The first important thing is to go barefoot. That’s what Steph told me, just before we went to the pond outside her parents’ house, our arms full of paints and a rolled-up canvas she stole from god knows where. Not the kind you’d frame later; it was older and thinner than that, already faded to the eggwash yellow of a freshly baked brioche, and about the size of a mattress. When we rolled it up on her front porch like a pale, flaking log, it cracked along what felt like predetermined fault lines and Steph said we should use those to create ribs, spinal cords, the long and spidery bones of our monsters-to-be.
The second important thing is to see what might hurt you at a distance. (Steph didn’t give me that rule. I stepped on two thistles on our way up the hill.)
At the pond we unfurled the canvas onto the ground and knelt directly atop because the dock was already half-submerged by this point, its floating blocks of Styrofoam dislodged or rotted through in several places so the main body of wood tilted like the door in Titanic. I told myself Joey would have loved it anyway, because of the water lilies nearby. My brother the artist.
“I think we should be naked,” Steph said, uncapping tubes of paint and lining them up with exquisite care for length alignment but none for colour coordination. “It feels like that would be more honest, you know?”
“It’s not important what you wear.” If Joey had heard her, he would have caught my eye and twitched his lip just so. I would have glared at him, but later we would have laughed. “The monsters will come no matter what.”
When Joey turned eighteen, our mother didn’t want him to draw. I was too young to understand why she was afraid, but Joey did, right away, and he had a knack for cutting straight to wherever you were most vulnerable. The last time they argued he said to her,
“Mom, for fuck’s sake. Stop trying to use us to fix yourself.”
I remember being shishkababed between him and our mother and the eff-word. How the trap door in the living room had shuddered and creaked, pressure from below. Joey apologized, of course. He even volunteered for the dishes, his least favorite chore.
Two days later he put his monsters into charcoal and I never saw him again.
“How did you find out about the drawing?” Steph asked at the pond, poised with a blue-coated brush. Neither of us had begun. She already knew the answer—we’d each shared our discovery stories early on. But I told her again how my parents brought me over to the cellar door when I was six, Joey a somber shadow in the background. How they had me put my ear against the wood and listen.
Not everybody kept their monsters in the basement. I knew of two families whose children came to school reeking of cigarette smoke that were rumored to keep theirs outside in chicken wire pens. When Steph and I started senior year, one of those kids didn’t show. No one made a fuss the way they would have if one of us went missing.
“I’ve been thinking about mine ever since they told me,” she said. Another fact I already knew. Steph hid her obsession with monsters better than I did, but when we’d roomed together for the orchestra trip last spring it had crept out during one of those inevitable all-nighters, the kind where the air closes in around you in a microfibre veil of intimacy until you say things you’ll regret. “I already know exactly what to draw.”
I said, “So start.”
“You first.” Our eyes caught, gazes tangling over the wide expanse of canvas. She smiled and tilted her head, her face so bright and focused it hurt. “Together?”
“Together.” With my free hand I pushed my long sleeve up to my elbow so I wouldn’t drag it in paint, taking care with the fresh cuts healing at the crook of my arm. These were shallow, done with a stick pin from my mother’s sewing kit, and barely deserving of a band-aid. Not like Steph’s.
I forced my attention back to the network of fine cracks and smooth, dry canvas beneath my knees. Heart jouncing into my ribs, I dipped my paintbrush in the tube of black.
After Joey died, we barely needed the cellar. Mom’s monster was so small and sly we could have kept it like a house cat if we didn’t mind the way it turned her cold. I think I saw it once, a sharp-kneed shadow with too many legs that crept along the ground in a liquid slither. When the monster-shadow flowed through the misaligned trapdoor and into my mother’s lap, I lost it in the black folds of her blanket.
That night I heard her weeping in her bedroom for hours. Sometimes her monster did that. Mostly it took her away, emptied her out like a melon and left us the rind.
In the months leading up to my eighteenth birthday, I planned to draw a monster that would consume the empty cellar space where Joey’s should have been. Something big enough to drag out all the weight I carried in my heart—that burning pressure Steph had helped me grow into a crop of neat red lines along my arm.
I tried not to watch her paint too much. But every time I looked over at Steph’s colors—cerulean, crimson, gold—I would catch her eyes darting to my hands. At first, I was glad. I was proud that Steph wanted to see whatever I held inside me. Soon, though, the feeling twisted. I watched her from right there on the ground, little rocks digging into my knees. She watched me from a distance.
