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I Was Her Monster
I started acting as Libba's full-time monster when she turned three -- a long thirteen years ago. I
had, of course, been assigned to her at her birth, but a monster isn't much good to an infant. I
popped in now and then while her age was still counted in months, but once she was old enough
follow the rules of hide-n-seek, I knew it was time to stick around. I've been by her side, day-and-night, ever since. I thought we'd been a happy pair -- until a
certain rainy afternoon in late September. "I have an announcement, and you're not going to like it," Libba said, her arms crossed over her
flat chest, her brow pinched. It was a posture usually reserved for browbeating Mom into trips to
the mall. "I am not going trick-or-treating this year and you cannot talk me into it, so we might as
well not even have the conversation." I dropped the sock I'd been about to devour. "I don't understand." She picked up my dropped sock, matched it with a mate and threw it into her brother's hamper.
"Maybe because you're choosing not to understand." She widened her stance and I half expected her to bring up her fists. "I'm sixteen years old. Too
old for trick-or-treating." I folded two shirts simultaneously, using different sets of legs and saying nothing. She'd been
moody and difficult ever since she'd started eleventh grade. I determined not to be baited,
particularly over something as immovable as trick-or-treating. "I'm not going trick-or-treating. I'm not a kid anymore." She folded a pair of underwear dotted
with hearts and rainbows. I gestured to myself with half of my legs. "I beg to differ." The very presence of my large, furry
body in her living room declared her childhood status to the world. Adults did not have monsters. Libba mumbled something behind a pair of acid-washed jeans. "Just say what you have to say." She refused to meet my eyes. "You're a fluke." "Excuse me?!" While it was highly unusual for a sixteen-year-old girl to still have her childhood
monster trailing her into her junior year of high school -- we disappeared at puberty -- I would
not be called names. I drew up to the full height of my eight spindly legs. "I am not a fluke, I'm a blessing. You're
lucky, Ms. Libba Ruiz Moreno, and don't you forget it. Who else gets to keep their monster this
long into high school?" "Hello? Ara? That's the problem," she said. "I'm tired of being a freak. The freak and the fluke.
I'm ready for people to start treating me like an adult." "You won't like it nearly as much as you think." Her tan face flushed and her hands shook. She stuffed them into her pockets. "You don't know
everything about me, Ara! I will like being an adult. I will like having hips and boobs and
responsibilities. I want to get a job at the mall and I want to go on dates and have a gir --" She
stopped abruptly. "Girlfriend." I whispered the word. I'd known for a long time, but she had always been too shy or
too scared or just too young to say it aloud. Still, I knew. Of course I knew. I was her monster, I
knew every beautiful corner of her. "How . . . ?" "I heard you talking to Emily once. About a kiss?" More than just her cheeks were flushed now. She was red from her hairline to her scrawny chest.
"You don't know everything!" She stomped out of the room. "I know we're going trick-or-treating!" I called after her. I had already ordered our costumes.
by Jessi Cole Jackson
Artwork by Wayne Miller
I started acting as Libba's full-time monster when she turned three -- a long thirteen years ago. I had, of course, been assigned to her at her birth, but a monster isn't much good to an infant. I popped in now and then while her age was still counted in months, but once she was old enough follow the rules of hide-n-seek, I knew it was time to stick around.
I've been by her side, day-and-night, ever since. I thought we'd been a happy pair -- until a certain rainy afternoon in late September.
"I have an announcement, and you're not going to like it," Libba said, her arms crossed over her flat chest, her brow pinched. It was a posture usually reserved for browbeating Mom into trips to the mall. "I am not going trick-or-treating this year and you cannot talk me into it, so we might as well not even have the conversation."
I dropped the sock I'd been about to devour. "I don't understand."
She picked up my dropped sock, matched it with a mate and threw it into her brother's hamper. "Maybe because you're choosing not to understand."
She widened her stance and I half expected her to bring up her fists. "I'm sixteen years old. Too old for trick-or-treating."
I folded two shirts simultaneously, using different sets of legs and saying nothing. She'd been moody and difficult ever since she'd started eleventh grade. I determined not to be baited, particularly over something as immovable as trick-or-treating.
