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Authors: Vanessa Len

Only a Monster (2 page)

BOOK: Only a Monster
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Two

Joan looked disbelievingly at the black sky. Night had fallen—not with a gradual sunset, but in an instant, as though someone had thrown a blanket over the world.

She couldn't make sense of it. A moment ago, she'd been waiting for Nick to arrive, and now . . .

She went to check the time and realized with another rush of confusion that she wasn't holding her phone. She had a vague memory then of it slipping from her grip in the scuffle.

A car zoomed past, lighting up the street. The spot where her phone had fallen was empty. Joan took a stumbling step, disoriented.

A curl of panic started in the pit of her stomach. She was supposed to meet Nick here for breakfast. But now the café was empty, chairs stacked inside. Her eye caught on that
Closed
sign again.

God, what had just
happened
?

Mr. Solt had pushed her and then . . . Joan tried to remember. And then nothing. Then it had been night.

The sound of voices made her start back. A group of girls
tottered past her along Kensington High Street, chatting and laughing. They were all dressed up and clutching at each other to stay upright, like they were in the middle of a big night out. “Ooh, sorry,” one of them said when she walked too close to Joan.

Joan's heart skittered as she watched them go. It was obvious that they were just enjoying their night; nothing strange had happened to them.

Joan closed her eyes, hoping the world would right itself when she opened them again. That it would be morning. That Nick would be walking toward her, up the road. But when she opened her eyes again, the sky was still black. The shops of Kensington High Street were still closed for the night, their windows dark. And it
felt
like night. The temperature had dropped at the same moment that the world had gone dark.

Joan pinched her arm. It hurt. The air was cold. The ground under her feet was firm. She wasn't dreaming.

But if this was real . . . Joan turned back to the dark windows of the shop behind her. There was a sign there with the café's hours: seven a.m. to nine p.m. If this was real, that meant there was a gap in her memory at least thirteen hours long.

Joan pushed down a surge of panic. She reached into her pocket for her phone, needing to talk to Nick—to tell him she was here—and then remembered again that her phone was gone.

Another surge of panic hit her. And then it was too much. She was alone in the dark with no memory of the day. She
suddenly wanted to go home to Gran. She felt like a little kid again—like she'd fallen and hurt herself. Like if she could just get home, Gran would give her a hug, and then everything would be okay.

Joan stumbled back down Kensington High Street and then Earl's Court Road. All the familiar streets looked different in the dark. The shops were like empty shells. What time was it? It felt
late
.

What had
happened
? Had she been knocked out? Had she been drugged? Had she imagined it all? Each possibility scared her more.

In a rush of panic, she stopped and patted at her clothes. She was still fully dressed, she discovered in relief, still dressed for her date with Nick—sundress and sandals.

Could she be sleepwalking? She'd never done that before.

But underneath all her speculation, there was another question—one that she was afraid to think about too much:
What did Mr. Solt do to me?

Mr. Solt's house loomed near the corner of Lexham Mews. Joan cringed away from it, afraid Mr. Solt might come out the door. She broke into a run, tripping on the uneven path outside his house. And then she ran the rest of the way back home, tumbling onto Gran's doorstep in the dark.

She got the door open and then locked it behind her. She checked the lock and then checked it again. When she turned, she expected to find the house dark and quiet. But to her surprise, there was a well of light coming from the kitchen. Someone was still awake.

Gran was at the kitchen table, drinking cocoa. More cocoa bubbled on the stove. Joan hesitated in the doorway, not sure if she was in trouble. The clock said it was just past one a.m. Dad would have freaked out if Joan had stayed out that late without calling him.

“Hello, love,” Gran said without looking up. “Come and sit down.” There was another mug of cocoa on the table, Joan saw now. It was steaming.

“I—” Joan didn't know what to say.
Gran, I think maybe I was drugged. Or maybe I hit my head and got knocked out
. Neither of those things seemed true. “Something happened,” she managed. “Someone did something to me.”

“Sit down, my love,” Gran said, more gently. She slid the cocoa over to Joan.

Joan sat slowly and put her hands around the mug. It was very hot.

Gran looked softer than usual in the dim light. She was in a flannel dressing gown, and her hair was a curly gray halo. She waited for Joan to sip the cocoa and then she asked: “What happened? Tell me exactly.”

Joan tried to remember, and panic bubbled up inside her again. The whole day was missing from her memory. There was just nothing there. “Mr. Solt did something to me,” she said. “He did something. He—he pushed me against the wall. And then . . .” She hit the blank place in her mind again. “And then I don't remember.” The words blurted out of her. “Gran, I don't remember anything that happened since this morning.”

“He pushed you.” Gran sounded reassuringly calm. “Did you push him back?”

“What?” Joan said. It was such an unexpected question that for a moment she didn't know how to answer. “No.”

“But you touched him.” Gran put a finger against the nape of her own neck. “Here.”

Joan started to say no again and then remembered how she'd flung her hand up to keep her balance. She had a vivid sense memory of the edge of her hand knocking against Mr. Solt's neck.

“It was day,” Gran said. “And then it was night, with nothing in between.”

Joan stared at her. That was exactly what it had been like. “He did something to me,” she whispered.

“He didn't do something to you,” Gran said. “You did something to him.”

“What?” Joan said.

“My love, I told you what you were when you were six years old.”

Joan shook her head. She couldn't take her eyes off Gran's face.

Gran leaned closer. “You're a monster, Joan.”

On the stove, cocoa was still bubbling. Joan could hear the slow tick of the clock. The whole world seemed to have narrowed to Gran's green eyes.

