Night Monsters

Night Monsters

In the 1950’s, in southern California, orange groves grew. Amidst their sunshine and shade existed magic--two kinds of magic. One was evil.

Chapter One: Prologue

I eased close the door of my room on sleeping Gee’s bluish glow. Fraidycat Gee always said, “Don’t leave the room. It’s dark out there.” Hmmph. I was four and not scared of nighttime.

I snuck down the darkened hallway, clutching Button, my black kitten. His purr rumbled. My pink, footed sleepers slapped on the worn carpet, the legs too long, the feet dragging underneath, threatening to trip me. I pulled the legs up and peeked into the living room.

No one there. Shadows were there, shadows under chairs and the sofa, shadows that changed the pictures from flowers and kittens to ghosts and monsters. Slivers of chill rippled the hair on the back of my neck.

Button stopped purring.

I stroked his shiny fur and nuzzled his nose. “It’s okay.” I wanted it to be okay, but I didn’t like this, either. The dark crept down the hall after me. I wanted to creep back to my bed and climb in.

The creak of a door opening in the hallway warned of others awake.

Father, or Mother, or even Brother wouldn’t be happy. They weren’t happy with me about anything. I slipped out of the hallway, into the living room.

Odd, uneven footsteps scraped on the carpet. A strange voice echoed down the hall, a voice rasping like fingernails down dry slate. “I heard something.”

Button’s fur stood on end. He hissed.

My heart fluttered against the cage of my chest. The footsteps came closer. I hid behind the living room door, hoping whatever it was wouldn’t look, wouldn’t see.

A smell of bad things, rotting things. Hhurhh. Breath forced out. Uurrhh. Breath forced in.

I peeked through the crack.

And clamped a hand over my mouth to hold in my scream.

Chapter Two: The Grove

Seven Years Later

Even this early on a summer morning, the orange grove surrounding the house was full of sunshine. Blossoms were just opening and the bees, thrilled by the promise of nectar, buzz buzz buzzed, picking up loads of pollen on their rear legs before flying back to the hive. I breathed in the light, honeyed air. The sun spattered through leaves, flickering through my eyelids when I blinked, patterning my skin with green glints.

In the second row of trees, I jumped and grabbed a branch, not too thin so it would break, not so thick I couldn’t grasp it. I swung, bent my knees, and then swung off, landing five feet farther on in a rattle of gravel and a skid. I hopped sideways to avoid a horned toad and almost fell into the irrigation ditch. Teetering, I flailed my arms, gained my balance, and crouched down.

The horned one bobbed his head. I bobbed back in courtesy.

A rustle in the grass lining the ditch announced a nose-twitching bunny that nibbled a blade here and there. Her nose-twitching baby hopped out next to mama and settled in for a morning snack with one ear turned toward me, one ear turned toward the dangerous world.

The damp earth next to my hand mounded and quaked.

“Oh!” I rocked on the balls of my feet.

A small dirt-specked nose poked into the sunlight.

I moved my hand to give the gopher more room. It gnawed on a piece of grass root and blinked.

The gravel under my other hand tickled my palm. When I lifted that hand, a small flap of sandy dirt opened, and a trapdoor spider inched out, walking up my arm and settling on my shoulder. I stroked the small furry body before lifting it back to the ground.

The sunshine and speckled shadows patterned my skin as I walked through the grove and jumped across the irrigation ditches. This was my home. This family I chose. I belonged to the grove. And the heart of the grove was Tree.

“Hello, Tree.”

Tree extended a branch down to my right foot and another a bit higher for my left. I climbed, trying not to scrape off flakes of powder from the bark as each branch reached down to ease my way up.

Tree felt warm like the belly of a puppy wriggling in the sun. I curled up against the gray-brown trunk, loving the sharp tang of the orange tree dust and the sweet, sweet smell of the just opening flower buds.

Tree softened the branch under me into an overstuffed chair to cradle me. He hummed like bees drowsing on summer flowers, whispering as leaves might in a spring breeze. The words of the hum and sibilance tickled my ears.

“Read more about the Psammead,” said Tree. “It seems a wise if grumpy creature.”

I hadn’t brought E. Nesbit’s book about the sand-fairy because I needed to get back. “I’ll bring it later and read to you--after breakfast. Right now I need to pick some fruit for their juice.”

Before I could shimmy down from my perch, Tree dropped warm orange globes into my lap, one by one.