"I'm not going trick-or-treating. I'm not a kid anymore." She folded a pair of underwear dotted with hearts and rainbows.
I gestured to myself with half of my legs. "I beg to differ." The very presence of my large, furry body in her living room declared her childhood status to the world. Adults did not have monsters.
Libba mumbled something behind a pair of acid-washed jeans.
"Just say what you have to say."
She refused to meet my eyes. "You're a fluke."
"Excuse me?!" While it was highly unusual for a sixteen-year-old girl to still have her childhood monster trailing her into her junior year of high school -- we disappeared at puberty -- I would not be called names.
I drew up to the full height of my eight spindly legs. "I am not a fluke, I'm a blessing. You're lucky, Ms. Libba Ruiz Moreno, and don't you forget it. Who else gets to keep their monster this long into high school?"
"Hello? Ara? That's the problem," she said. "I'm tired of being a freak. The freak and the fluke. I'm ready for people to start treating me like an adult."
"You won't like it nearly as much as you think."
Her tan face flushed and her hands shook. She stuffed them into her pockets. "You don't know everything about me, Ara! I will like being an adult. I will like having hips and boobs and responsibilities. I want to get a job at the mall and I want to go on dates and have a gir --" She stopped abruptly.
"Girlfriend." I whispered the word. I'd known for a long time, but she had always been too shy or too scared or just too young to say it aloud. Still, I knew. Of course I knew. I was her monster, I knew every beautiful corner of her.
"How . . . ?"
"I heard you talking to Emily once. About a kiss?"
More than just her cheeks were flushed now. She was red from her hairline to her scrawny chest. "You don't know everything!" She stomped out of the room.
"I know we're going trick-or-treating!" I called after her.
I had already ordered our costumes.
A month later, I laid curled up on Libba's giant fuchsia-colored beanbag listening to her sing off-key and bop around our room as I tried not to moan out my sickness.
The doorbell rang.
Libba danced down the hall. I imagined her sliding around corners in her mis-matched stockinged feet.
Her greeting to the bell-ringer was so enthusiastic I could hear it from my sickbed in her room, but it was followed by only murmuring. A few moments later, Libba came in with a huge grin on her face and an even larger package in her hands.
I watched through a single cracked eyelid.
"What is it?"
Libba dropped the large box and it hit ground with a whomp.
"I don't know, but it's for us!" Moody and distant for months . . . Of course the day I felt like I'd been sprayed with Raid was the day Libba was giddy and playful.
She nudged my second left foot.
"Ara, it's mail!"
I moved in my very best impersonation of a shrug.
"Don't feel good," I mumbled again.
"Belly ache?" Libba asked.
"No," I moaned.
"Headache?" Libba asked.
"No," I groaned.
"Feetache?" Libba asked.
Libba plopped down on the yellow, daisy-patterned rug between the box and me. "But you only get sick when I'm sick, Ara. And I feel great."
Libba's worry was a bright spot on a dark, cloudy day, and I snuggled into the love I felt for the first time in months. Our relationship grew rocky as I became more and more a symbol of Libba's inability to grow up as fast as she wanted to.
"You're so happy today," I said, all eyes closed again. If I hadn't felt like someone had stepped on me, I would have been more tentative. Her mood could swing quick and hard these days, and I didn't want to get whacked by it.
"Oh," she said and sighed a little, "I didn't think you'd noticed."
I cracked open an eye and she pointed to her jeans, which were tight all the way down and stopped at an awkward place between the floor and her ankles.
"Did Dominic run out of clean boxers again?" Running out of underwear was pretty much the only time Libba's brother ever did laundry -- something the rest of the family was grateful for, as it almost always resulted in ruined garments. He was particularly skilled at ruining everyone's favorite something in the same load.
For one moment, I felt as if the invisible anvil squishing me had lifted. Libba's laughter was my favorite sound in the world.
"Nooo . . . I grew!"
I looked at her pants, well off the floor.
"A lot! And look --" she pointed to a faint red dot on her cheek. "I have a zit. A real zit!"
"Huh," I said. I hadn't noticed any of these things. I shrank into the beanbag, holding my queasy stomach. I was the worst monster in the whole world.
"Soon you'll be wearing bras . . ." I said.
"Right?! I can't wait. Sixteen and still in trainers. Pathetic."
