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The Illness

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What if the monsters you feared as a child were real? And what if you could use them to get back at the adults who never believed you?

Courtney Herz
Age Rating:

The Illness

The monsters came again at midnight that night, just as they always did. (Though time has separated me from my childhood by many years, the memories remain vivid.) I had long since abandoned my cries for my mother and father because, at this point, they only offered me furrowed brows, angry words, and accusations, none of which helped. If anything it made the monsters more ferocious. Sometimes more would gather, as though to observe the show.

And so, as I did nearly every night, I pulled the blanket up over my head, shut my eyes tighter than I thought was possible, and kept a flashlight on. After all, every child knows that this is the standard formula for keeping the monsters at bay.

I could hear them. They always made loud, ferocious noises and this only furthered my confusion surrounding what I had, at six years old, termed Adult Deafness. They could never hear the monsters. Or see them, for that matter, which I supposed made a case for the existence of Adult Blindness, as well.

The monsters made noises that sounded much like a language. It was a cacophony of snarls, salivation, choking, snapping, and gurgling. Sometimes I passed the time by making up stories as to what they might be saying. Perhaps gernalishk meant "She's alone!" Or rarnakisks bleks meant "The guardians disbelieve!" Which, of course, referred to my parents. Every child also knows that parents are the first line of defense against the monsters. If they check the closets and under the bed, they expose the created nature of the beasts and the beasts cannot appear.

But the children who are forced to resign to blankets and flashlights and glue=sealed eyes are the ones who also know that disbelieving and angry guardians open the floodgates for the monsters. Were the ones who understood far too soon in life that setting your own boundaries, in my case cloth and linen, was the only real way to keep yourself safe.

I could feel the waffle pattern of the fleece blanket on my skin. It was a hot autumn, and I'd been wearing a nightgown made of light fabric that felt almost like bed sheets, and my shoulders were exposed. I had pulled the blanket so tightly around me that I thought it possible the monsters might confuse me for a mummy or a very large caterpillar in a cocoon. Whether that would keep me safe or expose me to greater danger I had not yet decided.

Under the blankets, I held my flashlight close to me. It was on, but I had to be careful about where exactly I chose to aim it. If I aimed it too low to the ground some of it could filter under the doorway and my parents might see it. At that point the flashlight would be taken away, and I would be defenseless against the beasts. If I aimed it at my feet, they would chase it and sometimes they would grab the blankets off my feet. But if I aimed it just right, heading up at my face like I was telling them a scary story over a campfire, then they would be less aggressive. I never did figure out why, except that perhaps it made me look larger than I was beneath the thin coverings.

I heard one of them get closer. The constant noise grew louder, and I could hear the steady thud, shhhthud, shhhthud come closer to my bed. They drug their feet, and by the sounds of it they had either very soft or very hairy feet - perhaps both. One of them laughed a pinched, gurgle of a laugh that sounded like neekneekneek. Thought it was a hot summer night, I felt goose pimples spring up over my body. My breathing quickened, and I heard what sounded like slurping.

I curled up tighter in a ball, sure that this would help keep them away. But then again I wasn’t sure of any such thing. I tried the same trick every night, and it never worked. The footsteps stopped, and I could hear breathing right next to my bed. Ragged breathing that sounded as though it were being sent through a manual air compressor. Wheezing and occasional gagging noises accompanied it, and, though my eyes were shut tighter than I’d ever shut them before, I squeezed them even tighter, causing a kaleidoscope of diamonds and shapes and colors to appear. I thought for sure my head would pop open, but it didn’t.

My breathing became faster still, I clenched the flashlight for dear life, and began to shake. I knew what was coming. It always did. Oh if only my parents were to come in and open the door the monsters would disappear. But they weren’t coming.

And so, as I suspected, I felt the weight of the monster’s fingers run down my hair, like a mother who pets her daughter’s hair out of love. Only this was not love. Then two hands were on me, feeling in grasps as though to discover what shape I was exactly. This was the part I hated...the part that was just about to come up.

The monster jumped on top of me as the others laughed, grabbed me harshly with both hands, and whispered in my ear.

“We will always be here, little girl. Always.”

And then it screamed the most blood-freezing, guttural scream anyone could ever imagine. As though it were waking the whole world of demons - or was one. I couldn’t cover my ears or I’d let the covers loose, and then who knows what could have happened. So I just cried. Because that was all I could do.

And then the monsters were gone. I heard the clock chime. One o’clock in the morning.

