Native Monsters (a short story)

The first time Chris saw the centipedes crawling out from under his bed, he was sure that it was all part of his imagination. Usually, during the night, he would close his eyes tight and try to make his bedroom turn into a jungle. But for the last few nights, whenever he closed his eyes to create the jungle from the shadows cast by his nightlight, instead dangerous and horrible things would appear.

He hated centipedes the worst. Even though he knew they were imaginary, they still looked as awful as any centipedes he could remember seeing in movies or in books. They were everywhere now. But he wasn’t going to be defeated by his imagination. Not tonight. He reached down and picked up one of the centipedes. His imagination told him that it was alive and crawling all over his hand. But he wouldn’t be defeated. He took the centipede and put it in his mouth. He closed his mouth and dared his imagination to make him taste centipede.

*

She was his foster mother. This much he knew for sure. He had lived with her since the age of five. A very young age, indeed. It was hard to remember things before that age, but he did have vague memories of living someplace with other kids. If he tried hard enough, he thought he could recall a man, someone with a broad smile who was putting him up in a tree. There was nothing hostile about the action. It was the most natural thing in the world. This memory, however, was just a shadow in his mind, whereas the knowledge of his foster mother was real and ever-present.

At night, she stood in the doorframe and just looked at him. The soft glow cast by his nightlight made her into a silhouette. For a long time, his imagination worked overtime. He imagined her as some scary beast off in the distance. The room grew into a jungle. He slipped past the beast, and then he would be off on a boat by himself. He sailed off to an island. Yes, they would soon call him WILD THING. There he lived, free and unburdened by his old life. In his imagination, at this point, things became hazy. Magical, but still hopelessly obscure.

Then one night, the jungle didn’t appear and his room filled with centipedes. The silhouette of his foster mother was still there—a terrible beast, but he was no longer able to go off into the jungle to find a boat. Instead, there was just the centipedes and her.

*

The taste in his mouth had been awful. Even if it was just his imagination turning against him, there was nothing more real than the awful taste of centipedes. Now, walking across the floor, he could feel the centipedes crawling between his toes and crunching beneath his feet. Still, he had to know whether he could reach the image of the silhouette in the background, whether he could put his hand against it and knock it down like some cheap cardboard cutout.

But when he was almost there, when the silhouette was big enough for him to reach out and touch, he found himself back in his bed. There was nothing there. Not even the silhouette. He was alone in a bed that existed in a vacuum, and all he could do was open his mouth. He tried to scream, but the vacuum swallowed up the sound of his misery and scattered it across a universe of nothing.

*

He wasn’t sure what had happened, but his foster mother and father had stopped talking. In the morning, the silence dragged on forever, and then finally, he would go to school. Something was happening, but at the age of 9-going-on-10 it was hard to know exactly what anything meant or if anything was real, or if he would just melt away. The mug his foster father drank from still said “Jesus Saves!” in big broad letters with an exclamation mark. He still put the same efficient energy into getting dressed every morning. His foster mother still got up early and made their breakfast every morning. But something had turned their relationship, one of submissive loyalty by the wife toward the husband, strange and quiet.

It had been about a year since their real son, Tommy, had left to join the Army right out of high school. In a way, Chris loved Tommy. It was Tommy who had sucked up the wrath of the two adults who had seemed constantly angry and constantly struggling to show their kids they were in control. Tommy’s torture, he was sure, had been worse than his own. At first, Tommy had bullied him. Such was the natural order of things between an older and younger brother. But as time went by, it was Tommy who had taught him how to survive. He showed him how to keep his mind busy with activities, how to avoid angering the two adults, and how to avoid talking out of turn. More importantly, Tommy had given Chris the most important piece of advice through his actions—when it was time to go, it was time to go.

Outwardly, they tried to project themselves as kind and charitable. But as young as Chris was, he couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t think of his foster parents as angry people. Everything they did projected anger and control. He avoided the new couch, which was still wrapped in plastic, to avoid stains. They threw out his cereal boxes and put the cereal in plastic containers to keep out germs. The house was clean beyond reason. There wasn’t a day he didn’t come home and his nostrils didn’t burn from the smell of Pine-Sol.

These things he could handle on most days.

