‘Monsters’, Amelie Daigle

Illustrations © 2013 Teresa Tunaley

 [ Monsters, © 2013 Teresa Tunaley ] When the monsters come, the dinner table is set for eight instead of four. That’s how I know, the minute I walk through our door, that tonight we are not dining alone. I close the door behind me and step to the side so I can lean against the wall without being in anyone’s way. The thinking part of my brain sounds like radio static. I focus on my breath and the presence of the wall at my back.

When I move away from the wall, my muscles are shaky and my legs are weak, but I can think. I walk into the kitchen where my mother is coring apples. I ask my mother if she needs help setting the table. She says no, but would I please get my sister and bring her downstairs.

Upstairs, my sister is pretending to do her math homework. Really, she is signed onto her best friend’s secure server. She is telling her friends about dinner tonight, and they are commiserating and sending her virtual hugs and wishing her luck as if she were about to be subjected to a particularly nasty calculus exam. There is only so much that can be said, even in relative secrecy.

I knock on her door. “Come in,” she says. She is sprawled on the bedroom floor surrounded by a disorganized array of electronics, school supplies, and her own overgrown limbs. She used to be so small. During tornado drills, I used to be able to envelope her completely, arching my body over hers, protecting her. Now she’s a towering 5’9”, mostly legs. If the roof collapsed right now, my compact body would not be able to cover her. I am no longer an adequate shield.

I sit on the floor next to her. “Are you ready to come downstairs?” I ask.

“Let me say goodbye to everybody,” she says. “Then I’ll come down.”

Her skirt is slightly too short to cover the scarred skin on her thighs, and when she moves, I can see the red, raw streaks of irritated skin that hasn’t yet managed to heal. I ache with the desire to protect her.

“I can come down with you,” I offer.

She grins. “It’s fine. Go help mom. I’ll be down in a minute.”

“Mom said she didn’t need any help.”

“She’s alone down there,” my younger sister tells me. “They sometimes come early.”

It’s difficult to argue with that. I nod and stand up. “Come down soon.” Then I head downstairs.

My mother is sitting on the couch. I am relieved to see that she is not alone. My father is home, and they are talking together quietly. I sit in the chair across from my mother. “Is the table set?”

“Yes,” she says. “Is Cole coming down?”

“In a minute,” I say. “She wanted to say goodbye to some people.” I realize that I’ve forgotten to greet my father. “Hey, dad,” I say, a bit overenthusiastically.

“Hey, Luce.” He smiles. “How was work today?”

“I got a freelance gig!” I tell him, letting my nerves show enough in my voice to convey excitement. “Editing some grad student’s dissertation on teaching methods. Simple grammar and stuff. Shouldn’t be hard, and she offered to pay the industry standard.”

“That’s fantastic, Luce!” He sounds genuinely pleased. “What about you, Louise? How’d your day—” He breaks off mid-sentence. There is a knock on the door.

My mother stands to receive our guests, and the expression on her face shows no trace of fear. Through my terror I feel a surge of pride in her absurd composure. My father bites at the nail on his little finger as the door opens.

Standing on the threshold of our home are our four monsters. I know them well, particularly mine. I am supposed to call her Melisande, which she chose because she thought it was elegant. Melisande and her family look like humans until they open their mouths—they smile with too many teeth. They are smiling that way at my mother now, waiting to be invited in.

“Welcome,” my mother says, smiling graciously. “Please come in and sit down. I’ve made salmon and baked apples.”

“Hello, Caesar!” My father walks to greet his monster with a friendly handshake. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you and your family.”

“Too long,” Caesar agrees, smiling in a way that clearly conveys amusement.

“Feel free to take your seats at the table,” my mother says. “Luce, why don’t you get our guests something to drink?”

“What would everyone like?” I ask.

“Wine would be lovely,” says Cleo, Caesar’s wife.

“Wine for me as well,” Caesar says agreeably.

Melisande and Eliza confer in whispers for a moment before deciding. Melisande smiles at me toothily. “We’d both like cranberry juice,” she says, “if you have it.”

“I’m in the mood for cranberry myself,” I say. “I’ll pour some out for the three of us. Mom, dad, what wine should I get for Caesar and Cleo?”

“I’ll deal with the wine, Luce,” my dad says. “Caesar, Cleo, would you care to review our selection?”