I don’t know when I fell asleep that night, but I must have done, because in the morning I woke up to my mom yammering on about how I was going to be late for my first day at a new school. To be honest I was just happy that the nighttime was over. It would start all over the next day, of course. But for the moment it was no matter.

I dressed, had breakfast - toast and orange juice and cereal - and then my mother drove me to school.

“So you had a peaceful night, dear. That’s good,” she said on the way to school.

It wasn’t a question.

“Yeah, Mom,” I said.

She looked relieved. I couldn’t tell her what had really happened. After all, we’d have to move to the new house because of the last time I’d mentioned the monsters. A woman at an office told my mother in hushed tones that she was concerned for my safety. That maybe a big city wasn’t good for me. That perhaps a small town would be less chaotic and would help me mentally. And I had to take blue pills, but they didn’t work. At least not the way my mom wanted them to.

That was the first time I’d realized that it wasn't okay to believe in monsters. Even though they were real. And so I’d taken to simply to creating my linen fortress each night and pretending that they didn’t exist. At least in the daylight. But at night I couldn’t pretend anymore.

We pulled up to the school. It was a brick schoolhouse that looked much like pictures I’d seen of small town schools. I never imagined I’d ever go to such a school, but I was a bit excited about it, as well. It was much different from the school I used to go to. Everything in our new town was different. Different was good.

My teacher’s name was Mrs. Hillman. She was a tall woman who wore bright lipstick and too much makeup on her face. Her hair was tied up in a bun, and she wore a skirt, heels, and a sweater - the uniform of a Kindergarten teacher. In a way she reminded me of Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus because her sweaters always had a theme that related to either the time of year, approaching holiday, or topic of discussion. But she was not nearly as friendly as Miss Frizzle and seemed to be averse to imagination.

Nonetheless, she encouraged us during our first lesson to make a goldfish bowl out of craft paper and use a variety of materials to put fish and seaweed and whatever else we wanted into the bowl. I remember thinking that I wasn’t entirely sure what I was learning doing this particular activity, other than how to cut and paste. I suppose that was a life lesson, after all.

Things went well at the new school. I met some new friends, Samantha and Jill and Bobby, and we played together at recess. We ate lunch together, too, and Bobby and I always traded because he had a chocolate cookie every day, which I quite liked, and I had sugar cookies, which were his favorite. It went on like this for about a week until our teacher introduced to us a new art project. “Draw whatever you like, but make it scary!” Apparently we were going to hang these up in our room and, since Halloween was coming up in a short month or less, we were to draw a monster. The joke, apparently, was to present them to our parents; the little monsters giving a little monster for Halloween.

I’m sure the idea was endearing when first conceived. That was, of course, until my teacher had the good fortune of having me in her class.

I decided to draw my monsters. The ones that came to visit me every night. I thought it wouldn’t cause much of a stir. After all, that was our assignment; to draw a monster. And that’s what I was doing. I was drawing the only monsters I had any real experience with. It never crossed my mind that this would disturb my teacher on such a visceral level, and it might not have if I’d left out the portion with the blood, the knife, and myself lying dead on the floor.

“Margaret Fairchild!” came the cry, disturbed and shrieking, from my teacher.

Another thing that every child knows is that if an adult uses your full name, you are in a great deal of trouble and should start assembling all of your most believable excuses for any manner of wrongdoing in as short a time as possible. I had a great deal of experience in this at the time. By that point I could line up no less than twenty excuses in my mind like soldiers ready for commands before even knowing what I’d done wrong.

“Yes, Mrs. Hillman?” I asked.

Her face was white, her lipstick becoming even more violent a shade of red, and I noticed the paper trembling in her hands.

“WHAT in the GOOD Lord’s name is THIS!”

She pinched the top of the drawing with two fingers, holding it in front of her and motioning with the other hand towards it as though she were showing me a shrunken head.

“It’s a monster, like you said.”

“No, no, no. THIS is despicable. I asked you for a monster, not a murder!”

“A what?”

I had no idea what a murder was. I was, after all, only six, but when adults get angry they tend to believe that children suddenly know much more than they do or should. Ironically this tends to happen most often when the children are getting in trouble for exhibiting too much knowledge. I always thought it was strange that adults fancied telling children “Act your age!” when in reality what they always meant was “Act my age, your age is too exhausting.” But then, as soon as children have done so, they’re disciplined for it.

It’s no wonder childhood is the most confusing time of life. It’s a continual guessing game with large people who control everything but change the rules at will, and who have different rules for themselves than the ones they give to you.

Mrs. Hillman was a prime example of this conundrum.

