A kid in a baseball cap and a Ninja Turtles t-shirt is sitting on the park bench, swinging his legs. The boy stands off to the side until he’s sure there are no grown-ups nearby, and then he flops down on the bench, hiding his misshapen left hand while pretending to pick a scab from his knee with the other. Turtle leans forward, the hat’s brim turning his eyes to shadow. The boy guesses he’s eight, maybe, or close enough. Not too skinny either. The monster doesn’t like it when they’re skinny.
“Did you get hurt?” Turtle asks, his gaze skimming the scars on the boy’s arms and legs.
Even faded with the passage of time, the scars are ugly and pitted, as though his flesh was repeatedly gouged with a small ice-cream scoop. “I was in a car accident,” the boy says.
“Did it hurt?”
“A lot.” The boy peers over both shoulders. The park is still empty save for the two of them, and best of all, it’s surrounded by bushes and trees. The branches sway in the breeze, rattling like a knocked-over pile of bones. In between flashes of green and brown, he catches glimpses of small brick houses with wrought iron-railed concrete porches. It’s probably a nice neighborhood, a place where people have parties in back yards and walk their dogs on the sidewalks.
Once he took a dog, a skinny thing he found eating out of a trash can, to the monster, but it ripped the trembling animal into pieces, roared in the boy’s face, and squeezed his hand until it crackled and popped like cereal in milk. Then it made him clean up the mess.
(It’s hard to dig a hole with one hand; not much easier to fill it in.)
It’s spring, which means Turtle should be in school. He doesn’t look sick, and if it were a holiday the park would be crowded. Questions linger on the boy’s tongue, but he swallows them down. Best not to know. The answers wouldn’t matter anyway. “Want to see something neat?” he says.
Turtle scrunches his face. “What is it?”
Turtle grins, revealing front teeth his mouth hasn’t grown into yet. “There’s no such thing as monsters. Really, what is it?”
“What I said, a monster.” The boy shrugs. “You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to.”
The boy stands, tucking his left hand in his pocket, like a secret you don’t want to share. “See you later, okay?”
“Wait,” Turtle says. “Is it really a monster?”
“Yeah, but it’s dead and gross and stuff.”
“Cool,” Turtle says, slipping off the bench. “I want to see it.”
Kids always trust other kids. It’s not the boy’s fault Turtle’s parents didn’t teach him not to talk to strangers. None of it’s his fault.
• • • •
When the boy was nine, a crack in the earth opened and he fell in. He didn’t know there was a monster waiting at the bottom, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The monster was clever. It built its lair in such a way that it only took one misstep. The boy fell end over end, scraping knees and elbows and chin along the way, and landed hard with all the breath knocked out of him. That’s why he didn’t scream right away. He couldn’t. Then he got a good look at the monster, at the ink-stain scales; the whip-thin tail; the ragged, filthy claws; the eyes the color of every nightmare that ever was; and all that emerged was a whispery little moan.
When the monster bared its teeth, yellow and chipped and crusted dark at the gum line, the boy found his voice. He tried to get away. He did. He should’ve tried harder, should’ve screamed louder, but he was only nine, and small for his age. No match for a monster the size of five men.
Its teeth were in his skin and his skin was sliding down its gullet before the boy could scream a second time. He thought it had bitten off his whole hand, but it had only taken the very tip of the pinkie finger on his left hand.
(That was long before the squeezing.)
Its jaws snapped again, taking a piece from his right arm, just below his elbow. It moved closer still and the boy shielded his face with his arms, sick to his stomach at the smell of blood and the sticky feel of it soaking through his clothes.
The monster nudged his arms away with its snout and opened its mouth wide enough, revealing shreds of the boy’s skin between its teeth and worse, old skin, not the boy’s, that smelled rotten and foul. The boy said, “Please don’t hurt me anymore.” His words hung in the air for a long time before the monster made a low, choking sound. It sounded like a laugh, and then it sounded like a cough. But mostly like a laugh.