“You mean I can make things disappear?” Joan said. “Disappear and reappear?” She wasn't very good at it. If anything,
that ability had diminished over the years. Gran and Uncle Gus could make whole paintings vanish, but Joan had never managed anything much bigger than a coin.

In the yellow kitchen light, Gran's eyes were as luminous as a cat's. “That's the Hunt family power,” she said. “Each monster family has its own power. But all monsters have a power in common. We can travel. That's what you did.”

“Travel?”

“Humans are bound in time,” Gran said. “Monsters are not. You stole time from that man and then you used it to travel from this morning to tonight. You traveled in time.”

Joan wanted to laugh. She wanted Gran to start laughing. But Gran was just looking at her. “What are you talking about?” she said.

“Life,” Gran clarified. “You stole a few hours of life from him.”

“No,” Joan said. She didn't understand.

“You didn't take much,” Gran said. “Half a day, perhaps. He'll die half a day earlier than he was supposed to.”

“No!” Stealing life from humans . . . Joan's family had always called themselves monsters, but Gran was making it sound like they were
monsters
. Like they preyed on humans. Yeah, they shoplifted sometimes. Ruth could pick a bike lock. Bertie snuck into movies through the back door. But they weren't
monsters
.

“I didn't,” Joan said. “I didn't steal life from him. I wouldn't. None of us would. And traveling in time . . . well, that's . . .”

Joan saw Uncle Gus's hat then, on the kitchen bench. It was
like all of Gus's hats: beautifully kept. This one was a chestnut color with a rich brown band. Gus was slimly built with a kind of 1950s style. He liked sharp suits and hats. Even his hair was old-fashioned: neatly smoothed and parted to the side.

Joan thought about what Aunt Ada had been wearing yesterday morning. Ada had an eclectic wardrobe, and Joan had always liked it. Yesterday she'd been up early, wearing a mechanic-style jumpsuit and a scarf in her hair with a knot at the top. The day before, she'd been in a white dress, like she was going to a 1920s garden party.

Like she was going to travel back in time to a 1920s garden party.

Joan pushed away from the table. The scrape of her chair was loud in the silence.

“Joan,” Gran said.

Joan gripped the edge of the table. She shook her head again. She didn't even know what she was trying to deny.

Gran held out something. It was Joan's phone, the one she'd dropped in the scuffle with Mr. Solt. The screen was cracked.

“Don't forget the rule,” Gran said. “No one can know what we are. What you are. You must never tell anyone about monsters.”

Upstairs, Joan's room was just as she'd left it that morning—bed unmade with her pajamas strewn over the pillow. She stared down at her phone, at the long, jagged crack across the screen. Someone had turned it off. Gran had known to wait up for Joan
tonight, and apparently she'd known to retrieve Joan's phone as well. Joan swallowed.

She turned her phone back on. When it lit up, she felt like a bucket of cold water had been thrown over her. There were messages from Nick.

She wanted to cry suddenly. She'd wanted to spend the day with him so much, and she'd missed their date. Not only that, but she'd hurt him. She'd stood him up.

Throat tight, she scrolled through the messages. The first was the one she'd seen that morning. She'd been about to answer it when Mr. Solt had arrived.

I'm on the Tube!

I'm here!

Everything okay? Are we still having breakfast?

Joan, are you okay?

Joan swallowed around the lump in her throat. The first message had been sent at 7:39 a.m.; the last at 6:23 p.m. She stared at her phone, not sure what to say. In the end, she went with:

I'm so sorry. I'm okay. A family thing came up.

You stole time from that man
, Gran had said,
and then you used it to travel from this morning to tonight. You traveled in time.

Joan sat heavily on her bed. Her first terrible instinct was to put her arms over her head and block everything out. This couldn't be real. She couldn't bear it to be.

Gran had said that Joan had stolen time from Mr. Solt, that he was going to die earlier than he would have because of her.
But that couldn't be true. Joan wouldn't hurt him. She never would.

And the rest of it was . . . just impossible.

But the alarm clock said one fifteen a.m. That was real. And Joan had left for the café not an hour ago. That was real too.

Monsters.
Joan's family had always called themselves that. Why hadn't Joan ever asked why?

She watched the alarm clock blink. The minutes ticked over at the same speed they always did. One forty-five a.m. Two thirty a.m. It felt unnatural to be this wide awake so deep into the night. It felt like being jet-lagged.

And that thought brought memories with it. Like how Ruth sometimes seemed hyper and then an hour later exhausted enough to fall into bed and sleep all night. Like how Bertie could change outfits five times in a day.

Ruth and Bertie . . . If this was true, then they'd known all along.
They'd
stolen life from people.
He'll die half a day earlier than he was supposed to
, Gran had said about Mr. Solt. Gran hadn't even seemed to care. Like she really was a monster. The thought was unbearable.

Six thirty a.m. Seven thirty a.m. Sometime after that, Joan must have fallen asleep.

She dreamed that she was outside the café again with Mr. Solt. Only this time, when he pushed her, she turned and put her hands around his neck and
squeezed
. He choked and struggled, but as big as he was, she was somehow stronger than him this time.

And then, like a flicked switch, day turned into night.

Mr. Solt's voice came out of the darkness.
You're a monster.

Joan woke up with a start. The curtains were open, and the sky outside was startlingly white. Joan reached up to cup her own neck, and felt the fragile flex of it when she swallowed. What kind of a dream was that? What kind of a person would have a dream like that?

Downstairs, in the kitchen, Ruth was eating toast with Marmite. The kitchen clock said three thirty. Joan couldn't make sense of it. Ruth was eating breakfast. It was bright outside. The clock said three thirty. Those things didn't go together. And then her sense of time abruptly reoriented: three thirty in the afternoon.

BOOK: Only a Monster
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ads

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