A Monster Calls (Page 15)

“Americans don’t get much holiday.”

“You’re not American.”

“But I live there now.” He grinned. “You’re the one who made fun of my accent all night.”

“Why did you come then?” Conor asked. “Why bother coming at all?”

His father waited a moment before answering. “I came because your mum asked me to.” He looked like he was going to say more, but he didn’t.

Conor didn’t say anything either.

“I’ll come back, though,” his father said. “You know, when I need to.” His voice brightened. “And you’ll visit us at Christmas! That’ll be good fun.”

“In your cramped house where there’s no room for me,” Conor said.

“Conor–”

“And then I’ll come back here for school.”

“Con–”

“Why did you come?” Conor asked again, his voice low.

His father didn’t answer. A silence opened up in the car that felt like they were sitting on opposite sides of a canyon. Then his father reached out a hand for Conor’s shoulder, but Conor ducked it and pulled on the door handle to get out.

“Conor, wait.”

Conor waited but didn’t turn around.

“You want me to come in until she gets home?” his father asked. “Keep you company?”

“I’m fine on my own,” Conor said, and got out of the car.

The house was quiet when he got inside. Why wouldn’t it be?

He was alone.

He slumped on the expensive settee again, listening to it creak as he fell back into it. It was such a satisfying sound that he got up and slumped back down into it again. Then he got back up and jumped on it, the wooden legs moaning as they scraped a few inches across the floor, leaving four identical scratches on the hardwood.

He smiled to himself. That felt good.

He jumped off and gave the settee a kick to push it back even further. He was barely aware that he was breathing heavily. His head felt hot, almost like he had a fever. He raised a foot to kick the settee again.

Then he looked up and saw the clock.

His grandma’s precious clock, hanging over the mantelpiece, the pendulum swinging back and forth, back and forth, like it was getting on with its own, private life, not caring about Conor at all.

He approached it slowly, his fists clenched. It was only a moment before it would bong bong bong its way to nine o’clock. Conor stood there until the second hand glided around and reached the twelve. The instant the bongs were about to start, he grabbed the pendulum, holding it at the high point of its swing.

He could hear the mechanism of the clock complaining as the first b of the interrupted bong hovered in the air. With his free hand, Conor reached up and pushed the minute and second hands forward from the twelve. They resisted but he pushed harder, hearing a loud click as he did so that didn’t sound especially good. The minute and second hands sprung suddenly free from whatever was holding them back, and Conor spun them around, catching up with the hour hand and taking it along, too, hearing more complaining half-bongs and painful clicks from deep inside the wooden case.

He could feel drops of sweat gathering on his forehead and his chest felt like it was glowing with heat.

(–almost like being in the nightmare, that same feverish blur of the world slipping off its axis, but this time he was the one in control, this time he was the nightmare–)

The second hand, the thinnest of the three, suddenly snapped and fell out of the clockface completely, bouncing once on the rug and disappearing into the ashes of the hearth.

Conor stepped back quickly, letting go of the pendulum. It dropped to its centre point but didn’t start swinging again. Nor did the clock make any of the whirring, ticking sounds it usually made as it ran, its hands now frozen solidly in place.

Uh-oh.

Conor’s stomach started squeezing as he realized what he’d done.

Oh, no, he thought.

Oh, no.

He’d broken it.

A clock that was probably worth more than his mum’s whole beaten-up car.

His grandma was going to kill him, maybe actually, literally kill him–

Then he noticed.

The hour and minute hands had stopped at a specific time.

12.07.

As destruction goes, the monster said behind him, this is all remarkably pitiful.

Conor whirled around. Somehow, some way, the monster was in his grandma’s sitting room. It was far too big, of course, having to bend down very, very low to fit under the ceiling, its branches and leaves twisting together tighter and tighter to make it smaller, but here it was, filling up every corner.

It is the kind of destruction I would expect from a boy, it said, its breath blowing back Conor’s hair.

“What are you doing here?” Conor asked. He felt a sudden surge of hope. “Am I asleep? Is this a dream? Like when you broke my bedroom window and I woke up and–”

I have come to tell you the second tale, the monster said.

Conor made an exasperated sound and looked back at the broken clock. “Is it going to be as bad as the last one?” he asked, distractedly.

It ends in proper destruction, if that is what you mean.

Conor turned back to the monster. Its face had rearranged itself into the expression Conor recognized as the evil grin.

“Is it a cheating story?” Conor asked. “Does it sound like it’s going to be one way and then it’s a total other way?”

No, said the monster. It is about a man who thought only of himself. The monster smiled again, looking even more wicked. And he gets punished very, very badly indeed.

Conor stood breathing for a second, thinking about the broken clock, about the scratches on the hardwood, about the poisonous berries dropping from the monster onto his grandma’s clean floor.

He thought about his father.

“I’m listening,” Conor said.

THE SECOND TALE

One hundred and fifty years ago, the monster began, this country had become a place of industry. Factories grew on the landscape like weeds. Trees fell, fields were up-ended, rivers blackened. The sky choked on smoke and ash, and the people did, too, spending their days coughing and itching, their eyes turned forever towards the ground. Villages grew into towns, towns into cities. And people began to live on the earth rather than within it.

But there was still green, if you knew where to look.

(The monster opened its hands again, and a mist rolled through his grandma’s sitting room. When it cleared, Conor and the monster stood on a field of green, overlooking a valley of metal and brick.)