(Author’s Note: I don’t normally do this, but this story goes to some pretty dark places. If you find self harm or child abuse to be too upsetting to be worth the story, then I’d recommend that you skip this one out. Feel free to check out the rest of the stuff on here though. Thanks!)
“Mummy! Mummy! Can I go out to play?” I yelped, staring awestruck out of the single-pane windows at the transformed landscape outside. I was seven, and it was the first snow day of the year.
“No, of course not. You’ll catch your death”, my mum scolded, glaring at me like I was something that had crawled out of the unkempt pond at the bottom of the garden.
“Please? I’ll wrap up real warm and I’ll be back before dark, I promise!”
“No! I said no!” she yelled, stomping out of the kitchen and back upstairs to the cool darkness of her bedroom. As she left, I gazed absentmindedly at her stained white nightgown, her prematurely grey hair, the crook of her elbow where she held a hand to her temple as if she had a migraine. I was left alone to fiddle with the lace doily on the warped old table and watch the snow gently obscure the details of the garden.
It had been two years since my dad had died, and the isolation since then hadn’t done her well. She was from outside the village, and had found it hard to behave rationally even when he was alive. Now, things had really gone downhill, and she had a certain permanent bad temper. I could hear her mumbling oaths under her breath as she went up the old wooden stairs of the house.
I sighed, took one last look at the frosty white brilliance outside, and resigned myself to a day of boredom and manual labour. I knew where to start off instantly; the pile of dirty crockery towered over me as I approached the sink, and it was almost impossible for me to handle them without dropping them. Even though the dishes were chipped and old, I was careful not to break anything or even make loud noises that she might hear from above.
If she was that angry at me for just wanting to go outside, I thought, I better do a really good job with these, don’t want to wake the Monster. The ‘Monster’ was my little nickname for when my mother got particularly angry, and even thinking about it a familiar pang of discomfort wracked my backside. That worn leather belt was one of my few lasting memories of my dad Mum kept a hold of.
The plates were blue under the grime, a delicate Japanese pattern on the rim wrapped around a detail of a pagoda by a lake. Before things had gone bad, these had been our ‘fine china’, only to be used on special occasions. Now, a thin slime of microwave lasagne and own-brand pasta bake dulled the shine of the china.
Once my work was done, I looked up over the garden again, some childish instinct in me yearning to be out there. It still hadn’t stopped snowing. Last night I had been trudging back home from the school a little down the hill in a crust of white that came up and over the ankle of my black canvas plimsolls. Now, it had more than tripled. The only blemishes in the covering of white were the footprints of animals; foxes, badgers, but mostly the stray cats next door looked after. The cats left other markings on the snow, of course, but these were already being swallowed by the white.
I only realised I was staring when the knock at the door came. It was quiet, which excited me- my friends knew that I wasn’t meant to open the door, but also knew that my mum spent most of the time asleep in her room, so they’d worked out how to knock softly like that. I quickly wiped off the last plate and dashed to the floor, gently opening it and praying that it wouldn’t creak.
Outside, my friend Sally stood in a bright magenta waterproof with matching trousers. On her head she had a gaudy little pink wool hat, beneath which she smiled a broad, toothy smile that cracked across her freckled face like a crevasse in the ice. Her eyes were blue.
“Hey, Iain,” she whispered. I could hear the giggles of a couple of other mates of mine beyond the garden hedge. “D’you think you can slip out for a couple of hours? We’re all gonna go down to the Crick, all the snow’s gathering there and we’re gonna build a huge snowman and Frances’s dad’s gonna help us build an igloo and Tom’s got this wicked sledge and…”
“I’m sorry, Sally, I just don’t think I can.”
“The… the Monster hasn’t woken up, has it?” she whispered conspiratorially. The crevasse-grin was gone now, and her eyes darted upwards in the direction of my Mum.
“No, but she seemed in a mood. I don’t think I’ll risk it.”
