Last April, I wrote a short story with a character called Ramsey who lives in a world where monsters are real and only your blanket will protect you when they prowl in the night. It turns out that Ramsey isn’t done with her story, so I’m happy to bring you the second part of her tale today. (Pssst, if you missed the first part, you can find it right here.)
I killed my first monster when I was three, and Mother said we shouldn’t speak on it. But she couldn’t tell me what to think. My thoughts were all my own.
It was during my third year at the schoolhouse by the field of violets that I asked Teacher, “Where do monsters come from?”
“From our closets!” Called a girl in my class named Gudytha.
Teacher, sitting at her desk, pulled off her spectacles and laid them on the cherry wood. She came around and faced the whole class. Her blanket, a raggedy thing that might have once been green but had turned grey with age, was folded neatly at the corner of her desk. I never saw her more than an arm’s reach away from that blanket.
She laced her fingers together and sighed. “The more you know, the more you’ll be afraid.”
From my desk, her shoulders seemed to curve up at the ends and I could see her nose hairs. She reminded me of a hawk that was always ready to take to the sky.
Teacher started again. “We have one story about where the monsters come from. At the end of world, over the great waters, balanced on the precipice—”
“What’s a precipice?” Asked Francine.
Fortune and Frideswide giggled on either side of her.
“Precipice means the edge of something,” Teacher answered. She cleared her throat. “Balanced on the precipice of the infinitely falling waterfalls that are the edge of the world, there is a cave. This cave winds down below the waters and into the darkness, where no fire can light the way. And at the bottom of the cave, there is a great green crystal.
“Children, when you wake up from a nightmare, and return to your sleep, and the nightmare is gone, that is because it has left you. When a nightmare leaves us, it flies away like smoke and goes to this cave. Nightmares have no eyes, so they have no need for fire to see by. When they reach the crystal, they go inside of it. More nightmares come and enter the crystal. When the crystal is full of nightmares, a monster is born.
“That is where monsters come from.”
I shot my hand up but I didn’t wait for her to look at me or call my name. “What if no one had nightmares?” I asked. “Would the monsters stop being born?”
Francine, Fortune and Frideswide all laughed.
“You can’t—” Francine said.
“—get rid of—” Fortune said.
“—the monsters!” Frideswide said.
I remember looking at them and thinking that they were three heads of the same snake. Francine, Fortune and Frideswide were all pretty girls, and best friends. One of them was blonde, one brunette, and one red haired. But for all the salt I’m worth, I can’t remember which was which. It doesn’t really matter. You probably know girls like these. They were lovely and social, unlike me. Everyone wanted to be with them, unlike me. And, of course, they would date the sort of boys that a girl like me would haplessly fall in love with.
Teach quieted the trio. “They are correct, Ramsey. We can’t get rid of the monsters.”
“But I did! I killed one in my room when I was three.”
The whole class, except for a dark skinned boy name Oshbuert, erupted into laughter.
“Ramsey!” Teacher spoke like a whip. “You must not lie like that. You will stay with me after class.”
“It’s not a lie!” I was young and couldn’t understand why she would think I had lied. “I tied it up with my blanket because I wasn’t afraid of it. It burned when the sun rose. I don’t want to hide from them.”
Teacher smacked the desk with her hand. “Ramsey! You will stop these lies and I am never to hear of you killing monsters again. Understand me? Everyone in this room is afraid of monsters. I am, your classmates are, and everyone you’ll ever meet cowers under their blankets at night. Fear is the natural order of life.”
I stopped objecting to her. In fact, I said less than a dozen sentences in that schoolhouse after she fed me that line about fear being the natural order.
At the end of the day, everyone put on their sun goggles and another boy showed off his new steam powered watch. The thing was brass and ornate and it took up half his arm and he wouldn’t stop repeating how expensive it had been and that his father hadn’t even cared. In the end, the boys tied their boots and the girls laced up their practice waist corsets, and everyone chattered on about what they would buy at the penny store on their way home.
