A Monster Calls (Page 26)

Conor kept on walking up his own front steps.

“Conor?” his grandma called after him. But he didn’t look back.

He barely heard her pull the car out onto the street and drive away.

– • –

Inside, the house smelled of dust and stale air. He didn’t even bother shutting the door behind him. He headed straight through to the kitchen and looked out of the window.

There was the church on the rise. There was the yew tree standing guard over its cemetery.

Conor went out across his back garden. He hopped up on the garden table where his mum used to drink Pimm’s in the summer, and he lifted himself up and over the back fence. He hadn’t done this since he was a little, little kid, so long ago it had been his father who’d punished him for it. The break in the barbed wire by the railway line was still there, and he squeezed through, tearing his shirt, not caring.

He crossed the tracks, barely checking to see if a train was coming, climbed another fence, and found himself at the base of the hill leading up to the church. He hopped over the low stone wall that surrounded it and climbed up through the tombstones, all the while keeping the tree in his sights.

And all the while, it stayed a tree.

Conor began to run.

“Wake up!” he started shouting before he even reached it. “WAKE UP!”

He got to the trunk and started kicking it. “I said, wake up! I don’t care what time it is!”

He kicked it again.

And harder.

And once more.

And the tree stepped out of the way, so quickly that Conor lost his balance and fell.

You will do yourself harm if you keep that up, the monster said, looming over him.

“It didn’t work!” Conor shouted, getting to his feet. “You said the yew tree would heal her, but it didn’t!”

I said if she could be healed, the yew tree would do it, the monster said. It seems that she could not.

Anger rose even higher in Conor’s chest, thumping his heart against his ribcage. He attacked the monster’s legs, battering the bark with his hands, bringing up bruises almost immediately. “Heal her! You have to heal her!”

Conor, the monster said.

“What’s the use of you if you can’t heal her?” Conor said, pounding away. “Just stupid stories and getting me into trouble and everyone looking at me like I’ve got a disease–”

He stopped because the monster had reached down a hand and plucked him into the air.

You are the one who called me, Conor O’Malley, it said, looking at him seriously. You are the one with the answers to these questions.

“If I called you,” Conor said, his face boiling red, tears he was hardly aware of streaming angrily down his cheeks, “it was to save her! It was to heal her!”

There was a rustling through the monster’s leaves, like the wind stirring them in a long slow sigh.

I did not come to heal her, the monster said. I came to heal you.

“Me?” Conor said, stopping his squirming in the monster’s hand. “I don’t need healing. My mum’s the one who’s…”

But he couldn’t say it. Even now he couldn’t say it. Even though they’d had the talk. Even though he’d known it all along. Because of course he had, of course he did, no matter how much he’d wanted to believe it wasn’t true, of course he knew. But still he couldn’t say it.

Couldn’t say that she was–

He was still crying furiously and finding it hard to breathe. He felt like he was splitting open, like his body was twisting apart.

He looked back up at the monster. “Help me,” he said, quietly.

It is time, the monster said, for the fourth tale.

Conor let out an angry yell. “No! That’s not what I meant! There are more important things happening!”

Yes, the monster said. Yes, there are.

It opened its free hand.

The mist surrounded them again.

And once more, they were in the middle of the nightmare.

THE FOURTH TALE

Even held in the monster’s huge, strong hand, Conor could feel the terror seeping into him, could feel the blackness of it all start to fill his lungs and choke them, could feel his stomach beginning to fall–

“No!” he shouted, squirming some more, but the monster held him tight. “No! Please!”

The hill, the church, the graveyard were all gone, even the sun had disappeared, leaving them in the middle of a cold darkness, one that had followed Conor ever since his mother had first been hospitalized, from before that when she’d started the treatments that made her lose her hair, from before that when she’d had flu that didn’t go away until she went to a doctor and it wasn’t flu at all, from before even that when she’d started to complain about how tired she was feeling, ever since before all that, ever since forever, it felt like, the nightmare had been there, stalking him, surrounding him, cutting him off, making him alone.

It felt like he’d never been anywhere else.

“Get me out of here!” he yelled. “Please!”

It is time, the monster said again, for the fourth tale.

“I don’t know any tales!” Conor said, his mind lurching with fear.

If you do not tell it, the monster said, I shall have to tell it for you. It held Conor up closer to its face. And believe me when I say, you do not want that.

“Please,” Conor said again. “I have to get back to my mum.”

But, the monster said, turning across the blackness, she is already here.

The monster set him down abruptly, almost dropping him to the earth, and Conor stumbled forward.

He recognized the cold ground under his hands, recognized the clearing he was in, bordered on three sides by a dark and impenetrable forest, recognized the fourth side, a cliff, flying off into even further blackness.

And on the cliff’s edge, his mum.

She had her back to him, but she was looking over her shoulder, smiling. She looked as weak as she had in the hospital, but she gave him a silent wave.

“Mum!” Conor yelled, feeling too heavy to stand, as he did every time the nightmare began. “You have to get out of here!”

His mum didn’t move, though she looked a little worried at what he’d said.

Conor dragged himself forward, straining at the effort. “Mum, you have to run!”

“I’m fine, darling,” she said. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

“Mum, run! Please, run!”

“But darling, there’s–”

She stopped and turned back to the cliff’s edge, as if she’d heard something.