A Monster at Midnight
Twelve-year-old Caleb Prescott was afraid to go home.
All he could think about was what his foster father was going to do to him when he got there.
He stood motionless for a long time. Until the neon sign of the greasy pizza joint across the street turned off, signifying the late hour.
And Caleb knew it was now or never.
Snapping out of his hypnotic trance, he looked down and was surprised to see the aluminum bar of his mountain bike between his knees; he’d been straddling it the entire time. His grip on the handlebars felt stiff and achy. And the wind moaning through the half-naked trees sounded like the ghost that haunted his dreams each night.
“You got this,” he told himself. “Just sneak back down to the dungeon, and then you can cry yourself to sleep remembering that strawberry smell of her long, soft, brown hair.”
But the truth was that holding on to those memories using the most fleeting of senses –the sense of touch and smell that fades so fast– was getting harder with each passing day. Spending a night in a cemetery, with evil spirits clawing their way out of graves all around him, would be easier, he reasoned.
Case in point, wasn’t he pretty much doing that now? All alone on a dark deserted street, teeth chattering in fear from a creepy sound seemingly getting closer? Like a pissed-off ghost coming for him any minute?
Only this ghost, when he calmed down and listened more intensely, sounded different. More like crying. Like someone in trouble. Not so much a ghost, perhaps, but a real person. Separating the sound from that of the breeze, Caleb decided it was coming from the alleyway.
In a flash, his feet found the pedals and he sped towards the noise, a small-for-his-age, but quick and nimble kid, now on a mission.
Rounding the corner, he hit the brakes and skidded to an abrupt stop.
There on the pavement, under a nearby streetlight, he saw something that broke his heart, at least what was left of it. A Maltese terrier, its fur caked with mud, was whimpering as it lay trapped in a metal dog crate.
The anger exploded in Caleb’s head like shrapnel from a bomb.
Who would do such a thing?
Though he wanted to spring into action, to perform superhero maneuvers fast and all at once, it felt like the opposite was happening. Like everything was swinging in slow motion on a gigantic pendulum. That frustration of taking too long brought tears to pool in his green eyes, clouding his vision, slowing everything down even more.
Finally, his fingers forced the pin in the lock to come loose. Swinging the door open, he crawled on his hands and knees towards the frightened canine cowering at the back.
Caleb brought his face within inches of the little dog. He looked into her eyes and a tenderness seeped into his ragged heart, softening the edges.
The pup licked the teardrops snaking down his face and let him pet her.
“I’m going to name you Midnight even though underneath all that filth, you’re white. But I found you precisely at that time, so that’s your name. Right little one?”
Midnight’s reply was a bark that grew into three consecutive ones, and when she pushed her little snout past Caleb’s shoulder, he realized she was barking at something behind him. A second too late, he heard someone yell “Gotcha!” and turned around in time to see a chubby kid, sucking on a lollipop, slam the cage door shut with a clatter.
Caleb’s heart sank like a thousand-pound anchor to the bottom of the sea.
The freckled boy with orange hair and a Cheshire cat smile, deliberately, almost mockingly, pushed the pin down to lock Caleb and Midnight inside. Looking to be about fourteen, he wore tattered sweatpants and a stained yellow parka.
“Please, let us out,” Caleb begged. “My dog is hurt.”
“Your dog? Really?” the fair-haired bully drawled, “I don’t think so shithead. That dog ain’t yours, you just wanna steal it.”
His lips formed an o shape around the sucker and pulling it out of his mouth with a popping sound, he pointed the fluorescent green lollipop at Caleb. “I think you’re a turd who wants to be a hero by rescuing the ugly mutt, right? he snickered. “Except you’re no hero, you’re just a loser with a black eye. Your bike looks like garbage too, but I might just take it anyway.”
Caleb could swear he heard his rapid heartbeat pulse in his ears, but, somehow, he forced himself to tamp down on his anxiety and tried to think hard and fast on the fly.
“You’re right,” Caleb said. “I shouldn’t have lied to you. But if you don’t mind me asking, what’s your name?” and then quickly added, “So I can show you some respect when I address you.”
The teenager was so caught off guard, he remained speechless for a moment. And though Caleb had never been one of those count your chickens before they’re hatched kind of guys, he felt hopeful.