“Stop!” I giggled as the eighth one landed on the pile. “I can’t carry anymore. Thank you, Tree, for sharing.”

“What is mine is yours, Claregirl.”

“Love you, Tree.”

I ran from dust-shrouded grove into sunshine heating the dry lawn and glaring off the white clapboard house. My eyes blinked and squinted at the change. I reached to open the curved metal handle of the screened door, almost losing an orange on the back doorstep of the kitchen. Any distraction, however short was welcome.

I juggled the warm oranges. I lifted the hem of my t-shirt and let the fruit tumble together, stretching the cotton knit.

I grasped the handle and opened the door. What must be faced, must be faced. Maybe this would be a good morning.

The screen door closed behind me with a snap. I hurried across the yellow-green linoleum floor to the sink. The oranges rolled into its white enamel basin with several thumps and thunks.  Soon bacon sizzled on the stove. My mouth watered at the salty smell. I cut each orange in half and then twisted each on the yellow squeezer, filling five tumblers before stopping. I picked out microscopic seed bits from Father’s juice. Better to keep him happy.

Leaving my own juice in the kitchen, I slipped into the dining room. I set a glass at each place, relieved none of my family had yet shown up to be fed. From their bedroom I heard Father grumble as he finished dressing, and Mother whine in reply: an answer, a complaint, or more likely, an excuse.

Susie screeched from behind the bathroom door, “Get out! Get out!”

Another high C splintered the air. Uh oh. A two-screech morning. I shook my head and then brushed my brown curls back out of my eyes. This was a day to avoid my brother. Gee hadn’t raised a fool.

Soon the scrambled eggs fluffed on the white china platter, bread snuggled in the basket toasted, buttered, and well wrapped in its cloth napkin.

A clatter of wooden chair legs warned of the family’s arrival.

“Clare!” Father growled. “Where’s my breakfast? I have to leave for work.”

I hurried, bending over to place the eggs, bacon, and toast at the head of the table between Father and Brother. When I leaned forward, Brother pinched and twisted the inside of my arm. 

I jerked away, struggling not to drop the eggs, not to yelp, not to cry.

He smirked.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. I’d known I needed to stay out of his way. Maybe Gee did raise a fool.

My arm throbbed. Another bruise to join the rest.

Father, dressed in his brown business suit and wide green tie, stuffed his mouth with a forkful of eggs, chased with a strip of bacon. “Remember, Clare, while I’m at work--” He paused, his shoulders bulked toward me.

I stepped backward. “Yes?”

“Your mother will be keeping an eye on you to see you get your chores done.”

Mother nodded, then took a sip of her coffee, avoiding my eyes.

“It’s for your own good,” Father said.

‘It’s for your own good.’  I’d heard him say it over and over for years. I knew I’d be sorry if I didn’t follow his directions. I knew, for my own good, I’d do as he told me.

Washing the pans, eating my cold breakfast while standing at the beige countertop in the kitchen, I waited for Father to leave.

Mopping the kitchen floor, I reminded myself that in fairytales children lived in families that didn’t love them. Hansel and Gretel left in the woods, Cinderella and Snow White with their wicked stepmothers. They survived. I could, too.

I did my work and kept to my room at night with Gee, my guardian, protecting me. As far as I knew, Gee’d always been there, a blue winged ball of fuzz living under my bed. Gee, as in gee whiz, gee you’re great, and gee you love me.

Finally, I slipped out through the kitchen door to return to Tree.

“Hello, Tree,” I said, accepting a branch up.

“Hello, Claregirl. I am glad you remembered to bring our book.”

The wind wuffled. Birds chirped and swooped from tree to tree. I opened the book and began to read aloud.

The morning and early afternoon passed in a rustle of leaves and pages turning, the murmur of my voice and Tree’s comments on events in The Five Children and It.

A cloud passed over the sun. The wind died. A waiting silence. The words from the story stuck in my throat. Last night’s memory of long ago chilled me. I trembled.

The branch under me knotted and hardened.

Rubbing my upper arms to warm them, I twisted, unable to get comfortable.

“Claregirl,” Tree rumbled. “You are right to be afraid. The Dark is nearer. It is almost time.”

“Time? Time for what?”

He didn’t answer.

Beating my head against wood gave me a headache. “Tree?”

“Yes, soft one?”

“I’m afraid and I’m not sure why. What did you mean it’s almost time?”

“For bad things. Dark things.” Tree’s voice sounded like the winter wind when it blew through the grove, hollow and cold.


Bang’s House