Read Only a Monster Online

Authors: Vanessa Len

Only a Monster (30 page)

BOOK: Only a Monster
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“Yes,” Joan whispered. She had a feeling that she didn't want to hear what was about to come next.

“The Lius believe that our timeline still tries to return to its true shape—still yearns for the shape of the true timeline. We believe that if people belonged together in the true timeline, then our timeline tries to repair itself by bringing them together. Over and over and over. Until the rift is healed.”

“Like soul mates?” Tom said.

Jamie smiled at Tom. “Yes. If you believe in fairy tales.”

On the way back to the safe house, Tom was very quiet. Frankie hadn't wanted to leave the garden. She'd lingered by Jamie's side, and had whined miserably when she'd realized they were leaving him behind.

Joan was quiet too. The first time she'd gone to Holland House, it had felt like a compulsion. She'd seen the name on a signpost and she'd
to go there. She hadn't been able to think about anything else. And then she'd met Nick, and it had been like she'd already known him. Like she knew him better than she knew herself.

“This doesn't help us kill him,” Ruth said as they walked. “It doesn't help us stop him.”

“I told you this would be a waste of time,” Aaron said.

Our timeline tries to repair itself by bringing them together
, Jamie had said.
Over and over and over. Until the rift is healed.
Joan had been drawn to Holland House while Nick had been there. Nick had found her in 1993. They'd collided with each other at the Monster Court.

She remembered how he'd touched her cheek. How he'd looked at her. What it had felt like when he'd kissed her.

But if the timeline was trying to repair itself, it was doomed to failure. This was a rift that couldn't be healed. Nick had killed Joan's family. Nick had been conditioned to loathe monsters.

“So, what now, then?” Ruth said.

“Now nothing,” Aaron said. “Now we wait for the Patel power to wear off, and then we get out of this time and live our lives in hiding.”

Joan pressed her fingernails into her palms—over the cuts already there. She let herself feel the bite of it. Gran had told her the truth that night.
Only you can stop the hero
, she'd said.

In a way, Joan had always known what she'd have to do.

Back at the safe house, Tom went straight to the bedroom. He left the door open at Ruth's insistence. “I'm fine,” he said tiredly. “Well, no, I'm not. But I'm just going to sleep. That's all.”

It didn't take long for the others to fall asleep too, Ruth on the sofa, Aaron on the living room rug. They were all so tired.

Joan was tired too, but she found herself staring at the photos on the living room wall: the mother, the father, the little girl, and the baby.

Joan had loved her family so much. She hadn't understood how much until they'd died.

She closed her eyes. Bertie had been the same age as her, and the gentlest of all the family. He'd hated arguments. When they'd been little, he'd always wanted to play games that they could all play—he'd never liked people to feel left out.

Uncle Gus had been the family fusspot.
Be careful out there,
my love
, he'd say every time any of them left the house. He'd put vegetables in everything—even desserts.
You have to look after your health.

Aunt Ada had been the smartest of them, except for maybe Gran. She'd never made anyone feel stupid, though. She'd been kind. She'd been a good teacher.

And Gran . . .

Joan squeezed her eyes shut tighter, remembering again how Gran had struggled for breath that night.

You want to kill me
I kill your family
, Nick had said to Joan.

Joan didn't want to kill him at all. She couldn't lie to herself anymore. She'd been in love with him from the moment she first saw him. She'd been in love with him before that—in a whole other timeline.

He's going to kill more people than you can imagine
, Jamie had said.

Joan stood a moment longer in the living room, looking at Ruth and Aaron. She could see Tom through the open bedroom door. Lying there like this, they all seemed as vulnerable as children.

Joan slipped into the hallway. As she reached the front door, a sound behind her made her turn. It was Aaron. He closed the door to the living room softly. Even without sleep, he was angelically beautiful. Almost too good-looking to be real.

“Let me come with you,” he whispered.

“How did you know I was leaving?” Joan said.

“I just knew.”

For a weak moment, Joan imagined saying
yes, please, come with me
. He'd been with her all this time. But this was going to be dangerous, and she'd risked the others enough. He'd helped her so much already.

“I have to go alone,” she whispered.