“Yeah jackass,” the boy finally exclaimed, “you should respect me, so you can call me Richie when you tell me what that bike’s worth.”
“Thanks Richie,” Caleb said, “and you’re right, that bike is on its last legs. If it isn’t the chain falling off, then the handlebars don’t turn, and the worst part? The brakes are shot.
Richie,” he sighed, “it’s not worth more than a penny. But I’ve got something for you that’s much better.”
Richie pulled the bare stick of the sucker out of his mouth and Caleb could hear him crunching the last pieces of candy between his teeth. Throwing the stick on the ground, Richie scowled at the bike like it was a vile thing. Giving up on it, he turned back to his prisoner.
“Whatcha got?” he demanded, adding “it better be good or I’m gonna drown this mutt in the river and make you watch.”
Caleb opened his mouth to speak but closed it again when Richie pulled a BB gun out of a duffle bag next to him and said, “go on, tell me, pinhead.”
Caleb said, “you let us out of here and I’ll give you my last ten bucks.”
He held his breath, then released it when Richie exclaimed “right on, show me the dough.”
With trembling hands, Caleb pulled a ten-dollar bill from his sock.
Richie’s open-mouthed laughter, revealing gaps from missing teeth amongst a few black ones, sent Caleb’s mind sailing back to when being reminded to brush his teeth, annoyed him. Especially when he was tired. Now, the gratitude for his mom’s nagging washed over him like a hot shower after getting caught in the freezing rain.
“You better not think about running before handing me that cash.” Richie warned. He aimed the BB gun, not at Caleb, but directly at Midnight. He said “that runt tried to bite me when I captured it and I wanna shoot it for payback. And fun,” he smiled. “But you give me the ten bucks, and I won’t kill it, got it?”
Caleb nodded vigorously, afraid to make the wrong move until Richie opened the cage and stood aside to let them out.
Free at last, and seconds after Richie grabbed the money with his meaty fingers, Caleb made a beeline towards his bike, calling Midnight to follow him. But Midnight, terrified of Richie, froze when he suddenly stepped towards her, pointing the gun, once again, at her little face.
As Midnight edged away from him, Richie turned towards Caleb and hissed “psst, I was lying. I’m gonna put a bullet in its leg first and then stomp on its face till it’s dead.”
Caleb’s mouth went powder-dry, his stomach lurching like he was on a free-falling plane about to crash. He felt Richie’s threat slam into him, one sadistic word at a time.
With a roar, Caleb rushed at Richie, his right hand curled into a fist and, before Richie could react, he drove his knuckles into the spongy cartilage of his nose. The crunch of bone, followed by Richie’s earsplitting howl, ricocheted down the alley. Blood gushed from Richie’s face. Moments later, the agony splintered through Caleb’s hand like it was on fire.
Caleb wasted no time running towards Midnight.
But before he could reach the little terrier, Richie aimed the BB gun at the dog a third time, only this time, he fired as she took off with surprising swiftness. As Midnight rounded the corner at the end of the alley, she let out a tortured yelp, and Caleb felt sick when Richie cackled in glee for hitting his mark.
Hopping on his bike, Caleb followed Midnight at warp speed. But by the time he rounded that same corner, Midnight was nowhere in sight.
Car headlights, road signs, and blowing trash, all became a blur through the onslaught of Caleb’s tears. Every bit of the fear, anger, and grief he’d been holding so tightly within, tore loose, like a deluge of water from a broken dam. Not knowing where Midnight was, whether she was in pain or even alive, was a new kind of hell.
And speaking of hell, on top of his worry for Midnight, there were the horrors that waited for him when he got back to his foster home.
He still remembered when the social worker brought him there on a hot August morning, dumping him on the doorstep, and heading for the hills right after. The act Deborah, his new foster mom, put on, was worthy of an Oscar and good enough for the caseworker. Determined to make a swift get-away, she never even set foot inside the house. Never even bothered to see where Caleb would lay his head that night.
As soon as the woman drove away, Deborah grabbed him by the hair and pushed him hard through the door as she yelled “get the hell in there, march yourself down to your room in the basement, and stay there until my husband gets home. You understand me boy?”
Caleb understood when Donald came down the stairs three minutes later.
“You listen to me you motherless, unwanted, punk,” Donald spat. This room in the basement? That’s the only place you’re allowed. Food will be left outside your door two times a day, morning, and night. And you’re never allowed upstairs. There’s a toilet and shower here and that’s all you need. Got it?”
