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Authors: Vanessa Len

Only a Monster (9 page)

BOOK: Only a Monster
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She peeled up the mess of her tank top. Aaron hissed. “It's not all mine,” Joan said. She suspected it was mostly Gran's.

Aaron came over to sit on the bed opposite hers. There was a small gap between them—so small that they were practically kicking each other. “What exactly happened back there at the house?” he said.

Joan looked up at him. He was stupidly good-looking. In his designer suit, he made this poky little room seem almost glamorous. His hair shone like a crown.

“You mean after you left the Gilt Room?” she said.

He hesitated. “Yes.”

“After you left me to die?”

His chin came up, and he met her eyes without apology. “Yes.”

“Well . . .” Joan dampened the towel in the soapy water and started to clean herself up. It hurt. A lot. Her jaw felt clenched
tight enough to break teeth. “After that, your uncle tried to stick a sword in me. Then my friend Nick killed
him
and put that sword through your father's heart.” She put the towel back into the bowl. The line of the cut was revealing itself along her side. She remembered the sword coming toward her. “I ran,” she said. “And . . .” Her composure wavered. “And I found my gran dying. Then I ran again and found you in the maze. Is that what you wanted to know?”

Aaron's face was reddening. “Yes.”

“Did you think we were friends because we escaped together?”

“Of course we're not friends.”

Joan wanted to laugh. Of
course
not
.
She was half-Hunt. And, worse, half-human. Edmund had shown her exactly what the Olivers thought of that. She tore open an antiseptic wipe and swabbed it over herself. It stung like being sliced open again.

“Listen,” Aaron said, “I know you're new to this.”

Joan paused, feeling a new wariness. What did
that
mean?

“I'm an Oliver,” Aaron said. “We can see if someone is a monster or a human just by looking at them—our family power. And you . . . you stink of new-car smell.”

Joan was reminded again that she knew close to nothing about this world. It was a familiar sensation. She'd grown up between Dad's house and Gran's. Half-human, half-monster. Half-Chinese, half-English. It all felt the same sometimes. Joan was more than a stranger, but less than a true insider. She stood on a threshold, neither outside nor in.

“You've barely traveled, have you?” Aaron said.

“First time yesterday,” Joan admitted. “It was an accident.”

“Well, baby monster . . .” Aaron leaned forward, intense and serious. “I don't know how much your family has taught you, but you saved my life, and monsters don't take such debts lightly. Of
course
you and I aren't friends. Until I pay you back, you're more to me than that.” There was no gratitude in his pale gray eyes, only that odd intensity—almost anger—as though Joan had burdened him with something instead of saving his life.

Joan didn't want him to feel indebted any more than he did. “I stopped you from getting stabbed,” she said, “and you showed me the way out of the maze. We're even. There's nothing owed.”

“Well, that answers that,” Aaron said.

“What?”

“How much your family taught you.”

Joan really, really didn't want to discuss her family with Aaron Oliver. Her hand shook as she smoothed a bandage down. She added waterproof tape and went to have a shower.

The bathroom was tiny. In the mirror, Joan's reflection looked glassy-eyed. There was blood on her chin and all over her arms and hands. Under her fingernails. In her hair. She started to shake again as she stripped.

Just a few days ago, they'd all had dinner together at Gran's little kitchen table. Uncle Gus had made lentils with fresh tomatoes. And Ruth had said to Joan:
How's your crush from work?
And Aunt Ada had said:
What crush? What's this?
And Bertie had said:
Ooh, what's he like? Show us a photo! Is he nice?

Joan had another flash of memory. Of pleading with Nick.
Don't do this, Nick. Don't hurt my family.

She turned on the water as hot as it went. Then she scrubbed and scrubbed. She kept scrubbing until the water ran clear and her skin hurt, and even after that.

When all the blood was gone, she turned the tap off and slid to the tiled floor. She pulled her knees to her chest. The position tugged painfully at her cut side, but she couldn't bring herself to care. Here, in the quiet, she could hear Gran's last harsh breaths again. When she closed her eyes, she could see all those people lying dead among the flowers.

