Read Only a Monster Online

Authors: Vanessa Len

Only a Monster

BOOK: Only a Monster
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For my family, with love



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About the Author

Books by Vanessa Len

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When Joan was six, she decided she was going to be Superman when she grew up. She told Dad she needed the costume so she could practice. Dad had never liked spending money, but he painted an
on Joan's blue T-shirt and found a red napkin she could use as a cape. Joan wore them to bed every night.

“Superman?” Gran scoffed when Joan came to stay with her in London that summer. “You're not a hero, Joan.” She bent her gray head confidingly. “You're a monster.” She said
like being a monster was as special as being an elf.

Gran was making up Joan's bed in the guest bedroom, and Joan was helping by stuffing the pillows into their cases. The room smelled like fresh laundry. Morning sun filled it to the corners.

“Monsters look like giant spiders,” Joan said. “Or like robots.” She'd seen enough cartoons to know. Gran sometimes told jokes without smiling. Maybe this was one of those times.

But Gran's eyes weren't shiny with a held-in joke. They were serious. “That's pretend monsters,” she said. “Real monsters look like me and you.”

Joan and Gran didn't actually look that much alike.

Joan took after Dad's side of the family—the Changs. Dad had moved to England from Malaysia when he was eighteen. He had round, freckled cheeks and narrow eyes and smooth black hair like Joan's.

Gran looked like the photos of Mum. She had curly hair that hung around her head in a cloud, and green eyes that were too sharp for her face. Sometimes Joan saw that same suspicious expression on her own face in the mirror.
The Hunt family look
, Gran called it.

Gran finished smoothing the duvet and sat on the edge of Joan's bed. It put her and Joan at the same height.

“Monsters are the bad guys,” Joan said skeptically. In cartoons, monsters lurked under your bed. They had scary laughs that went on too long. They
At school Mrs. Ellery had told Joan that Chinese people ate cats. Joan had kind of felt like a bad guy then—but with the same bubble of resistance that she felt now. She wasn't. She

For some reason, that made Gran smile. “You remind me of your mum sometimes.”

Joan didn't know what that had to do with monsters. Still, she held her breath, hoping Gran would say more. Mum had died when Joan was a baby, and Gran hardly ever talked about her. At home, there were photos of Mum above the TV and on the living room wall. But Gran didn't have photos of anyone in her house. She had paintings of fields and old ruins.

“Dad said she was clever,” Joan ventured.

“Very.” Gran pushed Joan's hair back from her face. “Clever and stubborn. She didn't believe things without proof either.”

Before Joan could ask what that meant, Gran reached up into the air above them as if she were plucking an apple from a tree. The hairs on the back of Joan's neck rose, although she couldn't have said why.

When Gran opened her hand, she was holding something that gleamed gold like the morning sun. A coin, but not a coin that Joan had ever seen before. On one side, there was a winged lion; on the other, a crown.

“I know how you did that,” Joan said. It was called
sleight of hand
. Joan's cousin Ruth had shown her how to do it with a button. You could make something appear and disappear by hiding it between your fingers and then flipping it into your palm.

Gran dropped the coin into Joan's hand. It was heavier than it looked. “Can you show me?” she said. “Can you make it disappear?”

Ruth's trick had been hard. Joan had only gotten it right twice, and she must have dropped the button a hundred times. Still, Gran's face was expectant, so Joan put the coin into the arch between her thumb and forefinger, balancing it.

“No,” Gran said. “The way I did it.” She moved the coin into the center of Joan's palm and closed Joan's fingers over it. “The monster way.”

I'm not
, Joan thought.
I'm not a bad guy.
And Gran wasn't either. Joan had spent almost every summer with Gran for as long as she could remember. When Joan had nightmares, Gran
sat up with her. When Joan had found an injured bird in the park, Gran had wrapped it in her scarf and looked after it until it could fly again. A person like that wasn't a monster.

Joan concentrated on the weight of the coin until she couldn't feel it anymore. She opened her fingers, showing Gran her empty palm.