“KILLING! VIOLENCE!” she went on, “This is NOT acceptable at our school. I am phoning your parents. Immediately.”

“So they’ll get to see the drawing sooner, then?” I asked, still not understanding the trouble I was in.

My response was deemed sarcasm, and I remember distinctly the sting as the back of Mrs. Hillman’s hand met my face. Modern society would never allow for such a thing, even in the small town of Porisville, but I was not so fortunate as to have grown up in modern society.

The phone call was made after school that day, and much screaming commenced. My mother was screaming at me for being so careless, about how I’d ruined everything. Her ranting ended with a series of questions about whether or not I knew what I’d done, or if I ever thought of the family, or if I was capable of being unselfish, all of which must have been rhetorical because I was never given the chance to answer them.

Then there was the screaming that occurred between my father and my mother. Accusations hurled about why I was the way I was, my father taking up the position that if my mother had simply not read me so many bedtime stories I wouldn’t have such an overactive imagination, (although at the time I thought he’d said imigation and would later ask a very confused first grade teacher what it meant), and my mother who accused him of working too much and never spending time with me.

I sat in stunned silence watching this scene unfold, completely baffled as to how neither one of these grown-ups who spent a great deal of time making the case that they knew better than me were so far addled with Adult Blindness and Deafness that they couldn’t hear each other or see that they were the ones being selfish.

Over the next several months, there were more visits to people in offices who asked me to draw for them. People who kept asking me to draw what I saw at night. Who asked me to draw monsters - any monsters - and assured me it would be fun. People who fancied giving me endless series of solitary play dates, art projects, and tests. I thought perhaps I was being tested for another school. A better school. Maybe even an arts school.

However, when my parents began to cry at the end of all these sessions and the professional people began to speak in hushed tones again, I knew we’d be moving again. At least I thought we’d be moving again. Although I couldn’t imagine a place more isolated than Porisville, I thought that it must be awfully beautiful and conjectured that, just maybe, this more isolated place would be where Miss Frizzle was.

Then again, I didn’t know about mental hospitals, and when my parents took me to yet another office, I assumed it would be a short visit with games and tests and then I would be going home. But my parents cried again, and the people in uniforms put me in a room and locked the door and my parents left.

My mother had tried to comfort me.

“They’ll fix you right up, dear,” she’d said.

I screamed and cried and beat the doors. I felt as though my heart had been ripped out of my chest. Maybe this is where they sent little girls when they were defective. Maybe if I’d just been less imigative I wouldn’t have been sent here. If only I hadn’t drawn that monster, maybe my parents would still have loved me and I would be home eating supper and watching cartoons.

After several hours I’d completely convinced myself that my parents were never coming back. They let me out of my room around noon to go to a hall where lunch was served. It was nothing like the lunch we had at school, and much worse than anything my mother had packed for me, but it was food.

it wasn’t until much later that I realized the horrifying truth. I was locked in a place for a good long while. More than a day. And although I had what they called a blanket, I was without my flashlight. When I was asked for one, they wouldn’t give it to me. I tried to explain to them that the monsters would get me if I didn’t have it, which was met with sad eyes and half-hearted smiles and more explanations that such things didn’t exist and that flashlights were not only disallowed but unnecessary.

They came again that night, and the night after. And every night I would scream. But in this particular location, a great many people screamed and nobody ever came to help.

One day at lunch I met a girl who looked hollow and pale. We started talking, and exchanged stories about why we were there, although neither of us was particularly sure. She was seven years old, and said that she’d been attacked by something in her sleep. Only the professional adults had told her parents that she’d done it to herself, and so they put her here. I explained my story about the monsters.

“Oh, I’ve seen them,” she said, her eyes somehow expanding and shrinking even further into her skull.

“Have you?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. But I got rid of those evil monsters. It’s the spirits I’m dealing with.”

“Say, how did you get rid of the monsters?” I leaned forward so as not to miss a word.

“You don’t know?” She tilted her head.

“No, ‘fraid not.”

“Oh,” she said smiling, “it’s very simple. You can control them. But you must not be afraid. You must only stay uncovered, sit upright in your bed, and bravely face them when they emerge. Then, you can tell them to do whatever you like, and they will do it.”

“Even go away?” I asked, shocked.

“Even go away,” she smiled.

That night I was determined to try this trick. I was concerned that the girl was simply lying to me. Perhaps she was planted there and attempting to suck me into another game that would get me into an even worse place. But I had to take the chance. When midnight struck, I was seated upright in my bed, brave face on, sick stomach in full motion.

