’t want to ruin it, so she’d better take it off. He helps her, right there in the kitchen; she crosses her arms to cover her cold chest.
Poppi asks her what she’s trying to hide—hasn’t he seen her before? She wants to giggle, wants to think this is another birthday game, but the look in Poppi’s eyes tells her this is something else. He pulls her arms away from her chest and begins to stroke her there. Stacey tries to pull away, and Poppi does become angry now. He asks her if she loves her Poppi. She doesn’t answer.
He asks her again . . . only now he’s pushing her down over the table, and Stacey smells his hot breath curling around her ear.
• • • •
Electricity is coursing through the monster now, a primal force brought by Poppi. The equipment shrieks and flashes, the monster under the bandages jerks and spasms . . . then the storm is over and the table is lowered.
A beat, a silent hesitation—then fingers begin to unflex slowly and curl out, the great chest begins to heave, gulping in the first new breaths of air. Poppi undoes the restraining straps and steps back to survey his work proudly.
• • • •
Poppi has staggered off to his room to fall into a drunken slumber, leaving the misshapen wreck that was his daughter on the kitchen floor. She lays there until almost dawn, too terrified and pained to move. She can taste blood in her mouth, feel it running hot between her legs; one eye is swollen nearly shut and something aches in her chest.
When she begins to drag herself out of the kitchen, it’s not to her room but out the back door. She nearly rolls down the three small steps to the grass lawn, then continues to pull herself towards the gap in the fence between her yard and the neighbor’s. The sun is up now, but Stacey doesn’t feel its heat, not when she has so much of her own.
She crawls through the space between the wooden planks, ignoring a splinter that digs into her arm. She can see the great blue expanse just ahead of her now, the calm waters inviting her. At last she’s on the tile rimming the pool. She lets herself collapse there, her goal reached. Only her hand still moves, grasping at a nearby rose bush. The thorns tear her fingers, but she comes away with petals to scatter on the water, like tiny boats.
• • • •
She hears the giant footsteps, and knows he’s coming, coming at last. He will see the petals and know what she’s asking; then, because they understand each other’s pain, he will help.
She sees a shadow on the other side of the fence, and her heart skips a beat. The shadow pauses before the gap, then continues on around to the side-by-side gates. The gate in her backyard opens, then the gate in this yard opens . . .
And the monster is there.
Stacey smiles in welcome, and throws another rose petal. The monster staggers forward; Stacey sees he’s returning her smile. He kneels by her; as Stacey looks into his death-glazed eyes, she sees only kindness. He reaches for her, and she feels herself cradled in those giant’s hands.
Then the water is covering her, a soothing blanket, like when Mommi rocked her in that tub so long ago . . .
And through the clear water she looks up and sees Poppi.
She opens her mouth in shock; water rushes in. She lets it fill her, and is surprised there’s no pain or fear. Just floating, a delicious blue floating where no one can touch her and she’s finally safe.
The gentle monster is waiting for her on the other side.
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