A Monster Calls (Page 5)

His mum’s mobile had gone off once, not waking her. Conor saw it was Lily’s mum calling and let it go to voicemail. He did his schoolwork at the kitchen table, stopping before he got to Mrs Marl’s Life Writing homework, then he played around on the internet for a while in his room before brushing his teeth and seeing himself to bed. He’d barely turned out the light when his mum had very apologetically – and very groggily – come in to kiss him good night.

A few minutes later, he’d heard her in the bathroom, throwing up.

“Do you need any help?” he’d called from his bed.

“No, sweetheart,” his mum called back, weakly. “I’m kind of used to it by now.”

That was the thing. Conor was used to it, too. It was always the second and third days after the treatments that were the worst, always the days when she was the most tired, when she threw up the most. It had almost become normal.

After a while, the throwing up had stopped. He’d heard the bathroom light click off and her bedroom door shut.

That was two hours ago. He’d lain awake since then, waiting.

But for what?

His bedside clock read 12.05. Then it read 12.06. He looked over to his bedroom window, shut tight even though the night was still warm. His clock ticked over to 12.07.

He got up, went over to the window and looked out.

The monster stood in his garden, looking right back at him.

Open up, the monster said, its voice as clear as if the window wasn’t between them. I want to talk to you.

“Yeah, sure,” Conor said, keeping his voice low. “Because that’s what monsters always want. To talk.”

The monster smiled. It was a ghastly sight. If I must force my way in, it said, I will do so happily.

It raised a gnarled woody fist to punch through the wall of Conor’s bedroom.

“No!” Conor said. “I don’t want you to wake my mum.”

Then come outside, the monster said, and even in his room, Conor’s nose filled with the moist smell of earth and wood and sap.

“What do you want from me?” Conor said.

The monster pressed its face close to the window.

It is not what I want from you, Conor O’Malley, it said. It is what you want from me.

“I don’t want anything from you,” Conor said.

Not yet, said the monster. But you will.

“It’s only a dream,” Conor said to himself in the back garden, looking up at the monster silhouetted against the moon in the night sky. He folded his arms tightly against his body, not because it was cold, but because he couldn’t actually believe he’d tiptoed down the stairs, unlocked the back door and come outside.

He still felt calm. Which was weird. This nightmare – because it was surely a nightmare, of course it was – was so different from the other nightmare.

No terror, no panic, no darkness, for one thing.

And yet here was a monster, clear as the clearest night, towering ten or fifteen metres above him, breathing heavily in the night air.

“It’s only a dream,” he said again.

But what is a dream, Conor O’Malley? the monster said, bending down so its face was close to Conor’s. Who is to say that it is not everything else that is the dream?

Every time the monster moved, Conor could hear the creak of wood, groaning and yawning in the monster’s huge body. He could see, too, the power in the monster’s arms, great wiry ropes of branches constantly twisting and shifting together in what must have been tree muscle, connected to a massive trunk of a chest, topped by a head and teeth that could chomp him down in one bite.

“What are you?” Conor asked, pulling his arms closer around himself.

I am not a “what”, frowned the monster. I am a “who”.

“Who are you, then?” Conor said.

The monster’s eyes widened. Who am I? it said, its voice getting louder. Who am I?

The monster seemed to grow before Conor’s eyes, getting taller and broader. A sudden, hard wind swirled up around them, and the monster spread its arms out wide, so wide they seemed to reach to opposite horizons, so wide they seemed big enough to encompass the world.

I have had as many names as there are years to time itself! roared the monster. I am Herne the Hunter! I am Cernunnos! I am the eternal Green Man!

A great arm swung down and snatched Conor up in it, lifting him high in the air, the wind whirling around them, making the monster’s leafy skin wave angrily.

Who am I? the monster repeated, still roaring. I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that breathe the wind! I am the wolf that kills the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly! I am the stag, the mouse and the fly that are eaten! I am the snake of the world devouring its tail! I am everything untamed and untameable! It brought Conor up close to its eye. I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.

“You look like a tree,” Conor said.

The monster squeezed him until he cried out.

I do not often come walking, boy, the monster said, only for matters of life and death. I expect to be listened to.

The monster loosened its grip and Conor could breathe again. “So what do you want with me?” Conor asked.

The monster gave an evil grin. The wind died down and a quiet fell. At last, said the monster. To the matter at hand. The reason I have come walking.

Conor tensed, suddenly dreading what was coming.

Here is what will happen, Conor O’Malley, the monster continued, I will come to you again on further nights.

Conor felt his stomach clench, like he was preparing for a blow.

And I will tell you three stories. Three tales from when I walked before.

Conor blinked. Then blinked again. “You’re going to tell me stories?”

Indeed, the monster said.

“Well–” Conor looked around in disbelief. “How is that a nightmare?”

Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster rumbled. Stories chase and bite and hunt.

“That’s what teachers always say,” Conor said. “No one believes them either.”

And when I have finished my three stories, the monster said, as if Conor hadn’t spoken, you will tell me a fourth.

Conor squirmed in the monster’s hand. “I’m no good at stories.”

You will tell me a fourth, the monster repeated, and it will be the truth.

“The truth?”

Not just any truth. Your truth.

“O-kay,” Conor said, “but you said I’d be scared before the end of all this, and that doesn’t sound scary at all.”