Gran's smile was warm. “The monster way,” she said approvingly. She added: “There's a rule that goes with that trick.”

“A rule?” Joan said. At home, with Dad, there were rules about what you should and shouldn't do. Stealing was wrong. Helping people was right. Lying was wrong. Listening to teachers was right.

The Hunts had rules too, but it was like they'd agreed to a whole different set of them. Stealing wasn't a big deal, and neither was lying—as long as you were doing it to strangers. Paying debts was right. Being loyal to your family was right.

“We hide in plain sight,” Gran said. “Do you know what that means?”

Around them, the house seemed very quiet. Even the birds outside the window had stopped chirping. Joan shook her head.

The warmth was still there, but Gran's expression turned serious. “It means that no one can know what the Hunts are,” she said. “What you are.” She lowered her voice. “You must never tell anyone about monsters.”


Joan smoothed down her hair and did a last mirror check in Gran's upstairs hallway. She had a date today. With
. In the mirror, her eyes went soft and happy. Joan had been volunteering at a museum with him over the summer break. She'd had a crush on him all summer, but
at work had a crush on Nick.

He'd asked Joan out yesterday, biting his lip and nervous, as if he thought she might say no. As if just being in a room with him didn't make her heart stutter.

Now they were going to spend a whole day together, starting with breakfast at a café on Kensington High Street. Joan checked her phone. An hour to go.

She was nervous too, she admitted. A waiting-for-the-ride-to-start mix of nerves and excitement. She and Nick had been getting closer and closer over the summer, but this felt like the geginning of something new.

Laughter rose from downstairs, and Joan took a deep, centering breath. Her cousins were already up. Their familiar, comforting bickering washed over her as she descended the stairs.

“Best forged painting in the National Gallery,” her cousin Bertie was saying.

“Easy,” her other cousin, Ruth, said. “Monet's
Water-Lily Pond

“That's not forged!” Bertie said.

“I rest my case.”

“You can't just say a random painting!”

Joan was already smiling as she reached the bottom of the stairs. Most of the year, she lived with Dad in Milton Keynes. She liked her quiet life with him, but she liked this too—the noise and clatter of Gran's place. She stayed with Gran every summer, and she looked forward to it every time.

In the kitchen, Ruth was perched on the broken radiator under the window. At seventeen, Ruth was a year older than Joan and their other cousin, Bertie, but this morning she looked like a kid. She was still in her pajamas: gray flannel bottoms and a
T-shirt with the Decepticon logo: big beaky robot mouth. Her dark curls framed her face.

“Is there any tea in that cupboard?” Ruth asked Bertie.

Bertie craned to check, one eye on his frying pan of mushrooms and tomatoes. “Only that smoky stuff Uncle Gus drinks.” He seemed to be dressed for a 1920s boating trip on the Thames, straw hat covering his black hair. All the Hunts had eccentric fashion sense.

“That stuff tastes like a—” Ruth cut herself off as she caught sight of Joan in the kitchen doorway. She took in Joan's new dress and sleek hair, and her face lit up, a slow illumination of glee.

“Ruth,” Joan protested. “Don't start.”

But Ruth was already crowing. “Look at you!”

“You got a job interview?” Bertie asked Joan. “I thought you were still volunteering at that museum.”

“I'm having breakfast with someone,” Joan said. She was already red. She could feel it.

“She got dressed up for a
,” Ruth said. She put her hand over her heart. “It's the ultimate nerd romance. They're going to the V and A after breakfast! They're going to look at
medieval textiles

“Nerd romance?” Joan protested, but she couldn't stop herself from smiling again. “You know the V and A has other stuff too. There's historical wallpaper . . . ceramics . . .”

“A story for the ages,” Ruth said. She leaned back against the window, hand still over her heart. “Two history geeks volunteer at a museum over the summer break. And then one day they're mopping floors together, and they
at each other over their mops . . .”