Once upon a time
, Gran had said,
there was a boy who was born to kill monsters. A hero.

Joan had been so angry with her family earlier today. For their silence. For the secrets they'd hidden from her. And now they were gone. Nick had killed them.

Joan pictured Nick's face, square-jawed and honest. She drew her knees tighter against her body. In movies, heroes killed monsters all the time. When the camera moved from the monsters' bodies, you never had to think about them again.

But when
you
were the monster, when the monsters killed were the people you loved . . .

Joan kept her eyes open. She watched water crawl toward the drain, making long lines on the tiles.

When she got back to the bedroom, Aaron was lying on top of his bedcovers, shoes off but still clothed. “I tried to call emergency services,” he said. He was holding his phone. His throat
bobbed up and down as he swallowed. “The dispatcher kept asking
who
I was.
Where
I was. Whether anyone else had survived and where they were. I hung up.”

“Do you think they traced the call?” Joan asked. What was the extent of Nick's reach? How many people did he
have
?

“I don't know.” Aaron sounded exhausted. “I've been trying to call the other families. No one's answering.” He dropped the phone onto the bed and put both hands over his face. “Who attacked us?” he said. “How can this be happening?”

Joan remembered again that sweltering night when she and Ruth had been sleepless, sick with a fever. Ruth had been eight, and Joan seven. Gran had sat up with them, cooling their faces with damp cloths. The air had been heavy with the smell of impending rain.

Tell us a story
, Ruth had said.
Tell us a story about the human hero.

You have a morbid sensibility
, Gran had said, but she'd been smiling.

Aaron was shaking his head. “This night is all wrong,” he said now. “It's all wrong.”

“I can't bear it either,” Joan whispered. Her family must have been in pain when they'd died. They must have been so scared.

“You don't understand,” Aaron said. “I'm saying this night is
wrong
. The Oliver records say nothing of an attack. The people I saw dead . . . those deaths are wrong. It's all wrong. They weren't supposed to die tonight.”

The Oliver records.
Joan felt as though a crack were opening
up in the world, giving her a glimpse of something beyond—something vast and strange. A new world where the future was recorded as if it were past.

But . . . “It doesn't matter what the records say,” Joan told him. “It happened. We were there.”

“Don't you understand what I'm saying?”

“No,” Joan told him. Why did he even care about the accuracy of a stupid book? His family had died tonight and so had hers. “Your records are wrong,” she said. “Obviously.”

Aaron's expression said this was pure, outrageous blasphemy. “You have no idea what you're talking about.” He got up and stalked to the bathroom.

After a few minutes, the shower started.

Joan looked up at the stain on the ceiling and considered her options. She should find somewhere else to stay for the night. It didn't make sense to stick with Aaron. He despised her, and the feeling was mutual. And, according to Ruth, the Hunts and the Olivers had always been enemies.

And yet . . . If she was honest with herself, she didn't want to be alone tonight. Not with the sound of Gran's dying breaths still in her ears. Even Aaron Oliver's company would be better than that.

Aaron's shower seemed to take forever. Joan closed her eyes. She didn't sleep. The clock ticked on the wall, marking the seconds. Eventually, the water stopped. The bathroom door squeaked.

Joan opened her eyes. Aaron was coming out of the bathroom, shirt half-buttoned. His hair was darker when it was wet.

He'd put all his clothes back on—as Joan had. They were both still dressed to flee.

“We have to leave in the morning,” Aaron said. He'd obviously been thinking about it in the shower.

Joan realized then that she'd been holding out some small hope that tomorrow could end with Dad picking her up at an airport far, far away from here. But that couldn't happen. It wasn't safe for Dad to be around her.

“I don't think he'll stop until he kills us all,” she said.

“I know.” Aaron stared down at his hands. “We don't have a choice, then, do we? We have to leave this time.”

A jolt ran through Joan at his words. She felt like a struck bell.

If they traveled back in time, they could warn everyone. They could save everyone.

But now, in this quiet room, she remembered how monsters traveled. To leave this time, they'd have to steal time from humans.