Caesar and Cleo smile widely. “We’d love to,” they say.

I run and fetch the cranberry juice. I pour it into tall, fluted glasses that I know will appeal to Melisande’s sensibilities. Eliza I don’t know as well. I get the impression that she finds her sister’s taste for extravagant decorum a bit ridiculous, but all of the monsters value manners, fine china, and beautiful things. Melisande often presses me for my aesthetic preferences, and I tell her about the colors I like and the shapes I find most pleasing. For Christmas she gave a frosted blue bird of paradise figurine suspended in clear glass. I would love it if it only had come from someone, anyone else.

I walk into the dining room holding two glasses of dark red liquid. My mother has been entertaining Melisande and Eliza in my absence. “Do you think the underrepresentation of women in the senate is by accident?” she is saying skeptically. “There is nothing natural about it, unless you believe that women are somehow inherently unsuited for the public sphere.”

“I only meant that change takes time,” Eliza says pleasantly. “On our planet, the liberation of women was a struggle that lasted for several millennia. You seem convinced that these changes could happen overnight, but the reorganization of an existing power structure is no small task.”

“We have the means to accomplish it, though, don’t we?” I hazard as I hand Melisande her glass. “We have a representative democracy. Half of its members are women. If we all agree that it’s a problem that needs to be fixed, we could conceivably—”

“Conceivably, yes. Practically, no.” Eliza speaks firmly. “You’re assuming that we all agree that the status quo ought to be altered at whatever cost, and it isn’t true. We’d have to be willing to accept worse political candidates simply because they were women, and even then that strategy might backfire.”

“I’m going to go pour myself some cranberry juice,” I say in response.

When I return, my sister is standing at the foot of the stairs, her eyes wide with inexpressible panic. Eliza smiles at her, amused; Melisande politely pretends not to notice and carries on conversation with my mother. I run to my sister and embrace her, purposefully displaying girlish excitement. “Cole, it’s great to see you, you’ve been in your room all day! Would you like something to drink?”

“Yes,” Cole says in a small voice.

“Come sit down,” I half-say, half-whisper. “Come sit next to mom. I’ll be with you in a moment.”

“Okay,” she says, and I squeeze her hand before I run to pour ice water for her. “Melisande, Eliza, you’re good? No refills?”

“No, thank you,” Melisande says, laughing softly. Of course, neither one of them has taken a sip. But it is polite to ask. The monsters value politeness above all things.

Handing Cole her ice water is a convenient reason to sit down next to her. I press her hands between my own as Eliza lectures my mother. “Can’t one expect there to be setbacks? After all, the Atlantic slave trade was far worse than any form of enslavement that had come before. These things take time to work themselves out.”

“I defer to your species’ vast knowledge,” my mother says, “though I can’t help but disagree. Excuse me, I’ll be back in a moment with the salmon.”

My father’s enthusiastic voice precedes him into the dining room. “An excellent vintage, wonderful choice! Caesar, Cleo, have a seat at the table, my wife will be bringing the salmon shortly. Please, have a seat.” As is customary, Caesar sits opposite my father, at the foot of the table. Melisande is opposite from me. “Caesar, I must know,” my father says jovially, “what are your views on the recent events in Palestine? Are you a fan of the two-state solution?”

They’ll go on like this for some time. The monsters love politics, classical music, the Russian ballet, and National Public Radio. They love insightful discourse on popular culture and controversial topics. Caesar has a subscription to The New Yorker, I think; he cites it frequently when discussing human politics. Cleo seems partial to Vanity Fair. Melisande and Eliza, I don’t know where they get their information on human affairs, but I know that it’s important that they have it. Important for them to be able to fully participate in this elaborate form of torture.

“A lot of people don’t know,” Caesar is saying, “I read about it recently, in The Economist I think it was, that the first modern terrorist bombers were actually Jewish. During the what-was-it, the war in 1948? Did you know that, Harold?”

The salmon has nearly completed circumnavigating the table. My mother has cooked it in brown butter, which is delicious. After tonight, I will probably never be able to stand the taste of salmon or brown butter again. I place some on my plate reluctantly, and place some on Cole’s while I’m at it. Her hands have been shaking all night.