Joan snorted. She went over to steal a corner of uneaten toast from Ruth's plate. “You should come help out sometime,” she told them both. “It's actually really fun. We learned how to repair broken ceramics the other day.”

“One day, I'm going to record you so you can hear what you sound like,” Ruth said. She made stiff robot arms. “I am Joan. I love community service. I'm so square, I only cross the road when the traffic light says I can.”

“Yes. That is exactly what I sound like,” Joan said.

Ruth grinned. She might have been a year older than
Joan, but their relationship had always been flipped. Ruth saw rules as other people's problems. Joan was always playing the older sister—taking shoplifted things from Ruth's pockets and reshelving them, and dragging Ruth to the end of the street so that they could cross at the lights.

Aren't you a Goody-Two-shoes
, Ruth would say, but she was fond about it. They'd known each other far too long to think they could ever change each other's natures.

“Go on,” Bertie said to Joan, and he sounded just as fond now. He put the whole pan of mushrooms and tomatoes on the kitchen table. “Tell us everything.”

“Let us live the nerd romance vicariously,” Ruth said.

Joan kicked idly at Ruth's shoe. “I like him,” she told them both.

“Really,” Ruth said, with the indulgent patience of someone who'd been hearing about Nick all summer. She reached over to take a mushroom from the pan.

“You know the rest. We're having breakfast this morning. And then we'll walk up to the V and A.”

“Uh-huh,” Ruth said. “And then are you two history nerds going to sneak behind the exhibits and . . .” She mouthed at the mushroom, licking it with exaggerated tongue curls. “Mmm—mmm—”

“Ruth!” Bertie complained. “I cooked those mushrooms.”


Gran's dry voice sounded from the stairs. “Do I want to know?” she said.

“Anyway, got to go!” Joan said, before the whole family
could start up. “I'll see you later.”

And now Uncle Gus and Aunt Ada were coming down the stairs behind Gran. “Go where?” Uncle Gus said.

“She has a date!” Ruth called to him.

“Wait, I want to hear about this!” Aunt Ada called back.

Joan fled the kitchen. “Talk to you later!” she yelled from the hallway.

“A date with who?” she heard Ada ask the others.

“That boy she has a crush on!” Ruth said.

Bertie belted out in song: “
She's going to kiss her summer crush in front of the medieval textiles!

Joan cracked up. “Bye! Goodbye!” she shouted, and shut the door.

She was still smiling as she walked up Lexham Mews. She turned onto Earl's Court Road and then Kensington High Street. It had been a warm summer, and the hazy air promised another hot day.

A message from Nick popped up just as Joan got to the café:
I'm on the Tube!
Joan took a deep, happy breath. He was running early too—less than fifteen minutes away. She bit her lip. She still couldn't believe she was about to spend a whole day alone with him.

She got a cup of tea at the counter and took it over to a table by the window. Sun streamed in, warm against her face. She went to message Nick back, and as she did, she felt a rush of air as the door opened behind her.

There was a thundering crash then that would have caused
an eruption of jeers in Joan's school lunchroom. Joan turned, along with the rest of the café.

A man was standing in front of an upturned table, eyes wide and bewildered. Bits of broken plate and glass lay strewn over the floor. He blinked down at the mess, as if he thought someone else had made it. “I want to buy flowers,” he mumbled.

A waiter near Joan groaned. “Not this again.” He raised his voice to one of the other staff members. “Ray, get the vacuum out! That drunk's back!” To the man he said, wearily: “You can't get flowers here. I keep telling you. There hasn't been a florist here for years.”

Joan stood slowly. She'd recognized the man. “Hey, he isn't drunk,” she told the waiter.

Mr. Solt was Gran's neighbor from up the road. Last week, he'd wandered into Gran's house in this same confused way. His daughter Ellie had been in tears when she'd arrived.
He has dementia
, she'd said to Gran.
It's got so much worse since Mum died last year
He doesn't even know what year it is half the time.