Aaron dipped his head slightly. “You know where to find him?”

Joan nodded. “Where and when.”

Outside, the sun was setting. Low-angled light filtered in through the wavy glass by the front door. It made Aaron's hair gleam gold. “Joan,” he said, “you need to know that if you undo the massacre—”

“He has to be stopped,” Joan said. “Whether our families can be saved or not. He can't be allowed to slaughter people.”

“I know.” Aaron took a step closer. And then he was right there in her space, filling her view completely. “I know.”


“Listen to me,
. If you actually manage to do this, if you stop him before he starts—”

“No, I—”

to me,” Aaron said. “If you change the timeline, I won't know you anymore. It'll be like we never met.”

“We'd meet,” Joan promised. “I'd make sure we did.”

” His tone was serious and urgent, with none of his usual undercurrent of irony. “Joan, if you somehow remember
this, remember what I'm saying now. You have to stay far away from me. From me and from my family. Never let me close enough to see the color of your eyes.”

“What are you talking about?”

“My family can see the difference between monsters and humans,” Aaron said. “But our power runs deeper than anyone knows. Some of us can tell family from family.”

He'd just told her an Oliver secret, Joan realized. Aaron, who protected and defended his family, always. He'd told her something no one outside his family was supposed to know.

“Because you'll know I'm a Hunt?” Joan whispered. “You'll hate me for it?”

Aaron didn't answer, but Joan knew the truth. For monsters, blood didn't come into it. Family was power and power was family. And she didn't have the Hunt power.

“In a human sense, they're your family,” Aaron said. “You love them and they love you.”

“I'm not a Hunt, am I?” Joan said.

“As children, monsters can have more than one family power,” Aaron said. “We can have powers from both sides of the family, powers that jump a generation. But as we get older, the only power that remains is the power of our true family. When our true power stabilizes, we undertake a trial to affirm which family we belong to.”

“I never did that,” Joan said.

“You're supposed to undertake the trial around the time you turn twelve,” Aaron said. “I was nine.”

“Nine?” That seemed horrible to Joan. To have someone say that you didn't belong to half your family anymore. What if you had brothers and sisters who manifested a different power? Did you all get separated?

“I was so proud of myself.” Aaron sounded contemptuous of his younger self. “I'd manifested what we call the true Oliver power—the ability to differentiate family from family. It's rare among us. But after I did . . .” Shadows flickered over Aaron's face as a car passed, its lights shining through the wavy glass. “After I did, they took me into a room. There was a man in there with his hands bound, in a cage with thick iron bars.” His breath shuddered in his throat. “They . . . they shocked him with a cattle prod until he looked into my eyes. They told me that if I saw anyone like him again, I was to kill them. Or inform the Court if I couldn't do it myself.”

Joan flashed back to Edmund staring into her eyes before telling Lucien to kill her. Then she remembered how Aaron had stood between her and Edmund at Whitehall Palace, shielding her from Edmund's view. How Aaron had taken Edmund's abuse to keep Joan safe.

“I never saw anyone like him again,” Aaron said. “Until I saw you in the maze. Until I was close enough to see your eyes.”

“What am I?” Joan whispered.

“I don't know,” Aaron said. “All I know is that if you undo the massacre, you can't ever meet me. You can't ever trust me. I won't know. I won't remember what—” He cut himself off. Then he ground out, “I won't remember what you mean to me.”

Joan felt horribly close to tears suddenly. His gaze was slanted away from her. “Aaron . . .”

“No, don't,” he said. “Please.”

,” she said. She touched his hand. He was always so warm.

Then he did meet her eyes. There was such intensity in his face that for a long moment, Joan thought he was about to kiss her.

He took something from his pocket. Joan's eyes were blurring. It took her a few blinks to make out a small object: a brooch in the shape of a birdcage. The base of the cage was richly decorated with flowers. Inside, a brown bird sat on the perch, head raised as if in song.

Aaron ran a finger down the edge of the brooch—gentle, almost reverent—and then gave it to Joan. “I found it in the bedroom wardrobe,” he said. “It was my mother's.”

“Your mother was here?” Joan whispered.