And it mattered. Joan couldn't lie to herself. She'd have given
anything
for even five more minutes with Gran. With any member of her family. Every day of life mattered. Every minute mattered.

Could she really do this? Could she deliberately steal time from someone's life?

She looked down at her hands in her lap, and saw they were shaking.

“Yes,” she said. A feeling of wrongness welled up inside her. She couldn't do this. This was wrong. This was really wrong.
This was something only a monster would do.

She pushed down the wrongness until all she could feel of it was a lingering horror. If only a monster would do this, then she could do this. She
was
a monster, wasn't she?

She lifted her head and met Aaron's eyes. “Yes,” she said. “We have to stop this from happening. We have to go back.”

Seven

Joan woke to sun streaming on her face. She heard rustling sounds nearby; someone was opening the curtains. “No,” she grumbled. “Five more minutes.”

“Wake up,” a boy said.

Joan opened her eyes fast and scrambled to sit up. She was in a strange, small room. A hotel room. Then it all came back to her in a gut punch. Gran was dead. Bertie. Aunt Ada. Uncle Gus. She remembered the sound Ruth had made when they'd stabbed her.

And Nick . . . Nick had done it. That felt like another punch.

Aaron Oliver was leaning against the wardrobe door. He was fully dressed, one hand in his pocket. “Get up,” he said coolly. “We've almost slept through it.”

“Slept through what?” Joan said.

Aaron looked clean and crisp, even though he was in the same clothes as yesterday. Joan looked down at herself. She was filthy. Her black tank top was stiff with dried blood.

“Here.” Aaron threw something at her. It was his jacket again. “And here,” he added. He unlocked his phone and dropped it into her hand.

“What's that for?”

“Is there anyone you still care about in this time?” he said. “Anyone still alive?”

Joan's stomach dropped.
Oh.

She'd been avoiding thinking about Dad. Whenever she did, she found herself too close to losing it. Dad was the real world. He was school runs and Friday night sci-fi movies; he didn't belong in this nightmare. He didn't know about any of this. She shook her head.

“It's up to you,” Aaron said. “But this could be the last time you speak to them.”

The room was disgusting in the daylight. There were cigarette burns on the carpet and weird streaky stains on the quilts. Joan didn't let herself look too closely at them.

“Make it quick,” Aaron said. “We need to be at the Pit in forty minutes.”

“The Pit?”

Aaron gave her an impatient look. “It's where we're going to steal human time.”

Aaron gave her what privacy he could, standing with his back to her, staring out the window, hands in his pockets.

Joan checked herself with the camera app. Her expression was strange, but her face wasn't scratched up or anything. Good enough. As she dialed, Aaron shifted his weight.

In her mind's eye, she saw Edmund lift his gun again and point it at her head. She watched Nick hurl the sword into Edmund's chest.

“Hello?”

Joan jumped. “Dad?”

The video appeared. Dad's familiar, sensible face. “Hi, Joan!” He beamed. He was wearing his new glasses with the thick black frames. He was having afternoon tea at Aunty Wei Ling's place. There was thick toast and kaya jam on his plate, and plastic bags of mangosteen and longan.

For a second Joan was right on the edge of bawling. She bit the inside of her cheek hard.

“It's Joan,” Dad said to someone off-screen, and then Aunty Wei Ling's voice went: “Say hello to Joan!”

“Hello!” Joan's two-year-old cousin, Bao Bao, shouted. The image shook, and then Dad's face blurred away, and Bao Bao's pointy little face filled the screen. “NÄ­ hăo. NÄ­ hăo.”

“NÄ­ hăo, Bao Bao,” Joan said.

Bao Bao said something then in Hakka, or maybe Mandarin. Joan couldn't always tell the difference.

“English, ah!” Aunty Wei Ling said. “Joan speak English.”

The screen tipped over again. Joan saw the ceiling with its big slow-moving fan, and then a blur of the rest of the table—coffee, a bowl of half-boiled eggs, and then Dad again, smiling.

“Having a good time in London?” he asked.