But lately, he came home from school and silence filled up the house. He didn’t know what to make of this silence, the anger that followed, any of it. He found himself going outside more and more to play. But he wasn’t supposed to go anywhere beyond their block of the street. He found his foster mother watching him from the window. Some of the kids who were a year or two older than Chris told him that they were going down to the pier and asked if he would like to join them.

Chris couldn’t. Not with his mother looking out the window at him.

Chris wasn’t allowed to climb trees, either. There was a large one in the front yard of the house, with a long branch that extended outward. Once, in his boldness, he had asked if a swing could be put on it like their neighbors a few yards down had. His foster mother had looked to his foster father, who replied simply, “No.” When he asked if he could climb the tree, his foster father replied similarly with the same simple word. Instead, Chris looked at the tree and wondered if the vague memory of the man with a broad smile was a real memory or something he had made up.

*

They had always known that Chris was deviant. He had come that way from the orphanage. Sometimes his foster father would spank him for his misdeeds. Sometimes it was worse. But there was only so far they could go. Later he realized that they were afraid of his caseworker at the Department of Family Services. Sometimes, Chris would have to read Scripture out loud for hours. He couldn’t pronounce all the words exactly right. But his foster father would stand and watch him, and then eventually, once he started crying, the man would say simply, “That’s enough.”

Chris had continued to suck his thumb throughout elementary school. Eventually, though, after his foster father had weaned him off this practice through spankings and Scripture readings, he developed the habit of opening his mouth as widely as he could. He didn’t scream for real. He just pretended like the sound coming out of his mouth was an awful scream. First, it was a scream of agony. Later, as he grew older, his scream became a roar of defiance. He opened his mouth wide and tried to let it out. Eventually, the jungle appeared in his dreams. He went there, and with the monsters, with their horrible teeth and horrible claws, there was nothing but screaming and yelling.

*

Though he couldn’t be sure, Chris thought that his foster mother had it worse. Sometimes he thought he could hear her whimpering in her room.

Sometimes he heard them arguing. His foster father wanted her to think only of the Holy Ghost, but the truth was that she sometimes sat on the couch or on the porch and saw ghosts. Not the holy kind, just ghosts.

And then one night, long before the silence started, he started to see the image of his foster mother as a silhouette in his doorframe at night. At first, he could imagine her as some kind of monster out in the distance. After a while, though, he couldn’t imagine anything. She was just in the doorframe. Sometimes the centipedes came and sometimes they wouldn’t. Either way, he opened his mouth to scream—he screamed silently because he didn’t have anything to counter the silence.

*

Then one day, the jungle came to him without even trying. He had all but given up on his imagination. He half-expected his foster mother to come and stand in the doorframe of his room, the nightlight casting an ominous glow. But she didn’t. Instead, the jungle appeared, green and lush. He was a WILD THING again.

Suddenly, all of the other things seemed arbitrary, pointless. His mother coming to watch him at night. The angry silence of the house. The rules against him going past their street block. What did it all matter? He was a WILD THING. He found himself wading through the jungle. In the back of his mind, he knew he was really leaving the house. But what did he care? He knew he had been something before he had come to this place. And he would now be that thing again. The boat would be waiting for him at the pier. It would take him to the island where he could continue his real life with the other monsters.

*

He had a backpack full of clothes. He took a few canned goods with pop-top lids from the pantry, along with some Pop-Tarts and some other snack food. He did this very quietly, but it occurred to him that if his foster mother or foster father found him, if they raised their voices, he would have no choice but to attack. He would fight to the death. There would be no other way.

It would all be over soon, he kept thinking. And then he was at the dock. But where he expected to find the boat, he instead found the monsters. Native monsters. With horrible teeth and horrible noses and horrible claws. The horrible monsters let out their horrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth, but when it was all over, he was still there. He roared the loudest, and they all cringed before him. It was just like in the book, only these monsters were real.

There were no menacing silhouettes that night. Under the dock, he slept in the cool air and listened to the ocean. He knew he couldn’t hide forever. In the morning, his foster parents would call the police and have them look for him. Yes, his foster parents would find him. And they would scream and roar, but he would show them what they had feared all along. He would show them with his terrible roar and his terrible teeth, and more importantly, his terrible friends, that he was the WILD THING. He would roar and go wild in ways that would make their silence impossible.

He would say things, and do things, and throw things that would make it impossible for them ever to take him back. And that was the point. They would take him to be with all the other WILD THINGS in the jungle where he belonged.

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