I stifled a sniffle. Growing up was what she wanted most in the world, but I couldn't bring myself to be happy for her.
She placed a small warm hand on my furry back. "Ara, what's wrong?"
"You can tell me," she said, her voice full of tenderness. Today, my old, sweet Libba was back.
"I think maybe I don't feel well," I said, "because you're growing up."
Her eyes darted away from me and she bit her lip.
Had I ruined everything? We were finally talking, after months of skirting around each other. But then she shook her head and forced her bright smile back.
"No, I don't think that could be it," she said. "You must have some sort of monster flu. If we opened the box -- would that help you feel better?"
"It wouldn't make me feel worse," I said and cracked more eyes open. Despite feeling like death, I was curious.
She grabbed a metal nail file and dragged it along the taped seams.
I uncurled some of my legs out from under me and sat up a little higher.
"Oh." Her happy, smiling face fell as she held up a suit covered in bright yellow feathers.
"Ooh, our Halloween costumes!" I said and sat up a bit higher. "Hold up mine!"
She set aside the feathers and pulled a pile of white fleece with speckles on its top and bottom. "What is it?" she asked, visibly distressed.
"You're a chicken," I said, "And I'm an egg!"
"You don't like it?" I asked.
She looked away, then back to me, then away again. She played with a red plastic bangle that she'd just found on the floor. "I really didn't want to do the Halloween thing this year."
She seemed as reluctant as I was to restart the argument that we'd been having on-and-off for the last month.
"I've been thinking about that," I said. "I know you don't want to go trick-or-treating, but I thought maybe we could wear them to the school dance. A compromise."
Her eyes got round and she dropped the bangle. She gulped. "I . . . well . . . okay, I suppose."
I sank back down into my beanbag. "Don't people dress up?"
"They do . . . but I planned to go as something pretty or mysterious this year." She laughed, but this wasn't a nice, happy version of a laugh. It sounded strained. "A chicken isn't exactly sexy."
My heart sank. I thought she'd like these costumes. We always went as a pair and I thought this was a clever take on the question that'd been popping up in the news a lot lately: who came into the world first, the monsters or their children? Besides, I'd look great as an egg. Round was the perfect silhouette for my figure.
"I was hoping to impress Grace," she said.
"I don't think I know Grace."
"Yes, you do."
I didn't argue. I closed my eyes and curled my legs back up underneath me on the squishy bag.
"I'm sorry, Ara," Libba said. "Why don't you rest? We can talk about it again when you're feeling better."
She gave me a soft kiss just above my eyes. It was good to have my sweet Libba back, even if she did want to be sexy for some girl named Grace. As much as I hated her growing up, I had to admit it was natural and long past time.
But how long now before I popped out of existence?
The next day I dragged myself to school. The world still seemed to blur around the edges. Walking down the hall looked a lot more like a zombie's shuffle than my usual skitter. Everyone must've thought I was contagious because no one spoke or even looked at me.
"Congratulations, Libba," Ms. Posila said as we came into first period physics. "You can move her stool to the back of the room."
Libba cocked her head and frowned, but said, "Thank you, Ms. Posila."
"What'd you do?" I whispered. Ms. Posila didn't like us monsters much, so I tried to keep as low a profile as possible. A difficult task when you're three times wider than everyone else.
She shrugged and we wandered over to her group's table, getting settled just before the bell rang.
Ms. Posila called roll, pointedly leaving me off, but whatever. She could leave me off if she wanted. It's not like I was the type of monster who snuck out of class and TP'ed the teacher's lounge.
Besides, we were busy. This was the last week to settle on a design and build our egg protection system. We'd been working on the problem since the beginning of school, and Friday was the big day. Five more days and we dropped an egg from the top of the school's roof. We only passed the class if it didn't break from the two-story fall.
Not that montsters got grades. Going onto the roof excited me more than actually dropping the egg.
"Congrats," Akemi whispered to Libba while Ms. Posila droned on.
Libba smiled awkwardly.
When Ms. Posila stopped talking, Heino started: "Little Libba's finally growing up. How's it feel to be without --?"
Libba interrupted. "If we decide to do the wooden box, my dad can make it."