Joan made herself nod. She'd never wanted to be somewhere as badly as she wanted to be there at Aunty Wei Ling's house with Dad—eating toast with eggs and kaya jam and drinking coffee that tasted like flavored sugar.

“We're going to that crab place you like for dinner,” Dad said.

“Next time, you have a holiday here!” Aunty Wei Ling shouted off-screen, and Dad laughed.

“What else have you been doing?” Joan asked.

She listened greedily as Dad talked about a trip to the bird park yesterday. Bao Bao had seen a cassowary. He came to stand beside Dad and held up his hand above his head to show Joan how tall it had been. It was from Australia. They were going to an island tomorrow. Joan smiled in what she hoped were the right places and wished that they would talk forever.

“You're quiet today,” Dad said to her.

There was movement behind the phone as Aaron shifted again. Joan glanced at him. He made a wrap-it-up gesture.

“Yeah, just woke up. Still sleepy.” Joan made herself smile. Then she made herself say the next bit. “I have to go, Dad. Just wanted to say hi.”

“Okay,” Dad said. “Call you later?”

Joan nodded. She wanted to say,
No, don't hang up. Stay talking to me forever.
She wanted to say,
Don't ever let anyone touch you on the back of the neck.
But that would sound crazy.

If she told her Dad about the monsters, maybe Dad would believe her and maybe he wouldn't. Either way, he'd be worried enough to call Gran, and when he didn't get an answer, he might even fly back here. He'd put himself in danger, and that couldn't happen.

“See you soon, okay?” he said.

Joan nodded. “Bye, Dad,” she managed. She ended the call. The black screen reflected her face. She turned the phone over, not wanting to look at herself.

Aaron stepped away from the wall. “What about your mum? Or was she in the house last night?”

“She died when I was a baby.” Joan wiped her face against her arm. “You want to call anyone?”

Aaron shook his head. Joan blinked. He had no family left at all? No friends, even? “Let's go,” he said.

They arrived just after ten.

“The Pit,” Aaron said.

“This is Buckingham Palace,” Joan said.

“This is a festering hole of misery and petty theft,” Aaron corrected her. He caught an elbow in the stomach from a tourist. His lips tightened. “A pit.”

There were people everywhere: crowded onto the Victoria Memorial under the great stone statue of Victoria and pressed against the palace gates. From the festive atmosphere and the faint sound of drums, the Changing of the Guard was about to begin.

“Why are we here if you don't like it?” Joan said, confused.

“To take time,” Aaron said. He led her into the crowd. At Joan's blank look, he said: “You know how this works, right? We take time from humans, and we use it to travel.”

“I know,” Joan snapped, even though she only knew what Gran had told her two nights ago. Aaron had a way of talking to people as though they were beneath him. It made Joan want to push back at him about everything.

“The time comes off the end of their lives,” Aaron said. “If we take a year, they'll die a year earlier than they should have.”

Joan swallowed. The feeling of wrongness was back in the pit of her stomach.

“Stealing time is always a risk,” Aaron continued. “You don't know how long anyone has left. If you try to take more time from someone than they have, they'll drop dead right there in front of you.”

“Drop dead?” Joan said numbly.

“Yes, and we don't want to draw that kind of attention.” Aaron's tone was utterly practical. He could have been talking about getting caught picking a neighbor's flowers. “So we reduce the risk by taking a little bit of time from a lot of different people.”

It still didn't explain why they'd come here to Buckingham Palace. A Tube station would have been just as crowded. And they'd stopped off at Primark on the way to buy Joan a T-shirt, jeans, and some shoes. For some reason, Aaron had also bought an ugly floppy hat and two bottles of water. Why hadn't they taken time there?

Aaron seemed to know what she was thinking. “We can't just pop over to the local grocery and steal time,” he said. “If a monster did that—if they kept taking time from the same place, the same group of humans—those humans would die earlier than the general population. That would create a statistical anomaly that could draw the attention of human authorities. And
our
authorities—monster authorities—they
don't
like that. That's why you should always take time from visitors.” He gestured at the crowd around them. “Tourists.”