“There was a similar situation on our home planet once,” Caesar is saying, “only instead of giving the Favrias-krik the land of our enemies halfway across the globe, we gave them some of our own, little-used land. A very nice stretch of land that no one cared to industrialize, somewhat similar to parts of Montana. I wonder why you didn’t do the same with your Jews?”

“Many Jews chose to move here,” my mother points out. “I believe there are more Jews here now than there are in Israel, although those figures might have shifted from the last time I checked.”

Cole shifts in her seat and her skirt falls aside; I can see the gouges on her thighs. I shiver sympathetically. We all have them, but Cole’s gouges are always deepest.

Eliza is cruel. I would trade monsters with Cole if that were allowed. But Melisande chose me, and Eliza chose Cole, and Caesar chose our family, and that’s how it is.

“I keep wanting to see a candidate come out as anti-life, anti-choice,” my father says. “Everyone’s always telling me what they’re for; my question is, what are you against?”

“Many politicians seem to enjoy asserting their opposition to illegal immigrants,” Caesar says, chuckling.

“Such as yourself?” my father says with a wide smile. The monsters laugh uproariously. The monsters adore my father and his half-hearted attempts at humor where most would make no attempt at all. My mother says that even in casual conversation, my father is a dangerous man, always teetering on the edge of something and never quite falling in. Before the monsters, I did not understand what she meant.

“As always, it’s a pleasure to dine with you, Harold,” Caesar says. “Our other families always act so cowed around us.”

“It’s despicable,” Cleo says, smiling meanly. I cringe; I hope it isn’t noticeable. “As if we were unkind! And when we treat them with the greatest respect, always!”

“I certainly hope you’ll be kind to us tonight,” my father says, laughing.

“As kind as we ever are,” Caesar replies. “Our species is old enough to know the value of tradition.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you that,” my father says, and the tone of his voice is dangerous. Cole grabs my hand under the table; I squeeze back. “I have in my possession a wide variety of anesthetics. Of course you wouldn’t need to administer them yourselves; I am quite capable as an anesthesiologist, and I only ask for the children, you understand? My wife and I are perfectly fine adhering to your… usual methods. I could inject it directly into the bloodstream. It wouldn’t affect your children at all.”

“It’s so nice to converse with a human man to man,” Caesar says appreciatively. “I would certainly love to acquiesce to your request, but I’m afraid it cannot be done. Nonetheless, I appreciate your concern for your children and I will take it up with the council. Who knows? Your children’s children may benefit.”

“Surely an alteration that will only last the duration of one night need not be approved by the council?” my mother says, her face a mask of composed confusion. “That seems unnecessarily inflexible.”

“Here is the real issue, Louise, dear,” Cleo says calmly. “Here is the thing that none of you seem to understand. Wouldn’t it be easier for us if we were to round you up and place you in a slaughterhouse where you were treated inhumanely, forcefully bred, and then killed for your meat? Over thousands of years we have perfected a means of feeding that takes no souls and does not steal from weaker forms of life. We have reasons for doing things the way we do them. We don’t ask for your understanding. We ask for your trust.”

As Cleo speaks, Cole moves her chair closer and closer to me. We are pressed together now, our arms firmly linked. I stroke her hand with my thumb. It’s okay, I think as hard as I can, hoping that by some miracle she will hear me. It’s okay. I’m here. Breathe, Cole, I’m here, you’re okay.

“I defer to your species’ vast wisdom,” my mother says, “but my personal opinion has not been changed.”

 [ Little monsters, © 2013 Teresa Tunaley ] “I’m sure that this salmon had very strong opinions too, dear,” Cleo says, smiling. “When it was alive.”

There is one bite of salmon on Cole’s plate. I stroke her hand once more. It’s okay, Cole. I’m here. Four salmon steaks and four baked apples lie untouched on the plates of our monsters. Three salmon steaks and four baked apples are missing. When the last bite of salmon has been taken, the real meal will begin. Cole’s eyes are moist as she lifts her fork to her mouth, chews, and swallows.

“Well, that was a delightful meal, as always, Louise,” Caesar says politely. “It pains me to say that my family will now proceed to cause your family pain. You may run, if you like.”

He smiles wide; six glittering rows of knife-sharp teeth will soon shave skin from my father’s thighs and abdomen. The taste of vomit rises to the back of my throat.

The feeding time begins.

© 2013 Amelie Daigle

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