"If we're going with the box with the cushioned interior, we have to give Dad very specific dimensions," I said, "Don't forget the table incident."
Libba laughed, remembering the first large woodworking project Dad had built. It had taken up the entire dining room with no room for chairs. Mom left it there for awhile to be supportive, but eventually insisted he remove the massive table and resize the thing so the family could all actually use the room.
Akemi, Brandon, Giovannia and Heino all looked at Libba like she was crazy.
"What?" she said, but they just put their heads back down and went to task, sketching out possibilities and arguing about costs and effectiveness. Libba joined them after a beat, and I sat back, content to observe and drift in and out of a nap. They were content to ignore me.
On the way out of the lab, Chura pulled me aside. Chura was a frog-type monster, the companion to a small, serious-faced boy. He was the only other monster in eleventh grade.
"They can't see you, Ara," Chura said.
"The other students can't see you. That's why they kept ignoring you during class. You're fading around the edges, even for me. Didn't Libba tell you? I'm sure she can see it."
"Female monsters don't fade. We pop." Chura was seriously confused. Everyone knew boys' monsters faded as they slowly eased through puberty. Girls' monsters popped out existence with little warning. One moment you're there, making jokes or eating socks . . . the next -- Poof! You're gone.
Libba turned to look for me further down the hall. I waved a leg. She paused for a moment and I was sure she'd come back. We always walked to class together. Instead, she scrunched her mouth, turned, and hustled away in the opposite direction.
"Where's she going?"
"Probably to class," Chura said.
"But . . . but we always walk together," I said. My shaky voice matched Libba's expression. My head pounded and I was worried that Chura was right, even if it did defy all the monster laws. Female monsters just didn't fade, but no one besides Libba and Chura had interacted with me all day. This morning Mom hadn't even gotten me a cereal bowl.
"She's walking without you because she thinks you're gone," Chura said. "I told you she could see you fading."
I scurried after Libba. If I was fading -- if Chura was right -- then at least she could still see me. I wasn't gone yet. I would take advantage of not popping and spend my last few moments with my favorite person in this world.
It took me an hour to find Libba tucked away in a corner of the school's library. It used to be her favorite place, but she hadn't spent any real time in the library in years.
Her cheeks were streaked with tears.
I scuttled closer. "What's wrong, Lib?"
"Noth -- nothing." She choked on her words, or possibly snot.
She put her head on her knees and wrapped her arms around herself. I rubbed her back.
"You can talk to me, chickadee."
She sobbed. "You're fading!"
I signed "yes," to nod. She didn't see it, with her eyes closed tight and pressed against her legs.
"You're fading," she said again and it sounded like she was mourning the death of her favorite star. Deep, dark despair flowed through her and into me.
"I know," I said, "But, hey, we knew this day would come. And fading is better than popping, right? Although it's awfully weird. We have some time. That's nice, right?" I rubbed her back some more.
I wanted to cry too.
"But . . . but it's my fault," she said.
I snorted. "Of course it's not your fault. You're growing up, Lib! It's normal. It happens to all the best humans."
She raised her head and reached to hold one of my feet, like she used to when she was little. She looked into my eyes -- first one and then another and another and another. "No, Ara, it's my fault. It is literally my fault." She squeezed my foot. "I went to the doctor. She gave me pills to start puberty."
"What?" I pulled away from her a little.
"I went to the doctor this summer. Mom and I were concerned that I was so little. The doctor agreed. She gave me these pills. I think maybe that's why you're fading. I haven't actually had my period yet, but my body's changing."
I took a full step back and her hands fell away. I rotated side-to-side, shaking my body 'no.' I signed 'no.' I tried to say something, but couldn't form the words. I didn't ask why. I didn't ask anything.
"Ara, look at me," she said, gesturing to her stick thin body, "I'm so much smaller than everyone else. I'm sixteen years old and I don't have boobs! I can't wear real bras. I don't have hips or my period." She glanced away. "I want to grow up, Ara. I want to look like a woman. Who will ever notice me when I still look like a kid?"
I took another step away and found my voice. "You traded me for boobs? For a chance to have pain and lose blood once a month? For a date? Those things don't make you a woman. They don't make you an adult."
She picked at a loose thread on the hem of her t-shirt. She wasn't crying, but she still looked miserable.
