A Monster Calls (Page 2)

The monster roared even louder and smashed an arm through Conor’s window, shattering glass and wood and brick. A huge, twisted, branch-wound hand grabbed Conor around the middle and lifted him off the floor. It swung him out of his room and into the night, high above his back garden, holding him up against the circle of the moon, its fingers clenching so hard against Conor’s ribs he could barely breathe. Conor could see raggedy teeth made of hard, knotted wood in the monster’s open mouth, and he felt warm breath rushing up towards him.

Then the monster paused again.

You really aren’t afraid, are you?

“No,” Conor said. “Not of you, anyway.”

The monster narrowed its eyes.

You will be, it said. Before the end.

And the last thing Conor remembered was the monster’s mouth roaring open to eat him alive.

BREAKFAST

“Mum?” Conor asked, stepping into the kitchen. He knew she wouldn’t be in there – he couldn’t hear the kettle boiling, which she always did first thing – but he’d found himself asking for her a lot lately when he entered rooms in the house. He didn’t want to startle her, just in case she’d fallen asleep somewhere she hadn’t planned to.

But she wasn’t in the kitchen. Which meant she was probably still up in her bed. Which meant Conor would have to make his own breakfast, something he’d grown used to doing. Fine. Good, in fact, especially this morning.

He walked quickly to the bin and stuffed the plastic bag he was carrying down near the bottom, covering it up with other rubbish so it wouldn’t be obvious.

“There,” he said to no one, and stood breathing for a second. Then he nodded to himself and said, “Breakfast.”

Some bread in the toaster, some cereal in a bowl, some juice in a glass, and he was ready to go, sitting down at the little table in the kitchen to eat. His mum had her own bread and cereal which she bought at a health food shop in town and which Conor thankfully didn’t have to share. It tasted as unhappy as it looked.

He looked up at the clock. Twenty-five minutes before he had to leave. He was already in his school uniform, his rucksack packed for the day and waiting by the front door. All things he’d done for himself.

He sat with his back to the kitchen window, the one over the sink that looked out onto their small back garden, across the train tracks and up to the church with its graveyard.

And its yew tree.

Conor took another bite of his cereal. His chewing was the only sound in the whole house.

It had been a dream. What else could it have been?

When he’d opened his eyes this morning, the first thing he’d looked at was his window. It had still been there, of course, no damage at all, no gaping hole into the back garden. Of course it had. Only a baby would have thought it really happened. Only a baby would believe that a tree – seriously, a tree – had walked down the hill and attacked the house.

He’d laughed a little at the thought, at how stupid it all was, and he’d stepped out of bed.

To the sound of a crunch beneath his feet.

Every inch of his bedroom floor was covered in short, spiky yew tree leaves.

He put another bite of cereal in his mouth, definitely not looking at the rubbish bin, where he had stuffed the plastic bag full of leaves he’d swept up this morning first thing.

It had been a windy night. They’d clearly blown in through his open window.

Clearly.

He finished his cereal and toast, drank the last of his juice, then rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. Still twenty minutes to go. He decided to empty the rubbish bin altogether – less risky that way – and took the bag out to the wheelie bin in front of the house. Since he was already making the trip, he gathered up the recycling and put that out, too. Then he got a load of sheets going in the washer that he’d hang out on the line when he got back from school.

He went back to the kitchen and looked at the clock.

Still ten minutes left.

Still no sign of–

“Conor?” he heard, from the top of the stairs.

He let out a long breath he hadn’t realized he was holding in.

– • –

“You’ve had breakfast?” his mum asked, leaning against the kitchen doorframe.

“Yes, Mum,” Conor said, rucksack in his hand.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, Mum.”

She looked at him doubtfully. Conor rolled his eyes. “Toast and cereal and juice,” he said. “I put the dishes in the dishwasher.”

“And took the rubbish out,” his mum said quietly, looking at how neat he’d left the kitchen.

“There’s washing going, too,” Conor said.

“You’re a good boy,” she said, and though she was smiling, he could hear sadness in it, too. “I’m sorry I wasn’t up.”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s just this new round of–”

“It’s okay,” Conor said.

She stopped, but she still smiled back at him. She hadn’t tied her scarf around her head yet this morning, and her bare scalp looked too soft, too fragile in the morning light, like a baby’s. It made Conor’s stomach hurt to see it.

“Was that you I heard last night?” she asked.

Conor froze. “When?”

“Sometime after midnight, must have been,” she said, shuffling over to switch on the kettle. “I thought I was dreaming but I could have sworn I heard your voice.”

“Probably just talking in my sleep,” Conor said, flatly.

“Probably,” his mum yawned. She took a mug off the rack hanging by the fridge. “I forgot to tell you,” she said, lightly, “your grandma’s coming by tomorrow.”

Conor’s shoulders sank. “Aw, Mum.”

“I know,” she said, “but you shouldn’t have to make your own breakfast every morning.”

“Every morning?” Conor said. “How long is she going to be here?”

“Conor–”

“We don’t need her here–”

“You know how I get at this point in the treatments, Conor–”

“We’ve been okay so far–”

“Conor,” his mum snapped, so harshly it seemed to surprise them both. There was a long silence. And then she smiled again, looking really, really tired.

“I’ll try to keep it as short as possible, okay?” she said. “I know you don’t like giving up your room, and I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have asked her if I didn’t need her to come, all right?”