by Rob Thurman
No more thoughts of that. No. No. No. I grabbed the remote and turned on the TV. Niko, my big brother, wouldn’t be home from his job for another couple of hours. Disappointed he wasn’t there to annoy but relieved I could put off any homework for a while, I bored fast of our four channels of fuzzy local TV. There were days we were lucky to have food, and cable wasn’t close enough to be a dream and nowhere near a reality. A half an hour later, I tossed the remote onto the scarred, wobbly coffee table, scrambled up from the couch, and went to check the refrigerator for a Grape Crush. I was fourteen, yeah, and already looking to get a job under the table no matter how my older brother fought me on it. I was practically a man—was a man on my mother’s Rom side, but I liked Grape Crush. It didn’t make me a kid. It was just good. I didn’t mind kicking the ass of anyone who said it wasn’t. I might be skinny, but I had nothing but muscle under that skinny, thanks to Nik, who taught me the kind of tricks that meant no one in my class after the first day of school messed with me, no matter how young I looked. They had learned better.
They were smarter than the man from the park.
He hadn’t learned.
He hadn’t learned a thing.
I didn’t mind—was happy as hell about that. He needed another lesson, and I loved to teach those kinds of lessons. Although his next one would have to be something fucking exceptional, as the first one hadn’t stuck.
I was going to have to put more work into this time. That I wasn’t as happy about. Lazy through and though, no denying that. I was opening the door to the wheezing, groaning fridge when I saw him again. He was peering through the kitchen window. For a split-second, I doubted myself, hardly had any idea whose brown-gray-hazel-blue-no color eyes were fixed on me—all that average in every part of him, every cell—he could’ve been anybody, anywhere, at anytime to all those who didn’t know how to watch, but, no. I wasn’t one of them, the blind. The slice of a moment passed and I knew.
It was him—as average and chameleon-invisible as he’d been the other times I’d seen him. That was counting the hiding behind bushes and cars today, thinking I didn’t notice. Thinking he was unseen. Thinking he was invisible.
I snorted and didn’t bother to smother it.
Considering everything, that was funny as shit.
That’s when he bared his teeth at me behind the glass and it wasn’t a smile. Yellow and stained with dried liquids you’d want to know nothing about, that non-grin; he thought he was scary. He thought I’d be afraid he’d eat me up with those teeth.
Scary. To a little eight-year-old girl maybe, but I’d seen my mother, Sophia, bring home scarier “dates.” If they had the money and were willing to pay by the quarter hour, she’d take on Jack the Ripper…or worse.
This pervert…not all that.
I stared back at him.
I bared my teeth back at the window and flipped him off before returning to my search for a Grape Crush that I knew we didn’t have. Niko hadn’t been paid yet this week. It was ramen noodles and tap water until he was. Sophia had been caught shoplifting from yet another liquor store and had disappeared for a while. In a week or two, the newbie cops would be buried in other petty crimes and forget about her. She’d be back then. It was a system she’d had as long as I could remember.
Let down but not surprised at the lack of Grape Crush, I closed the door on the semi-cool air drifting out. I checked the kitchen window again. Except for the streaks and cloudbursts of age, the glass was empty. He was gone. I didn’t get excited over it.
With my luck, he’d be back. That was a sure thing. I hadn’t told Nik about him yet and I wouldn’t. Nik had worries enough. Supporting us with two jobs, keeping social services away when Sophia ended up in jail, earning a 4.0 GPA to get a scholarship for college, the hours of practice in the dojos—protecting us, him and me. Always ready to protect and from worse than the man in the park. Much worse.
This time, I’d do the protecting.
Mr. Invisible would stay Mr. Invisible.
He kept following me home.