Aaron shook his head, but not in denial—as if he couldn't bear to talk about it. “Can you turn it over?”

Joan did. The brooch had a brass back with a simple pin clasp. Two numbers had been hand-engraved. The first was crossed out:
. The second was in a different hand: 50.

“The Mtawali family has the power to transfer time into objects,” Aaron said. “Travel tokens, we call them. You can use this one to travel up to fifty years without taking time from anyone. I know,” he said before Joan could protest. “I know. Morally, it's the same as taking the life yourself, but it will feel
different to travel this way. I promise.”

Joan didn't believe that. Stealing life was stealing life. But all she could think about was that this might be the last time she saw Aaron—whether she failed or succeeded.

“When you're ready,” Aaron said, “just think about the time you want to go to. Do you remember how it felt to jump?”

Joan closed her eyes, trying to remember that feeling of yearning from the Pit. She hadn't let herself feel it since that day.

“I've figured out where you're going, you know,” Aaron whispered. There was a shift in the air. Joan felt his hand brush against her cheek gently, just for a moment. “You're going home,” he said.

It had been a long time since Joan had believed she could go home. But at the word from Aaron, she wanted it desperately. And
was the feeling of the jump, she remembered. This yearning feeling.

Nothing happened, of course. The Patel power hadn't worn off yet. “I wish I didn't have to go,” she said.

Aaron didn't reply.

Joan opened her eyes. She was still in the house. But it was subtly different. The pictures on the wall had changed. The wavy glass of the window was clear and flat.

And Aaron was gone.


On the surface Holland House seemed just the same. Tourists wandered the grounds eating ice creams and sausage baps. Costumed guides chatted to tour groups about the gardens and the house.

Except that Joan didn't recognize any of the staff. And they all had a watchfulness about them—everyone from the ice-cream seller to the guides. A watchfulness and a military bearing.

Joan had guessed right. She knew Nick as well as she knew herself. According to Aaron, tourist sites were often traps for humans. After the massacre at Holland House, Nick had turned this tourist site into a trap for monsters. Anyone who came here with the intention of stealing time would be caught.

In the front garden, Thomas the peacock pecked furiously at Joan's shoes. “At least you haven't been replaced,” Joan said to him. He cawed back at her in his harsh dinosaur way. He was well fed and in an unusually good mood, tail feathers relaxed. Nick was looking after the house, it seemed.

A woman's voice sounded from the terrace, unexpectedly cheerful. “Joan!”

Joan looked up. “Astrid?” she said, surprised and relieved to see a familiar face. Astrid had been one of the other volunteers at the house. She was half-Chinese like Joan, and half-Kenyan—tall and Black, with the straight-backed posture of a ballet dancer.

Astrid ran up to her. “What are you doing here? I thought you were only here for the school holidays.” She threw her arms around Joan.

How long did Astrid think she'd been gone, Joan wondered. When was this? She hugged Astrid back. “I'm just visiting,” she said. “What about you? I thought you—” She stopped as she felt Astrid's grip shift. She glimpsed a syringe.

Joan tried to struggle free, but it was too late. A needle jabbed into her side like a bee sting. And then everything went black.

Joan woke to pain. Her head ached. She blinked her eyes open.

She was lying on her side on a stone floor. Her heart started to pound. The far wall was iron bars. She was in a prison cell, just like the one in her nightmares.

No, not quite. That cell smelled of sickness and death. This one didn't smell of anything but clean stone.

Joan shook her head, trying to clear the bleariness. She tried to orient herself. Beyond the iron bars, the corridor architraves had a familiar pattern: fleurs-de-lis.

This was the basement of Holland House. When Joan had volunteered at the house, there'd been staff rooms and kitchens down here. Now, someone had kitted out one of the staff rooms into a prison cell.

Joan tried to reach up to touch her aching head, and realized for the first time that her hands were cuffed together in front of her. Her heart stuttered with panic. She tried to wrench her hands apart.

“Hello, Joan.”

Joan turned fast. It was Nick. Of course it was. He was standing in a corner of the cell, in a slouch that looked very close to relaxed. Only a slight tension in his shoulders betrayed that he was feeling anything more.

“How's your head?” Nick asked.