My monster took shape the way a gravestone rubbing does. Lots of watered-down color, greys and charcoals in broad strokes, with darker outlines rising from the wash. The cracks along my patch of canvas took paint with abandon, rich black veins that, as I selected colors one at a time, began to form the skeleton of something large.
The one time I’d asked Joey about how the process worked and why only some of us drew or even wanted to, he’d been painting his ceiling midnight purple. From his craned-neck perch on a kitchen chair, he’d told me it was a matter of intent: what you meant, not what you did. That I’d understand when I was older.
Here at the pond, my chest clenching up every time Steph eyed my half of the canvas, I closed my eyes and saw his skinny arms arced above his head, sweatshirt sagging down to bare his laddered Band-Aids. The paintbrush in my hand could have been his. Everything of mine could have been his.
We’d reached the pond at high noon, the pale disk of sun blending into a blue so light it was almost white. A breeze picked up after an hour or two and I rolled my sleeves back down, holding my brush between my teeth; for another blur of time after that I tasted the metallic, acrid flavor of acrylics whenever my tongue crept into a molar.
When that taste faded, I sat back on the edge of the canvas, rolling my painting arm in its socket, and wiped unexpected sweat from my brow.
“Oh,” Steph breathed a moment later, and tucked her brush behind her ear.
My monster was a hunched and hulking beast with a bit of the ape to it and just a hint of reptile in the jaw. Hers was like a deep-sea creature: trailing tendrils, a voluminous swell of body, many-sized eyes in every direction.
Would it float, I wondered, or drag itself along by its dozens of boneless extrusions? Mine would lope across the ground with a rolling gait, eating up the earth in bounds.
Steph reached across her half of the canvas to grab my hand. I almost dropped the paintbrush but we pressed it between our palms, still wet. All my dread and uncertainty settled back against my shoulders. It was finished. We had done it. Now for the next important thing: to wait.
The first time I met Steph was fall of junior year, in the pit for the first and last musical I ever played. She stood behind me and a few rows to the left, her short brown hair and narrow shoulders dwarfed by the neck of an upright bass. We’d been in school together since ninth grade, but I can still place the moment she lifted her fingering arm and revealed the raised white scars from her wrist to her elbow. Rows and rows of them like ridges in a Japanese sand garden.
Steph caught me looking and flashed a smile, white teeth and bright eyes. I had so many questions. Two months later she pulled me into a darkened bedroom during a party full of theatre kids. “Are you going to draw?” Her breath was warm and spiced against my cheek: the ghost of cinnamon whisky.
“Yes. Are you?”
“Of course.” Steph took my hand and placed it on her arm so I could feel the bumps there, uneven in width but all precisely the same length. Some were light, barely noticeable. Others must have been deep. “I don’t think I have a choice.”
When I got home from the pond my mother didn’t have to ask me what I’d done. It was written in the paint on my fingers, described in detail by my blackened cuticles. She waited in the front hall as I untied my shoes. Below the floorboards her monster skittered, scratching at the pine.
“Was it that girl you run with now? Did she talk you into this?”
“You know her name, Mom.”
“I know her parents, too. I know they would never let you two draw without calling me first.”
“We didn’t tell them either.” I folded my arms, mirroring her pose without meaning to. Cuts stung as my sleeves pulled tight. “I’m eighteen. I don’t have to ask permission.”
She turned and walked into the kitchen. I found her standing at the picture window, staring at the murky reflection of her face in the pane. When mine swam up beside hers, she seemed to recede into the glass. “I wish your brother were here.”
I had no answer for that.
I still don’t remember anything from the night Joey died. He didn’t warn me. I didn’t even know he’d decided to draw.
Twelve years later, sitting alone in the living room and waiting for mine to find its way home, all I could think of was where Joey might have sat. How had he positioned his limbs? Was there any piece of him I could mimic now?
I tried different poses on the couch based on remembered nights in front of the television, picturing his long legs and tapping feet. He would have been nervous that night. Waiting for a noise, a smell, for the scratch of claws against his nape.
He’d also drawn in summer—had he left the window open, like me? The crickets and bullfrogs had seemed comforting at first, but they’d been there for his night, too. They hadn’t cared then.