He always started as I passed the park, which made sense. That was where he’d met Mel for the first time and that’s where he’d met me. That had been the second time for us both. I’d thought he hadn’t noticed me the first time, with all his attention on Melanie, but he had. Mr. Invisible with the “boogety-man’s” radar for prey and possible witnesses, too. He’d been excited at the sight of me. I’d been able to smell his adrenaline. I hadn’t wanted to be too obvious and had walked past to the gas station down the street for a candy bar and came back to meander around the weedy stretch, kicking at rocks. A half hour later, he’d finally decided I hadn’t told anyone or noticed him. After all, who ever did? But oblivious or not, I was right there, wasn’t I?
Niko said waste not, want not. He was like a seventeen-year-old grandma with his sayings. But the boogety-man definitely had believed in that one as much as my brother.
He had finally made that pathetic move of his I remembered with a huge dose of contempt and a small voice in the back of my mind that whispered to me for the first time, Humans. They don’t know how to play. I could’ve done it a hundred times better and bloodier.
I could have, but that wasn’t the point. It had been about Melanie. And, no, there’d been no carefully chosen if slightly ratty pony for me. He’d waved a six-pack of beer at me before smiling the same smile he’d given Mels and disappearing behind those scraggly bushes that blocked the view from the street to block you in close to the empty dog food plant. I’d been almost insulted by how little effort he put into it, but that hadn’t stopped me from trailing after him. Nothing to see here but a stupid kid with a stupid thirst for alcohol and no common sense. He’d thought he was smart. I’d been so simple to trap.
And then I’d introduced him to the protection I carried.
We didn’t just keep knives under our mattresses, Niko and me, or one in every room wherever we lived. I took one in my backpack to school with me, too. Shadows are everywhere and so can be Grendels hiding in them. This school had metal detectors and Nik had spent a shitload of money, I knew, to get me a ceramic knife every bit as sharp as a steel one. He’d told me they were the type of knives spies carried and I was practically James Bond or Jason Bourne. I didn’t give a shit about spies and had fallen asleep during any kind of spy movie I tried to watch. If your monster was human, it shouldn’t take a spy to handle that. I liked the knife, though; it was cool, and it made it past the metal detectors with no problem. It kept me safe.
I’d shown Mr. Invisible just how safe that could be. I’d shown him a move Niko had taught me, and I’d taught him why he should never touch a kid again. How there would not be another Mels. I’d made it very fucking clear.
Or so I’d thought.
I’d been wrong, I thought on yet another day of him tagging after me like a pedophiliac puppy. He didn’t look excited anymore, though, not as he had when he’d held up the beer behind the bushes. Now he looked pissed and pained as he kept a constant hand pressed to his stomach, where I’d given him Mel’s regards, without love. I hoped it hadn’t stopped hurting. I hope it hurt forever.
I smirked at him and rubbed my own stomach. “Try some Pepto,” I called down the street. Now he scowled, more murderous and pissy than ever. I didn’t know what he wanted or what he thought he could get from me, as he only followed, didn’t try to catch up. Revenge? Getting rid of a witness? He could give it a shot, I guessed dubiously, but I didn’t see him getting any further than the last time he’d tried. A lot less further, if anything.
Nope, I didn’t know what his big plans were, if he had any, but he didn’t show any signs of stopping trailing after me. It was irritating in the beginning, although I enjoyed screwing with him by flipping him off or waving cheerfully, but as the days went on, it had gotten old and became flat-
out fucking annoying. I already had real monsters trailing me; I didn’t need a fake one.
I was more than ready and willing to teach him another lesson, had been since he peered through the kitchen window. I’d made him sorry once. I could make him sorry again. This time, though, I had to make certain it was a permanent sort of solution. Nik could help with that. I only had to determine how he could without me telling him anything. He protected me from the big problems. I absolutely would protect him from the smaller ones.
“It was crappy beer, too, you asshole,” I shouted back at Mr. Invisible as I walked my usual path, now with my usual creeper behind me. “When did Chester the Molester get so cheap?”
He snarled but moved in to halve the distance between us in a rush. I liked that. I wanted this over with. I was tired of dealing with his shit.
That’s it, Mr. Invisible.
Give me time to plan, but take the bait.
Reach for that purple pony.