But I remained at my desk, head hung. My hands cupped my face and I cried quietly. Maybe if I was silent and small enough, everyone would forget I was in trouble. Maybe they would forget I ever existed at all.
A small dark hand appeared on my desk. Oshbuert. He had black hair and his eyes were the same shade of brown as the chocolate Mother had given me for my last birthday.
“Hi, Osh.” I wished he would leave me alone. I didn’t want anyone to see me crying.
“I… I just want to say that I wish I was brave like you.”
Fortune squealed behind us. “Did you hear that? Osh-BUTT has a girlfriend!”
I buried my head further as the class laughed and mocked him.
“Do you like her?”
“Do you love her?”
“Are you going to marry her and have little freak-brave babies?”
“She doesn’t even have pretty hair!”
I heard Osh’s footsteps as he ran out of the schoolhouse and our teasing schoolmates followed him.
I could have died from the shame. I wanted to curl up into myself, disappear, and be forgotten forever.
“Ramsey,” Teacher said gently.
I wiped my tears and a line of snot ran up my arm. She walked over and handed me a handkerchief. “Clean yourself up, dear.”
“Do you see the coal bucket by the steam heater?”
It was as big as I was and higher than my waist. It would have been a nice place to hide.
“There is more coal in the cellar.” She placed a much smaller bucket on my desk. “Fill up the large bucket, please. Then you may go.”
I picked up the smaller bucket and walked toward the cellar door.
“Don’t forget your blanket,” Teacher said.
I went back and grabbed it.
Teacher sat at her desk, hunched over our recent spelling tests. She used one finger to tap her own blanket. “We must always be ready to hide.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I descended down the creaky cellar steps. It was too dark to see the whole room, but I made out some old tables and chairs and a cog-work clock that ticked unevenly. There was one crack of light, coming from the hatch in the ceiling that led outside. The light revealed a giant pile of coal and a large gathering of dust at the side of the pile.
I picked up pieces of coal, one by one, and let them clatter to the bottom of my bucket. Teacher never said I had to do my task quietly.
The pile of dust moved.
I wasn’t sure it was real. I dropped another piece of coal into the bucket.
A pair of red eyes opened and stared at me. The dust shifted, gathered, and rose like a pillar. I grabbed my blanket and jumped onto the coal. “Monster!”
Two hands, blacker than death, reached for my neck.
“Monster in the cellar!” I yelled and continued to climb over the mountain of coal toward the hatch door that led outside. The monster entered the thin strip of light and a tiny flame appeared above it’s eyes.
The hands came closer and I wrapped my blanket around them.
Teacher screamed from halfway down the steps.
“Open the hatch,” I cried.
She disappeared back upstairs.
The monster came closer. A hole appeared below it’s eyes, a sort of mouth. It opened and then it opened wider. Wider and wider until it was the size of my torso.
I dropped to my knees and rolled to the side. The monster, still tied up in my blanket, fell with me. It’s evil red eyes looked up at the ceiling. I forced my arms into the coal and felt some of my skin rip on the jagged edges. The maneuver had wrapped my blanket around the monster’s neck.
The hatch opened and the cellar was flooded with sunlight. The monster burst into flames and I yanked my blanket away. The blaze was intense but short.
“Ramsey!” Teacher reached down for me. “The coal. Take my hand!”
I took her hand, but I studied where the monster had died. Nothing was left of it but black ash and red embers. But, no, as I look closer, the embers weren’t from the monster, it was the coal. The heat of the monster burning had set the coal on fire. Teacher latched onto my outstretched arms and pulled me up. I scrambled onto the grass and sat outside the schoolhouse, clutching my blanket and shaking, trying very hard to catch my breath.
Teacher sat with me. Beside us, the schoolhouse was already on fire. “You can’t get rid of all the monsters,” she said, her hands and blanket clutched above her heart. “There will always be more.”
I thought of the green crystal and the cave where all the nightmares went. “Maybe there doesn’t have to be.”