Caleb was so scared it felt like horses’ hooves stampeding across his chest, and, unable to stop himself, the moisture began seeping into his underwear, spreading through the fabric of his jeans. His bladder had already been full to begin with, but Donald’s speech, that ugly word “motherless”, made Caleb buckle under the strain. He could no longer hold it in. And now he just wanted to disappear, to die right then and there. Better to see his mom again in heaven, than live like this here in hell.
But it wasn’t over yet. When Donald saw that Caleb had peed himself, he hit him hard across the face, so hard that Caleb flew into the opposite wall. Donald barked, “you’re ten, old enough to be toilet trained for God’s sake. Clean up and wash those filthy clothes in the sink. We don’t run a laundry service here.”
Now, for the millionth time, Caleb cursed the car accident that killed his mom and turned him into a foster kid at such a tender age. Missing her for the last two years was like chemical lye rubbed on a wound, and it was this pain that brought disturbing dreams of ghouls and monsters to most of his nights.
But Midnight had performed magic. In the blink of an eye, she had attached herself to his core; a tiny speck of her love sticking to his heart like superglue.
He had to find her.
But things suddenly got worse when Caleb spotted something terrible.
There, on a telephone pole, was a poster of a little girl holding a dog. A Maltese terrier. It looked exactly like Midnight. The child’s name was Amber, and she lost her dog, Ivory.
Only briefly did Caleb acknowledge the irony of the dog’s name. His pain was beyond raw and abrasive, it was sandpapering all the way down to the bone. Bad enough that Midnight was gone, but now she also belonged to someone else. Shakily he slid off his bike, leaning it against the metal pole, his legs unsteady causing the rest of his body to quiver. All he could do was stand there and sob into his hands.
As the first flakes of autumn snow began to fall, something slammed into his legs. A small, soft, something, that let out an excited bark and wagged its tail. Midnight practically jumped into his arms. He was so happy, he cried even harder. After she licked every tear from his frozen face, Caleb put her down on the sidewalk and knelt to examine her, looking for any signs of an injury.
Other than a scrape on her ear, Midnight appeared to be okay. The BB gun bullet must have only scared her.
But his relief was short-lived. What about the kid on the poster?
He knew the guilt would gnaw away at him if he kept a dog that belonged to someone else.
Memorizing the phone number and digging a quarter out of his pocket, he scooped Midnight up again and headed towards a payphone across the street. Maybe, he rationalized, he’d get an ‘out of service’ message and there’d be no chance of finding Amber’s family so Midnight would have to stay with him after all. Yeah, right, he thought, and
blinked back fresh tears.
One ring, two rings, three rings, … what would he do if the answering machine came on?
On the fourth ring, the machine did come on, but it wasn’t what Caleb expected.
The message told callers that Ivory had been found and was safe at home.
And Caleb’s world suddenly felt different.
With Midnight at his side, he walked his bike towards Donald and Deborah’s place. At least he had blankets in his room along with enough hidden food for himself and for his new best friend.
But when they got there, the house was black. Specifically, a charred black, and those were only the parts that were still standing. The rest had burned down to ashes.
Smoke, thick and acrid, still hung in the air, and Caleb suddenly remembered the six hundred dollars his mom had sewn into the lining of his jacket. And the cheap motel down the road where the owner, seeing the bruises on Caleb's face, had overlooked his age, and rented him a room more than once. And where the vending machine had the best sandwiches, he’d ever tasted.
“Everything is changing,” he whispered in Midnight’s ear, planting a kiss on her head. From now on, he would slay all the monsters for her. And maybe some for himself too.
These are the typed records of the conversation between one of the local recorders and the self proclaimed hero known only by the name of Grave.
Interviewer: Remind me what was it that you did?
Grave: I saved your whole kingdom?
Interviewer: How so?
Grave: Rolling her eyes I killed the the king.
Interviewer: Are you aware that the common folk are afraid of you?
Interviewer: Why do you think that is?
Grave: Why would I know?
Interviewer: fine, let me inform you. They are scared because what you did was immoral.
Grave: So what? I did what had to be done!
Interviewer: You had to kill all those guards?
Grave: They were in my way, and besides there were only fifty of them.... or maybe seventy five... or one hundred.