“It isn’t right, you know, Iain. You should come play with us, it would be really fun. Come on, your mum’s asleep most of the time anyway, she wouldn’t notice you slipping out. Come on, just an hour, you’ll be back before lunch.”
I didn’t think to tell her that I hadn’t had a proper lunch in weeks. Still, her words were worming away at me, and a seed of rebellion was planted deep within my brain, a seed that even as I stood there and noticed the grave expression on her young face germinated and grew. After a little silence, I nodded.
“You know what… ok. One hour. Give me a little time to get ready, I need to check that my mum won’t wake up and I need to finish off a chore or two, so go down without me and I’ll meet you there. Seeya, Sally.”
She hugged me briefly. Her coat was cold against the thin fabric of my pyjamas. She and my friends wandered off down the slippery, empty road without me.
I returned to the sink, heart crashing about in my chest so hard that I had to grip the plates with both hands so that I wouldn’t drop them. Once they were neatly stacked up in the drying rack, I dried my hands and crept up the carpeted stairs, carefully skipping over the fourth and ninth steps (they always creaked). Finally, I stood at the imposing doorway of my parents’ bedroom, the blank white door set into an eggshell frame tempting me. I sucked in a deep breath, praying that I wouldn’t wake the Monster, and opened it.
At first, my eyes couldn’t see anything, needing to adjust to the low light. My nose didn’t take any time to seek out the odour though- sweat, rotted food, a light vomit stench, all assaulting me at the same time- the odour of stagnation. I couldn’t remember the last time my Mum had had a proper shower, and what I was smelling here was the same thing I smelled when she hugged me tight, not letting go for minutes at a time, just multiplied to a sickening level.
As the darkness cleared, and the pale glow spilling past the curtains seeped into the view, I began to pick out details. The washing up I had done downstairs would have barely made a dent into the half-finished meals on blank white porcelain and half-empty glasses that had spilled over in places. On the floor, a layer of unwashed clothing almost reached the same depths as the snows that surrounded us, and the bin had long been tipped on one side. Tissues, some bloody, surrounded the prostrate cylinder.
I don’t know how long I stood there, looking at the vaguely defined dark bulk on the bed, trying to discern any sign of movement or awareness. The slow rise and fall barely moved the thick duvet, but after a little while I spotted it and noted that it was unchanging in its repetition- she was not awake.
I slinked out of the room, carefully sliding the latch home as I brought the door back into its eggshell frame. In my own room, I quickly changed into the warmest clothes I owned- a pair of thick corduroy trousers, green, and a nice dark-grey woollen coat my father had bought me the last Christmas before he died. Finally, I went downstairs, sought out the green rubber boots that sat in a cobwebbed cupboard by the door, and stepped out into the crisp coldness.
It was only when I was outside, stomping around in the fresh blank ground, that I realised I had no idea what to do with the door- without a key, it was impossible to work from the outside, and my mother kept the key in her room with her. There was no way I was going to risk finding that- just standing at the door had nearly paralysed me with fear, let alone going in there- so instead I decided to just pull the door to and walk off into the snow.
I reached the end of the path when I heard the voice behind me.
“You’re letting all the heat out, Iain.”
For a second, I froze, but just for a second, and then the tears came. I didn’t dare turn around, the Monster had woken.
“Come back inside, and you have nothing to fear. Do it, you little shit.” The final word of my Mum’s sentence had a little bite to it, belying the rage that was on its way. I shook my head.
“No. No, you’ll hurt me again.”
“I won’t hurt you, honey, I’m your mother. The Monster will though, if you stay out there.”
“The Monster?” I was quaking now. I had no idea that my mother knew that was what we called her. I remember the not-so irrational idea that she had just heard Sally call her that a couple of minutes before, and the icy terror that that struck into me entirely set apart from the frozen grip of the snow.
“Yes, the Monster. Come on, turn around and walk back inside, he’s out there, searching for you. Come back into the warm.”