I smirked, glad of her misery for the first time in our lives. I looked at her closely. Her new zit and her slightly longer legs. Her hips had rounded ever so slightly, and her waist had narrowed.
"I don't want to lose you, Ara. If I could --"
"Stop." I held up a foot. "Just don't."
She whined. "But I want to explain." Normally her wheedling got what she wanted, but not today. Not now.
"What could you possibly say?" I gestured to my body, sore from the fading. I looked solid to myself, but I knew from Chura that Libba must see me as hazy. "Nature would have taken me from you eventually, Libba. You chose now, and it's making me sick and causing me pain. You're killing me because you wanted boobs."
"I'm not!" Now she was shaking her head, rocking back and forth. "I am not killing you!"
"Then what's happening to me?" I asked.
She couldn't answer. She couldn't know. No one really knew.
When she spoke again, her voice was soft. "I'm sorry, Ara. I thought I could have both."
It was a lie. I could hear the falseness ringing through her words.
"Ara, let me explain. I want you to understand."
"I understand! You wanted to grow up. You were willing to sacrifice me early to do it. I get it." I started to walk away. I couldn't deal with her. I couldn't deal with any of this.
But a few steps away, I turned back around. I didn't know how long the fading would last or if I would pop in the next five minutes. I hugged her and whispered in her ear, "I love you, chickadee. I always have. I will for as long as I'm able."
And then, for the first time in our lives, I walked away from Libba Ruiz Moreno.
Two days later, I was gone. When I woke up on that bright, sunshiny Wednesday morning, Libba could not find me, even though I laid curled up on the beanbag, same as ever. She panicked, looking everywhere as I did my best to comfort her. But she couldn't hear me, see me, or feel my touch.
She wailed her mourning, upsetting the rest of her family, though they allowed her grief without interference.
I followed her to school the same as always. And when we arrived, not even the other monsters -- Chura and the others from lower grades -- said hi or nodded a greeting.
Libba continued to receive congratulations left and right, from friends and strangers, students and teachers. The whole world, apparently, was ready to welcome her in its adultness -- glad I was finally gone, as if I had been a parasite instead of a monster. Libba accepted the hollers of joy and pats on the back with a strained smile, and my heart swelled a bit at her obvious distress.
Libba walked through the day blotchy and sniffly from all the tears she shed when no one was watching.
On the walk home, Libba was wiping her nose with the back of her hand while absently watching her feet shuffle across the sidewalk when someone grabbed her from behind. She stumbled, only staying upright because of a strong arm wrapped tightly around her waist.
I whirled to confront her attacker.
Emily walked right through me.
"Hey, Libba." Emily sneered. She was broad-shouldered, with greenish blonde hair from too many hours spent at swim practice.
Libba tried to pull away. "Let go of me, Emily."
"You used to call me Em."
Libba scoffed and turned her face away from her old crush. Emily ran the fingers of her free hand through Libba's dark curls.
"Leave me alone." The top of Libba's head barely reached Emily's shoulder. "Why are you even talking to me now? We haven't talked in a month. You ended things with me."
With a sudden twist, Libba wrenched herself free, but she only managed one small step.
Instead, Emily stepped forward, so close their bodies mashed together. When Libba took a half step back, Emily grabbed Libba's arms and held her in place.
"That monster of yours was always glaring at me," Emily said, "We could barely talk. I couldn't kiss you. What was the point?"
I tried to wedge myself between them, but I passed through them instead.
"Go to the Halloween dance with me," Emily said.
I whispered, "Good girl, Libba!" But even my encouragement went unnoticed.
"You know you want to," Emily said, "Just come with me."
Libba bit her lip and glanced away to the side, not making eye contact with Emily. But she didn't crumple or give in to Emily's demands either.
Still, I wanted her away from Emily. I got in Emily's face, standing exactly where Libba stood, so that she was enveloped by my insubstantial body. I yelled at Emily to back off. I tried to push at her shoulders.
Neither girl heard or felt me.
Emily brought her face closer to Libba's and Libba leaned away as much as possible. But Emily's grasp was firm. She leaned in.
"Why are you doing this?" Libba asked.
"To remind you that you like me. You've apparently forgotten."
"You're hurting me."