The monster gathered him in its horrible arms, scales scraping skin wherever they came in contact, and the boy knew it was going to keep biting him until there was nothing left. But it didn’t. It carried him through tunnel after tunnel, deeper and ever deeper into the earth, the boy crying and bleeding the entire way. When they reached a large circular cave with a low ceiling, the monster dropped him onto the dirt floor, curled up in front of the entrance, and went to sleep.
The boy scooted as far away as possible, his back pressed hard against the rough wall. He tried to be brave. Although he was deep underground, his parents would find him. Grown-ups could do anything. He was sure of it.
He squeezed his eyes shut tight so the tears wouldn’t leak out. He missed the Star Wars poster on his bedroom wall, his Transformers, his mother’s homemade chocolate chip cookies. He even missed the way his father always burned everything he cooked on the grill, but that made him think of skin and fat and teeth and so, with the echoes of the monster’s rasping snores in his ears, he fell asleep too.
• • • •
“Do we have to walk far?” Turtle asks as they leave the park and head down a side street. It’s the best way to go; there’s only one house on the whole street, and the lady that lives there is old and wrinkled and walks one slow step at a time. When she comes outside to fetch the mail, she holds the envelopes right up to her face, so the boy knows she can’t see very well. Not being seen is one of the rules.
“Nah, not too far,” the boy says. “Just to the end of this street and in the woods a little bit.”
“Does it stink? The monster, I mean. Like really bad?”
“Yeah, it does.”
“What’s it look like?”
“It has big teeth and long claws.”
“Like a bear?”
“Kinda, but it has scales, not fur, and it’s bigger and stronger and scarier.”
“How do you know it’s stronger than a bear if it’s dead?”
The boy bites the inside of his cheek before answering. “Monsters are always strong.”
“My mom says there’s no such thing as monsters. She has to say it every night to my sister cause she thinks there’s one in her closet that comes out when she sleeps.”
“Grown-ups always say that.”
“Yeah, and my sister’s afraid of everything. I’m not. Not even monsters.”
The street ends where the woods begin. The trees are dense, the ground a tangle of thorny vines and twigs that crackle beneath their feet, but the boy leads Turtle off to one side, onto a narrow, half-hidden path, prepared to grab him if he balks. Sometimes they hesitate; sometimes they get scared. Turtle doesn’t stop though.
“What’s your name?” Turtle asks.
The boy traces the tip of his tongue across his teeth. Names are dangerous. If you don’t have one, it can’t be taken away. “You first.”
When Turtle says a name, the boy muffles his ears so he can’t hear it, but after, he says, “Hey, that’s my name too.”
Turtle narrows his eyes, slows his steps. “You’re lying. I bet you’re lying about the monster. I bet you’re lying about everything.”
“No, I’m not. We’re almost there. You’ll see.” The boy smiles. He’s very good at wearing the right smile. He’s also very good at lying.
• • • •
The monster bit and consumed; the boy bled and scabbed and scarred. He learned how to go away someplace else in his mind, someplace where there were no monsters, no teeth, no pain. He told himself that one day the make-believe world would become so powerful it would destroy the real and take its place, but it was a lie too big to believe.
He guessed his parents figured he was dead. Their faces became fuzzy and indistinct until he was sure they were only ever a dream. He gathered his name and those almost-memories, tucked them far away so they couldn’t creep back in, so they couldn’t hurt. Sometimes in the dark they tried to sneak back in—that hurt more than the monster’s teeth.
One day the monster bit his upper arm, spat out the flesh, and paced in circles, snapping its teeth and drooling from hunger. Some time later—minutes? Hours?—there was another bite, another glob spat onto the dirt. The boy didn’t understand what was wrong. He thought the monster would kill him, but it seized him, its claws digging into the fresh wounds, drew him near, and whispered in his ear, telling him what it wanted him to do. The boy said no. He said no a thousand times, but although he was much bigger than when he first fell into the monster’s lair, he was still only a boy and, eventually, he said yes.