Upstairs, my mother paced back and forth in her room. She’d kissed me on the cheek, catching the corner of my mouth by accident. I would have been embarrassed if she hadn’t rushed upstairs so quickly. If I didn’t hear her door lock.
I couldn’t think about her now. Not closely.
When my monster came, it didn’t make a sound.
Fingers first, or claws. The silhouette was hard to parse. It climbed through the living room window, graceful despite its impossible frame. It unfurled itself from the night like ink bleeding through paper.
My monster was made of shadows on shadows, not iridescent but with the same shifting quality as oil. It towered over me and nearly hit the ceiling with its sloping, Australopithic skull. All of me turned inward. Only my heartbeat. Pulse and skin, the shiver of hairs.
Joey had been skin. Muscle and bone, watching his monster from our living room, alive. Then not.
It wasn’t real. It was. I watched it; it watched me.
Floorboards creaked above my head, a steady pattern I could have tapped out on the piano my mother swore she’d get back to one day. Back and forth. I sat while my monster stood, and together we listened as she walked. She hadn’t heard it come in. She couldn’t. My monster wasn’t for her.
“Do you know what happened to him?” My throat closed up as soon as the question came out, choked with inscrutable shame. My monster shifted, shoulders rolling with a series of dislocating cracks, and suddenly I was standing, tense, my brother in my head and my limbs. I thought of him fighting, losing. Blood on the boards.
Shadows moved. I hadn’t left the lights on but my mother’s leaked beneath her door and down the stairs, enough to give my monster room to grow. Black tendrils spilled from its hulking shoulders and the curve of its jaw, blurring past the lines I’d drawn until everything was thick, dark tar pouring into my eyes and mouth and crawling up my fingernails. Had it been like this for Joey? Was it still?
My monster panted hard and hungry somewhere far above my head as I clamped my hand over my forearm and squeezed. The shadows swooped and guttered when blood wet my fingers, shrinking back like snakes under a whip.
I peeled my tacky palm away and held out my arms.
The next morning I found Steph in the library, her legs curled underneath her in a sagging chair, a book in her lap though her eyes didn’t move across the page. She didn’t look up when I approached. I had to crouch beside her, suddenly shy, surprised at her unexpected reserve.
“How did it go for you?”
Steph met my eyes at last. Hers were filled with tears. She closed the book and held it with both hands like a shield.
“I couldn’t do it.”
“It’s okay if your parents—”
“I didn’t draw mine out,” Steph cut me off. “When we painted, I didn’t make it real. I couldn’t tell you until I knew if you had.”
For a moment I couldn’t speak. Then: “Why?”
She looked past me, her gaze unfocused. I let her, because nothing else would come. When Steph looked back at my face and gave me her answer, she was already too far away to hear.
Today I walk to the forest with my face angled up to the sun. It’s finally springtime. All is cold and laced with stubborn frost, but there are buds on the oak trees and when I left the house this morning I saw a crocus, dark red against my silver lawn. It took everything I had not to cut the stem and bring it, fresh and bleeding, into my kitchen to die.
Before I bought this place my mother told me I would never be able to maintain the grounds, and she was right, of course; I can’t. I don’t. Either I kill things too quickly or let them grow wild, and regardless it leaves the yard a mess. But I like it this way. When it’s warm enough I go barefoot.
Now I’m wearing shoes, of course, but I can still feel the forest floor. The phantom sensation grows stronger by the second: my monster knows I’m near. Past me, in the trees, branches snap and patches of frozen mud crackle underneath our feet.
The ground is chilly on my knees when I sink carefully down, my old jeans drinking in the frost like thirsty flowers. I close my eyes and feel for a minute the warm sun on my forehead, the cold earth, all my familiar aches and the new ones I haven’t gotten used to yet.
When I open my eyes, there it is.
My monster is still hulking, its saurian head still heavy with teeth. It moves less quickly now, and with less grace. Though it does surprise me on occasion. Slyness doesn’t age.
Instead of speaking I wait, palms resting on my thighs, boot toes digging into dead grass. We breathe together for a moment, and then my monster swipes a claw across my cheek. Very gentle, this movement, almost a caress.
It turns and leaves the way it came, not as fast but fast enough, slipping in between the dappled shadows until I can’t distinguish it from them. All that’s left is blood, a single glistening splash against the grass.