Interviewer: You and your so called rebellion killed all five hundred and thirty eight of them.
Grave: It needed to be done.
Interviewer: And what of the three maids? The servant boy? The cook? And what about the five year old prince, David?
Grave: The maids were on their way to the kings chambers, the boy glared at me, and the prince screamed.
Interviewer: And that meant they had to die?
Grave: Did it let me get the job done?
Interviewer: Did it?
Grave: slamming their hands on the table and standing, causing the chair to crash to the floor. Yes. And that was all that mattered. It didn't matter how many people died to get there. The king is dead, I succeeded in my goal, you are all free.
That is when Grave left and the Reporter slumped down in her chair in defeat, their questions unanswered, but the questions they didn't want to ask, answered.
My wife and two children stared silently at the television, submerged in the latest news story splayed across the screen. The volume had increased at least three or four times since the story began. I was amazed at their laser focus and amusement with the topic.
Hello, folks. If you’re just tuning in with us, the police have found the body of a long-time drug lord and known tormentor, Marco Nicks.
“Can you believe it?” She shouted back to us wide-eyed with a mouth full. My wife remained silent, aggressively chewing her overcooked sirloin steak. I appreciated that she cooked for us every night. It’s just that the food wasn’t good. Since she’d seemed so lost in the moment, I took the lead and shrugged at our daughter’s comment.
The city has begun to shiver with the number of bodies that continue to pile up with no known leads.
Rolling my eyes at the comment, I wondered what the big deal was. All the bodies were of terrible people entangled in corruption, murder, and drugs. If anything, the city should be pleased. A small sigh seeped through my lips as I jammed more overly salted mashed potatoes into my mouth. Any fast-food restaurant would’ve been a better choice than this. “You like it?” I looked up to see m wife’s desperation. “Delicious,” I said, “may be the best meal yet.” I was, of course, lying, but I’ve gotten very good at it. The girls turned away from the television and agreed with me. I knew they were also excellent liars. They took after me.
The news switched to pictures of local pets, and the girls collected our dinner plates. The wafting smell of dawn dish soap started to seep into the living room. “Remember, I need to go in tonight for a supply order,” I said, nudging my wife as I stood. “I remember,” she said with a confident smile, “you leaving soon?”
I glanced at my watch, noticing a tiny red smear on the left side of the face. Without acknowledging it, I wiped it hard against my leg. I’d planned to leave two hours later but seeing red inspired me to head out immediately. My body grew angst. ’You know,” I said, “I’d better head out now. Then maybe I can get back sooner.”
“Good plan,” she said, kissing my cheek, “see you in the morning, my love.” I left her side and headed to the kitchen, hugging the girls goodbye.
The car rumbled as the engine started, igniting a rushing burn through my core. I knew that soon the police would find another trash body cast into the street by my hands, and we’d watch another lovely news story tomorrow night. Suppose they see it that fast. They’ve gotten slower, or perhaps I’ve gotten better. One day I’d tell my ladies the truth, but I’ll keep my little secret to myself for now. My grin widened as I exited the driveway.
For Perfection’s Sake
I did it.
It wasn’t my fault though.
He should have known not to come.
It was for the greatest good-
but it wasn‘t my fault— just remember that.
I’ll tell you the story—
but you have to promise— promise… that you'll understand why I had to.
He had the worst hair in the world— ugh— it stuck up in every direction. He wore the sloppiest clothes… never ironed them… never showered—
It wasn’t my fault—
He should have cleaned up better to perfection— my room is perfectly organized, color coordinated and alphabetically placed.
His room was always a mess— but don’t worry I fixed everything.
it wasn’t my fault he should have understood— perfection is key.
Everything is perfect now. Don’t worry, I have made everything perfect.
His shoes were so dirty. White shoes… you should have seen how I cleaned them.
it was perfect.
Oh but he didn’t want me to—
it wasn’t my fault! He knew I needed perfection.
He didn’t want perfection.
It was quick— so quick.
don’t worry— he’s gone now. I left him stranded in the woods— I left him in many parts in the woods.
It wasn’t my fault, I needed perfection. Everything is perfect.
I cleaned his room , I color coordinated and alphabetically organized everything.
I ironed his clothes—
now everything is perfect.
When they ask me why he went away—
All I say is: “for perfection’s sake.”