Tourists. Joan looked at the crowd. Everyone here was dressed for a holiday—comfortable shoes and light jackets.

“There are a lot of different techniques,” Aaron said, “but to be honest, most of them are just for show. The important thing is to touch the back of the person's neck. Any part of your hand will do—fingers, thumb, palm. Then concentrate on an amount of time. No other thoughts. Clear your mind of everything else. Just one touch, nice and fast, and move on. The ratio is one to one. Take a day, and you can travel a day.”

Joan's stomach was really starting to hurt. “Okay, so. So, we go back two days. You warn your family, and I'll warn mine.”

“Days?” Aaron frowned. “We can't go back two days.”

“What?”

“You can't be in the same time twice. The timeline doesn't allow it. If we want to go back, we'll have to go back to before you were born. And you're, what—seventeen?”

“What?”


How old are you?
” Aaron said slower, as if she were stupid.

“Sixteen.”

“I'm seventeen. So that's seventeen years. But for safety, you should always add a few years. Let's say twenty years.”

Joan stared at him. “But. But we only need to go back a couple of days. To before our families were killed.”

“Well, we can't.”

“But.” Joan couldn't take it in. “We can't go back twenty years! We can't take that much time. That'd be like killing someone!”

“Keep your voice down,” Aaron said, and Joan realized that people were staring at them. Aaron tugged her farther into the crowd. “We're not killing anyone,” he murmured into her ear. “We're not taking twenty years from a single person. That's why we came
here
. We're going to take a little time from a lot of people.”

Joan looked around at the crowd. These were all
people
. They'd come here for a bit of spectacle and a few photos. Maybe afterward they'd have a soft serve with a Flake. What kind of person would steal life from them? Only a monster would do that.

“Can you do it or not?” Aaron sounded impatient.

If she didn't do it, then Gran and Ruth and Bertie and Aunt Ada and Uncle Gus were dead. They were really dead. They really would have died last night. Joan squeezed her hands into fists and nodded.

“Then watch and learn,” Aaron said.

With little effort, Aaron transformed himself into a tourist. He untucked his nice shirt, making it look almost comfortable. He put on the ugly floppy hat he'd bought. Then he pushed into the crowd, phone raised, taking photos of the palace. As he walked, the edge of his hand caught a woman's neck—apparently accidentally. He walked a little farther and then stopped suddenly to take another photo, making people stumble into him from behind. Aaron stumbled in turn, hand flinging up for balance, brushing people's necks. Joan saw him mouth
sorry, sorry
as
he pushed his phone by people's ears to get the right angle. It looked like an accident every time.

After a few minutes, he pushed his way back to Joan. It took him a while. The crowd was still growing.

“Your turn,” he said. “Ten days from each person. That's two school weeks. Monday to Friday. Then Monday to Friday again.”

Joan's stomach churned. “Two school weeks,” she echoed. Back of the neck. It was difficult to summon the idea of school. It felt like something from a whole other world.

Aaron passed his water bottle over a man's shoulder. The man gave Aaron an irritated look as the bottle went by his ear. Joan reached for it, her hand shaking. The man was around thirty years old and wearing a T-shirt with a dinosaur on it: a T. rex on a children's slide, its little arms waving in delight.

Joan let the edge of her hand brush the man's neck. It was awkward touching a stranger like this. He was sweating slightly. His hand came up to swat at the touch. Joan snatched her hand away.

It's okay
, Aaron mouthed. Around them, the rumble of the crowd was beginning to rise. The drums and trumpets were getting louder. Joan craned around people's shoulders and heads and raised arms and phones. She glimpsed red coats on the long strip of the Mall. The new guards were coming.

Aaron stopped abruptly. A woman in a sun hat collided with him. Joan collided with the woman in turn, almost tripping over her shoes. Aaron gave Joan a meaningful look.

Joan let her hand fall against the woman's shoulder, as though regaining balance. She shifted her thumb to touch the woman's neck. She could feel Aaron's eyes on her.

Take time
, she told herself.

She couldn't feel anything.

BOOK: Only a Monster
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