I saw one of them, and then two, and then four. Eventually there were six of them all around my bed. I had never seen them in such detail before. I’d only ever seen a slight outline before I dove beneath the covers and turned on the flashlight. They were round and hairy, had teeth like those of a rat only more decayed, made their horrible noises, and had eyes that looked much like those of spiders I’d seen photos of. They had seven limbs - three legs and four arms - and claws as long as rulers.

“I control you!” I announced, fearing it would spell my doom.

But, at once, they drew back, looking at each other as though sad.

“What must we do,” one of them asked, with a voice that sounded like a combination of several demons speaking.

“That depends,” I said, “on how many things I can tell you to do.”

“You have dictated control, little girl. You can have as much as you ask for.”

I thought about this for a moment, reveling slightly in my power if not a bit disturbed by it.

“I have only three requests of you,” I said after a good while.

“What are the orders?” a smaller one said.

“First, you will convince the adults, however you must, to release me from this place.”

“Mind control is easy enough. Controlling an unbelieving mind is the easiest thing in the world. Your wish is done.”

“Good. Secondly, but only after I’ve been released, I want you to appear to Mrs. Hillsman and my parents. At the same time. And I want to be there.”

At this they became excited.

“Do we have any limits, girl?” another one asked, grinning to display rows of jagged, decaying teeth and green slime.

In a way I think I knew what they were asking, and so it surprised me slightly when I said.

“Only one. Do what you want with Mrs. Hillman, but let my parents be.”

“Very well,” it said.

“Lastly, after all of these things have been done, I want you to go away. Forever.”

At this they looked rather sad, but agreed.

I slept well throughout the night, and the next morning was greeted by a bright and chipper woman with teddy bears on her clothing who told me that my parents would be picking me up. I was released. Fast workers, I thought.

I was still quite upset at my parents, but decided not to show it. They cried over how happy they were to see me, which I thought odd since they’d not once come to visit me. I was told that Mrs. Hillman wanted to come over that night to see how I was doing. Given that they were so grateful for all of her “help”, as they saw it, they had invited her over to dinner. I was, I suspected, the success story. Oh how normal and typical our daughter is now that you turned her in.

I knew what was happening, so I let it go.

At dinner that night Mrs. Hillman arrived in a very brightly colored sweater. She said it was orange, the color of happiness, and that she’d worn it because she was so happy I was, as she put it, “all better”. Her lipstick was bright orange, as well, and she wore a white skirt and gold heels. It was atrocious.

I sat calmly through dinner, eating the chicken nuggets I was given since I wasn’t old enough yet for the slab of meat my parents and Mrs. Hillman were eating. At least that was the excuse I was given. But, still, it was okay with me.

Towards the end of the evening, I saw one of them through the kitchen window. I wasn’t afraid, though, because I knew they’d come to carry out my second to last request. And, given that they had accomplished the first task so quickly, I expected that tonight had been orchestrated to achieve the second. And that after it had been accomplished, they’d go away forever.

After dinner we watched as a very proud looking Mrs. Hillman walked to her car. She unlocked the door, threw her purse onto the car seat, looked up...and screamed. Three of the monsters materialized out of nowhere and jumped on her. I saw firsthand the damage that their ruler-length claws could inflict. My parents ended up having to wash blood off of the roof.

They ripped and sawed, gnashed and bit, screamed and howled. My parents looked like statues that an artist had made of people in mid-fright. My mother’s hand was out towards me, while her other hand covered her mouth, which was frozen in a silent scream. Ostensibly she’d been about to cover my eyes when fear stunned her in the act. My father just stood, hands interlaced behind his head, gaping at the scene unfolding before him.

I never imagined that the inside of a human body contained so much. For being such a compact unit, the gigantic worm-like intestines I saw spread over the drive was a bit of a surprise. I’d like to tell you that I was very shocked and appalled and felt guilty over the whole thing. But the truth is...I didn’t. And I still don’t.

My mother never recovered from the incident. She sat in her easy chair for hours on end, and finally, after weeks of this, my father decided to call different professional people. The kind that adults go to. Right before he called them, my mother looked at me and, for a rare moment, spoke.

“The monsters,” she said to me, “the monsters are real.”

“Oh, mother, come now. You don’t believe in such things.”

“But I do...I saw them.”

“It’s silly to believe in monsters, Mother. Remember?”

“But they’re there!”

And then, as my father reached for the phone, I said,

“It’s okay Mother. There’s a place for people like you. They’ll fix you right up.”

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