“Mr. Solt?” Joan went over to him, her shoes crunching on broken glass. There was glass everywhere. Mr. Solt was wearing soft slippers; inside them, his feet were bare. He must have walked all the way from his house wearing them.

“Where's the florist?” Mr. Solt's face creased in confusion. He was a big man in his seventies—bald, with hulking shoulders. Right now, though, he was all hunched up like a little boy. He looked like he wanted to cry.

Joan tried to coax him back from the glass. “Why don't
I call Ellie?” she suggested to him. “She can get you some flowers, and you can go home.” She glanced at her phone. Nick would be here in around ten minutes. “It's all right,” she said to the waiter over her shoulder. “I'm going to call his daughter.”

She touched Mr. Solt's arm, tentative, and, to her relief, he allowed her to guide him away from the glass and out the door.

Outside, it was a sunny day with a rare cloudless blue sky. It was early enough that most of the shops on Kensington High Street were still closed.

“Let's find you somewhere to sit,” Joan said to Mr. Solt. But when she looked around, she couldn't see any benches. She settled for the strip of wall between the café and the bank next door. “Do you want to lean against the wall while we wait?” she suggested. Mr. Solt blinked at her. “We're going to wait here,” Joan explained. “I'm going to call Ellie, and we're going to wait for her.”

Mr. Solt stood there, still staring down at Joan without expression. Joan felt a strange sense of unease then. Something terrible was about to happen, she thought, and then wondered why she'd thought it.

“Mr. Solt?” she said.

He staggered, and his hands shot out, grabbing Joan's shoulders. She jerked back instinctively, and his heavy grip tightened.

And then it was weirdly like they were scuffling, even though Mr. Solt was only trying to get his balance back.

Joan looked over her shoulder, trying to see through the
café windows, but she was angled away, closer to the bank. A motor vroomed tinnily to life from inside the café. A vacuum cleaner. Joan looked the other way—the way Nick would walk up. But Kensington High Street was emptier than she'd ever seen it.

Mr. Solt bore down on Joan's shoulders. Joan's legs shook with the effort of holding him up. She was ridiculously reminded of the time she'd tried to take the mattress off her bed and had collapsed under its weight. She'd had to shout for Dad to get it off her, and he'd laughed so hard afterward he'd had to hold on to the door frame.

She tried to laugh now. It came out high and nervous. She wasn't scared, she told herself. Not exactly. Mr. Solt was just confused and trying to get his balance back. In a second, they'd both find their feet.

She wondered how she'd even tell Nick about this when he arrived.
This weird thing happened before you got here. Mr. Solt kind of lost his balance, and so did I, and then we were just stumbling around in the middle of Kensington High Street together.

Except that then Joan's knees buckled. “
Mr. Solt!
” she blurted. Mr. Solt frowned. For a second, awareness sparked in his eyes. He pushed Joan away from him with a confused shove. She stumbled backward, flailing her hand up to grab his shoulder, his shirt,
to keep her feet.

Joan's back hit the wall with a painful thump, and for a moment all she could see was that cloudless blue sky.

And then there was a kind of snap.

And everything went dark, as if someone had switched off the lights.

Joan could hear herself breathing loudly. She felt totally disoriented. She reached out in the dark, trying to feel for where she was, and as she did, flares of light roared past her, making her flinch.

She stumbled back. The lights had been a car.

Her eyes were beginning to adjust now, but the feeling of disorientation was only getting worse. She couldn't make sense of what she was seeing.

On the other side of the road, there was a burger shop. Joan knew it well. She'd walked past it dozens of times before.

She turned slowly. The café stood behind her, dark and empty. There was a
sign in the window. She hadn't moved, she realized. She was still here. Still standing on the exact same spot where Mr. Solt had pushed her.

Only Mr. Solt was gone.

Joan stared. A moment ago, she'd been waiting for Nick to arrive. The sun had been shining on her face. It had been morning.

But where the sky had been blue, now it was black. The stars were out. The moon.

It was night.

BOOK: Only a Monster
11.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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