My little heart was pulsing so hard I thought I’d crack a rib. Slowly, being careful not to slip on the ground I’d just flattened, I looked at my mother, standing in the doorway, surrounded by the halo of light spewing out of a lampshade that had been in place since before I was born. I took a tentative step forwards.
“Uh oh, Iain!” my mum gasped in an exaggerated pantomime way. Her face maintained a neutral expression even as she spoke. “The Monster has found you!”
“What?” I squawked, beginning to speed up towards the house.
“Yes! He’s right behind you! Come on, Iain, run, run to your Mummy!”
I stumbled a couple of times, terror flitting through my mind as I regained my stride and sprinted towards the porch. “He’s almost got you! Do you feel his claws grasping at your face?” I did! I could feel a terrible sort of presence, made more of fear than of matter, forcing me along towards the real threat. I tripped once more as I went over the gate, and finally flew into the doorway.
As I came through and into the hall, my mother slapped me hard across the face. For a second I saw a brighter white than any snow outside, and she hit me again, sending me to the floor. I thought more tears were coming out of me already, but when I put a hand to my cheek, it came away red. It was only then that I saw the flash of a steel razor blade in her grip, the same blade that had bloodied the tissues in her room.
She stood over me then, face impassive, unseeing of the child, her child, lying at her feet. She simply raised her hand, looked at the blade that was still dripping my blood, and then hit herself. Then again. And again. Wounds started opening up on her face, red lines surrounded by flushed skin that would later bruise. I started screaming, yelling at her to stop, but she just kept going, not even reacting when the blade slapped across one eye, ripping through the eyelid and scratching into the gritty wet flesh below. Again and again. Finally, she slumped to the ground, the fight gone out of her and the blade slipping already from her hands.
One of the cuts had bit into her neck. It wasn’t a huge cut, and I didn’t know if it had hit anything that major, but it was the source of most of the red. I crawled over, ignoring the cut that was obscuring one of my own eyes in the upwelling of blood, and pressed a hand against her neck. I didn’t know what to do, so I just laid her head down on my lap and watched out at the falling snow. All the while my Mum’s face was expressionless, and she blinked passively into my green corduroy.
It was then I saw the Monster. Out in the snow it was standing, staring at me with the same lustful vengeance that a fisherman feels for ‘the one that got away’. I couldn’t make out much detail, as I was mostly seeing it in the way that light avoided it and the way the snow danced around its form, but it had the kind of predatory, hungry stance that a wolf on the hunt has. The coiled absence snaked up from pale yellow eyes into great antlers, perhaps six feet across and as branched and complex as any tree. Then, with a passing snowy gale, it was gone.
It was lucky that I had left the door open, pure luck. A kid in the year above me, a bit of a bully really, was late to the fun on the Crick, and he looked up from the tracks of other children he was concentrating not slipping over on for just an instant, long enough to see me sitting there and the growing puddle around us. He gawped for a second, and then ran off to find help.
My mother lost one of her eyes that day, and about three pints of blood through that tiny little opening in her neck. I lost the only parent I had left. While she went off and spent the last few dismal years of her unhealthy life in a padded, sanitised mental hospital somewhere in the north of England, I was shuttled around foster families until I was finally old enough to go to university, reinvent myself, leave my past behind.
Except, of course, we can never leave our pasts behind. Just this last year, I returned to the village I spent the first seven years of my life in, and ran into Sally. I know what you’re expecting- our chance meeting lead to a drink, to being invited to her house, to falling in love and happily ever after. Well, the first two parts of that are true. When I was invited in, though, I simply sat and cried for about an hour straight while she held me, and when that hour was up she gave me the biggest crack-in-the-ice grin I’d ever seen her do.
Whenever I tell people this story, they ask me what my dad died of. I guess given the mental health of my family it’s no surprise that he took his own life. He hid his depression very well up until the absolute end, and killed himself on a perfectly normal Tuesday. No one knew what the trigger was. I suppose maybe he saw a Monster. There are always Monsters, whether they be the kind that stalks along lonely, icy lanes, or the kind that stalks through the far lonelier lanes of our own minds.