It was almost three and a half weeks after Mels and the park when Niko turned off the TV and the stupid movie that had been playing. Old and stupid, okay, as that was the only kind you could get without cable, but it made me laugh. Vampires with club clothes, earrings, motorcycles, body oil, saxophones, and absolutely the worst haircuts. Too easy to pick out of a crowd, but you’d be laughing too hard to catch them. If they were real.
Mr. Invisible, who was real, kept behind me every day, getting closer and closer the last three of them, but always disappearing from whatever window he’d grimly watch me through minutes before Niko got home. I wish my other monsters would do that, run at the sight of my big brother, but they didn’t. When my monsters showed up, they never ran. We did.
We didn’t know how to get rid of our monsters, the Grendels. That’s what Niko had named them after reading Beowulf long before school would’ve made him. That was Niko, too smart for anyone’s good. It did give us a label to put on our real-life nightmares, though, and that helped, weirdly enough. Not that the name mattered in the end. We didn’t know what they were and that’s what did count. You can’t fight, you can’t arm yourself, against something that doesn’t exist, not in all the twenty-five-pound mythology books Niko dragged home time after time. I had to wonder. Were there other monsters not in those books, others you were helpless against, because you knew nothing about them? Not even their true names? And if there were, was there a way to kill any monster?
If they were in the books, life would be easier. Like vampires. Stake them. We’d not seen one before, and with the way we watched, I thought we’d have spotted one a long time ago, but if we ever did, we’d know what to do. Or werewolves…okay, I was not entirely sure about werewolves. They might be real. I’d caught the scent of people with that special Grendel talent of smelling everything you didn’t want to smell, and some of them smelled like dog but stronger…more rank. I thought they were dog people, had ten or so giant canines crammed in their tiny apartment, but sometimes I caught them glaring at me from the corner of their eyes. They might be dog people or they might be Dog-people. We hadn’t found out yet.
“You believe in vampires?” I asked, leaning casually against Nik’s shoulder as I had all though the movie. He was the only one I’d let touch me or who I would touch without thinking about it. Relaxed. Warm. Safe. That was how he smelled and had since I could remember. “I know we haven’t seen one yet, but I haven’t seen a komodo dragon in real life either, and they’re real, yeah?”
Niko, the corners of his lips turning up slightly, poked my ribs as he switched off the television. His eyes, the same gray as mine, studied mine with amusement. We’d watched that practically ancient movie called The Lost Something or Another. It was about vampires, although not especially scary ones, which had given me a chance to ask Nik about something without really asking. He wouldn’t take it seriously. One of the vampires in the movie had a mullet; how serious could it be?
“You think vampires are real?” he asked. “That they have Eighties-style hair and ride motorcycles? You know we’ve never seen one.” Yet. “And we’ve certainly not seen anything like those who have more jewelry than a pawn shop could afford, ride motorcycles, and read comic books.”
I elbowed him back hard. “No, but werewolves are still debatable. I’ve never smelled a crazy dog lady that came close to the stench on those hairy guys we saw in Montana.” Seriously hairy. “I’m saying there could be more than Grendels. Maybe.” I elbowed him again before resting again next to his much taller shoulder. “I know vampires probably aren’t real. But I think werewolves are. That smell.” I grimaced. “You’ve no idea how pukeworthy that was.
“And if they’re real, what about other things that go bump in the night? Like…” I paused as if I was thinking about it…I had been thinking about it; the pause wasn’t necessary or false, but it was more believable. “What about ghosts? Werewolves have silver, if the books are right. But what about ghosts or phantoms? Is there a way to get rid of them?”
“Ghosts don’t exist; you know that. They’re no more real than vampires. Why? Did you have a nightmare about one?” he asked, running fingers through my hair, a little rough, solid enough to anchor me in reality. I had nightmares several times a week, Grendel-related more often than not. It wouldn’t be that off if I had.