Joan didn't want to admit to any physical weaknesses. “Bit over-the-top, isn't it?” she said. “The whole dungeon thing?” To her relief, her voice came out dry and calm. She surreptitiously felt her pocket, but the Mtawali travel token was gone; there wouldn't be any easy way out of here. She glanced around the room. There were no windows, no obvious ducts. It would take her a few seconds to get up. Another few seconds to rush him. And she'd seen how fast he was when he attacked.

She tried to push herself up to stand. Something tugged at her leg. She tugged back and realized that her left ankle was locked into some contraption jutting out of the wall. “Oh,
?” It looked like a chain from a medieval torture chamber. And then a wave of panic hit, claustrophobia combining with
the setting. Her hands were trapped, and now she was locked to the wall as well. For a second she felt as though she really were in the prison from her nightmare. She fought the chain wildly. “Get it
!” The chain jerked her back again and again like the jaws of a live animal. Under it all, the fog of the drug lingered like sleep.

“Sorry, Joan. I can't let you hurt anyone.” Nick hadn't moved. But there was a shadow of something in his eyes now. Concern? Confusion? He hadn't expected her to react quite like that to the chain. “I can't unlock that. I can't allow you to touch anyone. So you'll need to calm down.”

Calm down? She'd love to see him if he were trapped somewhere like this. Inadvertently, she remembered him in that chair, mouth bloody, begging for mercy for his family. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to breathe.

She thought about how Astrid had run right up to her, as if the staff had had an alert out on her. “You knew I was coming?” she said.

“You told me you would,” Nick said. “I believed you.” He shifted his weight. “So what's your plan? I assume you came to kill me.”

“No,” Joan said. “
Nick, I came here to talk.”

“To talk,” he said flatly. He didn't believe her. “What about?”


His lips compressed. He'd never liked talking about himself. Joan hadn't known why until she'd seen those terrible recordings. “My people are prepared for any attack,” he warned her.

Joan felt a wave of hurt. Did he really think she'd launch
some attack on him in a house full of tourists? There were ordinary people outside. Did he really think she'd do something like that?

Another voice sounded from outside the cell. “We won't get the truth out of her without artificial help.” It was Astrid, straight-backed and grim. When they'd volunteered together, Astrid had run activities for the kids. She'd been a competitive fencer, and she'd shown the kids how to fight with foam swords. She must have been there on the night of the massacre, Joan realized. Had any of the other staff been with Nick too? Allies of the hero? Joan swallowed. Apart from Nick, Astrid had been her closest friend in the house.

“I don't want to drug her again,” Nick said to Astrid.

“We need to know what she's planning,” Astrid said. “You said it yourself. She's dangerous. She wants you dead. And there are tourists here. We're responsible for more lives than our own.”

They left Joan alone for a little while. She examined the handcuffs. With some effort, she took a bobby pin from her hair and had a go at the lock, concealing her movements behind her crooked knees. She hadn't gotten very far before Nick and Astrid returned.

Nick tossed Joan a bottle of water.

“What's this?” Joan asked.

“Water,” Astrid said. “With something in it. Almost as good as the Griffiths' power.”

The Griffiths could induce truth, Joan remembered.
“There's no such thing as a truth serum,” she said.

“Not in this time,” Astrid agreed. “Drink. At least a quarter of the bottle.”

Joan unscrewed the cap and drank half the water under Astrid's narrow gaze. She was thirsty, and she wanted them to know that she wasn't hiding anything. “How long will it take to work?” she asked. But, to her surprise, she could already feel it.

Warmth and relaxation spread through her, from her chest to her fingertips. Rather than truly relaxing her, though, she felt the same muffled panic as when she'd inadvertently tried to travel.

“Don't fight it,” Astrid said.

But Joan couldn't help herself. She fought the blurry feeling as she'd fought the chain. She'd never liked feeling out of control.

“What's your name?” Astrid said.

“Joan Chang-Hunt.” It came out in a weird forced burst. The drug really could compel her, she thought with a shot of fright. She hadn't expected it to work like this. Her mouth felt separate from her brain.

“Is your father human?” Astrid said.