The sun hurt his eyes the first time the monster sent him outside. He stood for a few moments with the unfamiliar warmth on his skin, listening to birds chirp and insects buzz. He told himself he should run away, but he was too afraid to find out his dream parents weren’t real after all, and if they were, they wouldn’t want this scarred, damaged boy who wore a ghost of their son’s face. No one would.
It didn’t take long to find what the monster wanted. Pale hair, freckles, dirty sneakers, and a Transformers sweatshirt; walking on the sidewalk, dragging a stick. When the boy asked if he wanted to see something neat, Autobot said yes. He held the boy’s hand tight; the boy didn’t want to remember that part, but he couldn’t make himself forget it.
The boy covered his ears with his hands so he wouldn’t have to hear the wet tearing of skin, the sharp crunch of bones. When the sounds stopped, there was nothing left but a pile of shredded clothing, and the boy made up a story that the stains were spilled hot chocolate and the clothes, dirty laundry.
Autobot was only the first. The dog came next, and then the others. Too many to count; too many to remember.
The tears and screams never lasted very long, even when it felt as though they lasted forever. One day the boy didn’t put his hands over his ears, and the sound wasn’t as terrible as he feared. After a while he stopped paying attention at all, stopped looking at their faces, stopped thinking of them as anything other than meat.
The boy knew this made him a monster too.
• • • •
Deep in the woods, the sun struggles to reach the ground, but the gloom doesn’t seem to bother Turtle. He keeps following the boy along the path, talking about his sister, his mother, his school, his favorite toys. The boy wishes he’d be quiet instead; his voice makes the boy’s head hurt.
“I thought you said it wasn’t far,” Turtle says. “We’ve been walking forever.”
“We’re almost there.” The boy points to a darker shadow in the ground several feet away. “See that hole there?”
Turtle stops, crosses his arms over his chest. “I don’t see anything.”
“It’s hard to see from here. Look closer.”
Turtle squints. “I see something, but it isn’t a monster. Are you sure you’re not lying?”
“I’m sure. It’s a hole and the monster is inside it.”
“You didn’t say anything about a hole. Do we have to go in it?”
“It isn’t very deep. Geez, if I knew you were such a scaredy-cat, I wouldn’t have told you about it.”
“I’m not scared.” Turtle says, taking off in the direction of the hole.
The boy exhales through his nose. When he has to carry them, they scream and kick and punch, and he’s always afraid someone will hear. Nobody pays attention to kids walking together, but they do if they think one of them is hurt, especially if they think one of them is hurting the other.
Turtle crouches by the hole. “It looks dark in there.”
“It only looks that way from here. It isn’t that dark inside.”
“I don’t smell anything either.”
The boy begins to scoot into the hole. “Do you want to see it or not?”
Turtle follows him in.
The monster is on its side, perfectly still, and the boy can’t hear it breathing. Maybe it really is dead. His heart thrums hard and heavy. Maybe this time he told the truth. If the monster is dead, he won’t have to do this anymore. The hope tastes like chocolate chip cookies, and he smiles wide enough to make his cheeks hurt. He reaches for Turtle’s hand, but Turtle takes a step forward, his eyes huge.
“Holy crap, it’s real.”
The monster opens its eyes. It stretches, chest rumbling, claws scratching furrows into the ground, tail sweeping clouds of dirt-dust, and fixes both of them with its gaze. The boy’s smile crumples and falls apart, and something inside his chest does the same. Turtle shrieks and makes for the entrance, but the boy clutches his upper arms, holding him in place.
“I’m sorry,” the boy says as he brings his mouth close to Turtle’s ear. “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it too.” And he shoves him toward the monster.
“No,” Turtle shrieks, reaching out as he falls. “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me here!”
But the boy scrambles up and out of the lair, skinning his palms and knees on the way. He runs through the woods, making no sound at all when tree branches smack his face, then he passes the old lady’s house, the wrought iron-railed porches, a barking dog and a man cooking a slab of meat on a grill. The smell makes his stomach clench, makes him think of teeth tearing into flesh, but he doesn’t want to think about that. He doesn’t want to think about anything at all.
So he keeps running.