Niko believed in Grendels, as he’d seen them my whole life. Vampires, werewolves, anything else supernatural he dismissed as mythology and legend. And, hell, why wouldn’t he? He had a race of monsters that created half of his little brother for a reason we didn’t know and now followed that same brother wherever he went. If I was him, I’d be the same. I’d want to believe one monster for the world was enough. But I didn’t have that much faith. Or hope. Niko had a handle on those I hardly grasped. I let him hold on to those while I wore cynicism as worn-out as my favorite hoodie. I didn’t mind. I wanted to be prepared for the both of us, prepared for anything under the sun or under the starless, empty night sky as well.
“Maaaaybe they don’t.” I drew out the word because I knew it would annoy him, but it would also make him think and think hard, prove himself. “But what if you’re wrong? Like maybe you are with the werewolves?” Nik didn’t like to think he was wrong, and he hardly ever was. He studied hard in school and out. He’d studied mythology for years, trying to find out what the Grendels were, what they wanted, how to fight them, and failed. Not his fault, though. If he couldn’t find them, they weren’t in the books. That was my faith.
“There’s this kid in my math class, Marcus,” I went on as I finished the Three Musketeers bar I’d been munching at the last of the movie.
“You made a friend?” he interrupted, pleased for me. I hated to break it to him, but I had to, as the next time he mentioned Marcus, I’d have forgotten who he was talking about.
“I told you, Nik. I don’t need friends,” I explained. “I have you.”
Nik worried, always worried. I should have friends, he’d said too many times before, but sometimes I could see him thinking as I got older that it wasn’t necessarily a terrible thing if I didn’t. It’d always been hard when I was little, as we moved around every six months at least. Hard to make friends you know at best you’ll leave and not see again, often twice or three times a year. But I’d had some…the being-little part helped.
But I got older, around ten and eleven, and my teachers had starting sending home notes saying I didn’t interact with the kids at school. I was a loner. It wasn’t healthy. Nik had read the notes carefully with me, not judging, and I’d shrugged. “I can’t help it, Nik. I don’t get them. They say and do the craziest things. They don’t make sense.” Frustrated, I’d shoved my hair behind my ears—another thing the notes said: my hair was too long.
“It’s like they’re not speaking English. I mean, I know the words, but I don’t understand what they mean when they say them or why they say them. I don’t understand what they’re doing or why they do it. I thi
nk there’s something wrong with me,” I’d added hesitantly, sliding down in my chair. “Besides, I’m fine with just you.” That had been true and it stayed true. As long as I had Nik, I didn’t feel alone. I was happier. I understood him. In the entire world, he might be the only person I did understand.
That had been that. Back then, he’d picked up a pen—funny that I remembered two or three years later that it had been purple like Melanie’s pony. “You think differently than they do. There’s nothing wrong with that.” From the twitch in his jaw, I had had a feeling he wasn’t writing back anything to the teacher that she’d think too nice or helpful.
“Than people do?” I’d asked.
“Not all people,” Niko had responded, “but most.” He’d kept writing, moving to the back of the note and filling it all with small script, squeezing as much as he could into the space.
“Because I’m only half a person?” And half a monster.
He had reached over the table to lightly smack the back of my head. “You don’t think right or wrong. You think practical, like a lion.” I’d told him that a long time ago, that I was practical and practical meant doing what you had to do. And doing it in the fastest and most efficient way possible, letting nothing get in your way. Nik hadn’t understood that at first, but after I’d been practical enough to set an abandoned trailer on fire as a distraction to steal antibiotics for a bad, bad case of pneumonia and a fever that made him too hot to touch, he’d seen. And that was after I’d blackmailed another neighbor, a drug-addicted ex-nurse, into treating an infected dog bite that had swollen his arm to three times its size.
Practical equaled survival.
I liked surviving.
I liked Nik surviving even more.
“The kids in your school think like squirrels,” he’d explained. “Hopping here and there, running back and forth, seeing everything at once, and that’s why they are the way they are. They see four things that need doing at once or that they just want to do. It’s like someone divided their brain into four parts, each thinking something different, but one part always holding the limits for the other three. Their parents’ limits, society’s limits, limits they were born with.”