Joan was shocked by the question. She shook her head, trying to clear it. The movement felt wobbly. “I—” She clenched her teeth together. The desire to answer truthfully was as intense as the need to breathe.

“Stop fighting it,” Astrid said. “Where's your father?”

“I don't know!” Joan blurted. That was the truth, she
realized, relieved. She had no idea where he was right now.

“Is he human?”

Joan struggled not to answer. It was even harder this time. “
Stop asking me about him!”

“All right,” Astrid said to Nick. “You can talk to her now.”

After Astrid left the cell, Nick sat down with Joan, just out of reach, his back against the iron bars.

They watched each other for a while. The strange thing, Joan thought, was how familiar Nick's presence felt. Something about him made her think of safety, of home. That wasn't real, though. Maybe it had been real in some other timeline, but not in this one.

“What was your plan in coming here?” he said.

“To talk,” Joan said. “To talk to you.”

His mouth turned down. “To distract me while someone attacks us?”


“Is someone here with you? Is someone else coming? Are there weapons involved? Explosives?”

“No,” Joan said.
” Did he really think so little of her? But he'd already made it clear that taking any time at all was the same as murder in his eyes. It was why he killed monsters.

Joan remembered the look on his face when he'd found his family dead in his childhood house. She thought of Gran lying dead. Between them, there'd been so much blood. “Nick,” she
said. She let the compulsion speak the truth for her. “I came here to talk to you. That's the truth. You know I can't lie right now.”

His eyes were as cold as when he'd addressed Edmund Oliver. “Talk, then. What do you want?”

What did she want? There were too many answers to that question. She wanted her family back. She wanted none of this to have happened. She wanted to be with Nick. She couldn't lie to herself. Not with the drug in her body. Not with him right here. She wanted him, even after everything that had happened between them. Even after what he'd done, she still only ever wanted to be in a room with him. She hated it, but she couldn't deny it.

To her relief, the drug didn't know which answer to force from her. She could pick one true thing. “Peace,” she said. “Between monsters and humans.”

“Peace?” Nick was still leaning back as though relaxed. But his mouth tightened. “I killed your family, Joan. Are you saying you could ever forgive me for it?”

“No,” Joan blurted, forced to answer.

Nick seemed to stop breathing for a second. “No,” he said softly.

“Just like you could never get over the fact that I'm a monster,” Joan said.

Nick's answer took longer to come this time. “No,” he said. Something about the pause made Joan wish he'd been compelled to speak the truth too.

But he didn't need to take a truth drug. He never lied—not directly. Joan's breath hitched. So there it was, the harsh truth of it.

If Jamie's story was true, then Joan and Nick had been together in another timeline. If the story was true, then the new timeline was still trying to repair itself by bringing them back together, over and over. But it was doomed to fail. What was broken between them couldn't be fixed.

“I'm not talking about peace between you and me,” she said. It hurt to say it.

“There'll never be peace between monsters and humans,” he said. “Not as long as monsters steal time. And you can't help yourselves. You all crave it.”

Joan shook her head. She didn't.

“You crave time travel.”

The compulsion answered for her. “Yes,” she blurted. She pressed her lips together. She'd barely admitted that even to herself. The method of travel was a kind of focused yearning, and the yearning was always there in the background. It had been there as long as she could remember, in her love of history. “I can control it.” She was relieved to hear herself say it. If the compulsion allowed it, then surely it must be true.

“Can you?”

” Joan sat up and tried to inch closer to him. Her heart thudded when he pulled back his feet fast. “Stop. Stop asking me questions,” she said. “I can't stop myself from answering. And I have to tell you . . .” She took a deep breath. “You told me about
your family. The man who killed them—”

“Is dead.”

“I know. You killed him.”

“Every monster knows that,” he said. “It's in all your childhood stories.”

Joan had never thought about how Nick might see those stories: his own suffering as a fairy tale.

“You broke his neck.”

Nick stilled. That wasn't in the stories.

“You were tied to a chair before they died,” Joan said. “You were tortured.”

Nick sat up slowly from his slouch. The pretense of relaxation had ended. “You shouldn't know that,” he said, soft and dangerous.

BOOK: Only a Monster
13.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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