A Monster Calls (Page 10)

“That’s a load of crap!” Conor shouted. “He didn’t need to kill her. The people were behind him. They would have followed him anyway.”

The justifications of men who kill should always be heard with scepticism, said the monster. And so the injustice that I saw, the reason that I came walking, was for the queen, not the prince.

“Did he ever get caught?” Conor said, aghast. “Did they punish him?”

He became a much beloved king, the monster said, who ruled happily until the end of his long days.

Conor looked up to his bedroom window, frowning again. “So the good prince was a murderer and the evil queen wasn’t a witch after all. Is that supposed to be the lesson of all this? That I should be nice to her?”

He heard a strange rumbling, different from before, and it took him a minute to realize the monster was laughing.

You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons? the monster said. You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?

It laughed louder and louder again, until the ground was shaking and it felt like the sky itself might tumble down.

“Yeah, all right,” Conor said, embarrassed.

No, no, the monster said, finally calming itself. The queen most certainly was a witch and could very well have been on her way to great evil. Who’s to say? She was trying to hold on to power, after all.

“Why did you save her then?”

Because what she was not, was a murderer.

Conor walked around the garden a bit, thinking. Then he did it a bit more. “I don’t understand. Who’s the good guy here?”

There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere inbetween.

Conor shook his head. “That’s a terrible story. And a cheat.”

It is a true story, the monster said. Many things that are true feel like a cheat. Kingdoms get the princes they deserve, farmers’ daughters die for no reason, and sometimes witches merit saving. Quite often, actually. You’d be surprised.

Conor glanced up at his bedroom window again, imagining his grandma sleeping in his bed. “So how is that supposed to save me from her?”

The monster stood to its full height, looking down on Conor from afar.

It is not her you need saving from, it said.

Conor sat up straight on the settee, breathing heavily again.

12.07, read the clock.

“Dammit!” Conor said. “Am I dreaming or not?”

He stood up angrily–

And immediately stubbed his toe.

“What now?” he grumbled, leaning over to flick on a light.

From a knot in a floorboard, a fresh, new and very solid sapling had sprouted, about a foot tall.

Conor stared at it for a while. Then he went to the kitchen to get a knife to saw it out of the floor.

UNDERSTANDING

“I forgive you,” Lily said, catching up with him on the walk to school the following day.

“For what?” Conor asked, not looking at her. He was still irritated at the monster’s story, from the cheating and twisting way it went, none of which was any help at all. He’d spent half an hour sawing the surprisingly tough sapling out of the floor and had felt as though he’d barely fallen asleep again before it was time to get up, something he’d only found out because his grandma had started yelling at him for being late. She wouldn’t even let him say goodbye to his mum, who she said had had a rough night and needed her rest. Which made him feel guilty because if his mum had had a rough night, then he should have been there to help her, not his grandma who had barely let him brush his teeth before shoving an apple in his hand and pushing him out of the door.

“I forgive you for getting me in trouble, stupid,” Lily said, but not too harshly.

“You got yourself in trouble,” Conor said. “You’re the one who pushed Sully over.”

“I forgive you for lying,” Lily said, her poodly curls shoved painfully back into a band.

Conor just kept on walking.

“Aren’t you going to say you’re sorry back?” Lily asked.

“Nope,” Conor said.

“Why not?”

“Because I’m not sorry.”

“Conor–”

“I’m not sorry,” Conor said, stopping, “and I don’t forgive you.”

They glared at each other in the cool morning sun, neither wanting to be the first to look away.

“My mum said we need to make allowances for you,” Lily finally said. “Because of what you’re going through.”

And for a moment, the sun seemed to go behind the clouds. For a moment, all Conor could see was sudden thunderstorms on the way, could feel them ready to explode in the sky and through his body and out of his fists. For a moment, he felt as if he could grab hold of the very air and twist it around Lily and rip her right in two–

“Conor?” Lily said, startled.

“Your mum doesn’t know anything,” he said. “And neither do you.”

He walked away from her, fast, leaving her behind.

– • –

It was just over a year ago that Lily had told a few of her friends about Conor’s mum, even though he hadn’t said she could. Those friends told a few more, who told a few more, and before the day was half through, it was like a circle had opened around him, a dead area with Conor at the centre, surrounded by landmines that everyone was afraid to walk through. All of a sudden, the people he’d thought were his friends would stop talking when he came over, not that there were so very many beyond Lily anyway, but still. He’d catch people whispering as he walked by in the corridor or at lunch. Even teachers would get a different look on their faces when he put up his hand in lessons.

So eventually he stopped going over to groups of friends, stopped looking up at the whispers, and even stopped putting up his hand.

Not that anyone seemed to notice. It was like he’d suddenly turned invisible.

He’d never had a harder year of school or been more relieved for a summer holiday to come round than this last one. His mother was deep into her treatments, which she’d said over and over again were rough but “doing the job”, the long schedule of them nearing its end. The plan was that she’d finish them, a new school year would start, and they’d be able to put all this behind them and start afresh.

Except it hadn’t worked out that way. His mum’s treatments had carried on longer than they’d originally thought, first a second round and now a third. The teachers in his new year were even worse because they only knew him in terms of his mum and not who he was before. And the other kids still treated him like he was the one who was ill, especially since Harry and his cronies had singled him out.