"You like me, just admit it," Emily said, cajoling.
"I liked you," Libba said, "Past tense." Her voice shook every-so-slightly, but her expression was stony.
Emily glared. Her lips hovered a mere inch from Libba's. "You still like me. I see the way you watch me in the hallway." She dipped her head.
I tried to pull Emily away, but she only shivered.
"You like this." Emily pressed her body even closer, if that was possible.
"I do not. I do not like this. Let me go," Libba said.
Emily kissed her -- a rough, angry kiss. Libba jerked away, but Emily was much larger, much stronger.
"Stop it!" I screeched. "Stop. Stop. Stop it." I shrieked and shouted until I was practically hoarse. And then, unnoticed, I crumpled into a ball beside the sidewalk.
I was a ghost, and as effective as one. I couldn't push Emily or growl at her to go away. I couldn't protect my Libba, and I had always, always protected her before.
When Emily finished her kiss she said, "You liked that."
Libba spat at her.
Rage twisted Emily's face and she let go of Libba with her right hand, drawing back as if to smack her.
I stood. Reached with two legs and grabbed Emily's hair. And I pulled as hard as I could.
I had never pulled anyone's hair before, and based on my ineffectual shoves earlier, I didn't expect it to work. But Emily jerked when I yanked. She lost her grip on Libba's arm and fell backward, landing with a thump on the cement.
She whipped her head around, eyes wide. Her mouth made a small little 'o.'
Libba shivered and rubbed her arms where Emily had clutched her. Then she smiled her first smile in days. She began laughing.
"Ara," she whispered. Just loud enough for me to hear.
"Yes," I said.
"What?!" Emily reached out a hand for help up from the sidewalk. "What's so funny?"
Libba crossed her arms. "It's Ara."
Emily hauled herself up. "Your stupid spider? She disappeared. She's dead."
"Is she?" Libba asked, "Or is she just invisible to your ignorant, stupid face? Maybe she just wasn't here before, but she's caught up now. She's here now. Maybe she always will be. And she doesn't like you."
Emily opened her mouth to speak, but Libba interrupted. "Go away, Emily."
And she did. Emily slunk off into the afternoon sun.
I did a little dance and hugged Libba.
"Ara?" Libba whispered. "Is that you?"
I squeezed her tighter, willing her to feel my embrace.
She spoke to a spot just to the left of my eyes. "I miss you, Ara."
Then she turned, headed home.
"I'm sorry I made you a shadow," Libba said for the hundredth time. It was Halloween.
She stood at the edge of the black-and-orange-decorated school gym. Behind her hung a clump of cotton batting, the sorriest impersonation of a spider's web I'd ever laid eyes on. Libba wore the ugly, feathered, chicken suit, though she had drawn the line at the oversized plastic feet, wearing ballet flats instead. She did not look sexy, but she was adorable with her little face surrounded by neon yellow feathers. The color was surprisingly flattering on her.
"It's okay," I said. I continued to answer her when she spoke to me, even if she couldn't hear. Despite my objections, she'd stopped taking the pills that encouraged her ascent into puberty.
She obviously hoped I would come back completely.
I didn't, of course.
When my emotions were particularly volatile, it seemed I could move objects, and she became more sensitive to my presence and my touch. It wasn't our old relationship, and I didn't know how long it would last, but I think we were both content with our new status. I could still protect and comfort her when the going got tough. For me, that was enough.
"Ara! Look over there!" She pointed into the sea of students in the crowded gymnasium.
Who or what she was pointing at, I had no idea.
"Over there! That's her." Libba's laugh sounded like a glass wind-chime on a spring morning. It made me smile to hear, but I had no idea who she was pointing at.
"It's Grace. Don't you think she's cute? She's in my geometry class and she's super smart. Remember her? I think she likes me." Libba tried not to move her lips while she babbled.
I stretched to see. Half the kids were dressed in costume and half in normal, everyday clothes. A few girls tottered on super-high heels with too-short, sparkly dresses and devil horn headbands.
Libba stood out in her silly chicken costume.
She squeaked. "She's coming over."
And then I saw her.
A pretty girl just barely taller than Libba with a dark, inky complexion and sparkling eyes walking toward us.
She was dressed as an egg.
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