by Amanda Arbuckle
Third Place Winner, Written Category
The Monster Challenge
“No harm in a few stories, right?” My friend, Jessica, said, laughingly. The wind eerily echoed her laughter. Outside, the trees’ branches swayed specter-like in the rain, as though dancing to the song of the storm. I turned my head from the window.
“I suppose not.”
There was little else to do. The storm had robbed us of our power. We huddled in the dark on the carpet of our dorm’s common room, taking comfort in the familiar voices of friends. We waved our flashlights like swords in front of us, as though daring to slay the darkness.
“I’ll go first.” Shelly said softly, “I know one.” Jessica grinned and drew her knees to her chest. I leaned back against the sofa, ready to listen to her words, the wind, and the rain. She began.
“There was an author awhile back. Can’t remember her name. Mary…something. I’ve never read any of her books. Don’t think I ever will. She mysteriously disappeared, maybe five years ago? No one’s seen her since.”
Jessica smiled at this.
“But no one really knows. Our author was a horror writer. People used to criticize her, saying her monsters were a little too close to home. And there were stories…Well, it all began, really, after she published her first book, Second Guessing. It’s about a girl, I think, who inadvertently falls victim to a monster’s curse and slowly begins to lose the ability to do anything on her own. It was not long afterwards that the police got a call.
‘Someone—something is following me! No matter where I go, I see her, staring, judging me. It’s gotten so bad; I’m afraid to even leave the house. Just when I think I’m alone and it’s finally safe, there she is!’
The officer asked for a description. The woman stumbled over her words.
‘I…well…she’s about my height maybe. 5ft 9. Her eyes are almost yellow, I swear! Her hair…I don’t remember…it was long, like her nails. I have no memory for faces. I’m always afraid I’ll run into someone who knows me and not recognize them. Does that help? I’m sorry, what was that? I don’t remember. I just don’t know! What kind of witness am I?! I can’t even describe my own stalker! AHHH!!!’
A scream ended that phone call. The police drove toward the house. The woman was not there. The only thing of interest they found was an office floor drowning in a sea of crumpled up papers: what looked like the same news report written over and over. One of the reports, torn to pieces and almost unrecognizable, lay like a corpse on the desk. They learned later that the woman had recently quit her job at the company those news reports were intended for. Her boss couldn’t understand it.
‘One of our most talented journalists! She told me she loved the job and only hoped she was good enough to keep at it. She took us all by surprise when she quit. I couldn’t believe it!’
Three days later, the woman turned up in the local hospital. She was scratched and bleeding. She had been running for days. Even in the hospital, she raved about this woman—this monster—who followed her every step of the way. Sometimes, she sent the nurses running to her hospital bed, her screams echoing through the halls.
‘Look—there!! Right there. You can’t miss it! Yellow eyes like lamps! Nails like blades! You don’t believe me?! It’s got me! Help! It’s tearing me apart. I can’t stop it! It has me by the throat!!!’
The nurses never saw anything. The monster came and went as it pleased, inflicting only psychological damage as far as any of them could tell.
Once she was finally discharged from the psych ward, the woman temporarily moved in with her brother and his wife. It was there she discovered our author’s book. The two monsters were identical. Horrified, the woman decided, then and there, she must confront the author. That was only the beginning.
It was a month after our author’s second book, Cutthroat. It’s about this woman, a contestant in a cooking contest. She is determined to win, no matter what. After one of her fellow contestants is poisoned unexpectedly, though, she finds herself haunted by this man with ghoulish green skin, glowing green eyes, and a half-slit throat. He attempts multiple times to sabotage her own dishes and kill her in the process. Do you remember that baseball player, Will O’Brian?”
How could we not? Hadn’t he been involved in one of the greatest scandals in all of MLB history?
“What does he have to do with anything?” I asked.
“I’m getting to that. You probably know that he was one of the best home-run hitters at the time. A fan favorite. Everyone copied his spiky blond hair and his walk-up strut. My dad still has a few old posters of him, but they’re hidden away now in the garage. My mom saved them from being destroyed. Anyway, the trouble started when they drafted a rookie hitter to O’Brian’s team. Nate Greene was his name. O’Brian was not on the top of his game anymore, so people said. He was getting old. This rookie just might be able to replace him, if anyone could. It was not long before Greene was out hitting him. O’Brian handled it well, people said. He’d give Greene pointers. But then all hell broke out. Someone whispered to the managers that Greene was a cheater! There was no way he could hit all those homers without a little help from steroids. Fans were in an uproar, pitted against each other, some maintaining his innocence, others calling for a ban from baseball altogether. Then they found illegal drugs stashed in the back of Greene’s locker. His fate was sealed; he was suspended and O’Brian was once again the top hitter. Only...O’Brian wasn’t quite his usual happy-go-lucky self. Teammates said that he was constantly muttering to himself and looking over his shoulder. He refused to enter the locker room alone anymore. Any hint or mention of the disgraced Greene threw him out of temper. Soon, even the fans began to notice something was amiss. He didn’t smile or strut on his way to the plate anymore. He batted as though his life depended on it, sweat pouring down his brow, arms trembling. Then one game, after hitting a grand slam... the fans were going crazy... O’Brian lost it completely. He fled from the field, bat still in hand, screaming. The managers found him crouched in the locker room pleading with someone they couldn’t see, his hands wrapped tight around his neck as though shielding it from something.
‘It was me!’ He cried, catching sight of their concerned faces looming over him.
‘I did it! Greene is innocent. I planted the drugs in his locker. I used steroids on myself. Ban me!’ Though these words were directed to them, O’Brian was staring off into nothing, his eyes wild with fright. A slow nervous smile spread across his sweaty lips.
‘Gone. At last! I’m free!’
Strange words from a man who had lost everything: his career, reputation, and respectability. Stranger still, the monster he described was identical to the one in our author’s book, and he had never even heard of the book.
I could tell you plenty of stories about the monsters seemingly torn from the pages of our author’s books, but then we’d be here all night. Let me skip ahead a few chapters to where my grandmother, the one who told me this story in the first place, makes an appearance. My grandmother was a librarian at a library not far from where the author lived. She was there, actually there, when the world saw the author for the first and final time.
Our author was a recluse, as only the best of authors are. She never made public appearances. Once on a TV show, she did do a brief interview over the phone, but that was the closest anyone got to speaking to her, let alone seeing her.”
“So your grandmother was one of the lucky ones. She actually got to see the author.” I mused.
“I’m not sure I’d consider her lucky. But lucky or not, there she was. The author had recently published what would be her last book, The Author. She was scheduled to appear at a book signing at the library where my grandmother worked. The event was not widely publicized; there was only a small crowd gathered in the event room. The people there clutched books in hand like they were shields, half-expecting, I imagine, the monsters to enter with their maker. It was five minutes past the hour. The author was running late. For awhile, the crowd held its breath. Then, the hush was undercut by a ripple of whispers as though a stone had been cast into a tranquil pond. A hundred heads turned toward the door. They heard the click of heels. They saw a shadow on the wall. The author had arrived.
It was almost a disappointment. There was nothing remarkable about the woman. She was of average height and weight, drably dressed in blouse and skirt, mousy-haired, caught in that odd space between attractive and plain. Penetrating green eyes flickered behind a small pair of glasses perched upon a rather prominent nose.
She demurely took her seat at the table before the crowd. Her voice was thin, but through some magic unknown to the onlookers, her words came out clear and unmistakeable.
‘It is so good to see all of you. I feel so honored to be here. Why, it feels just like yesterday that I was a little girl coming here with my mother, roaming the shelves, hoping someday to write a book of my very own.’
She smiled at the memory.
‘And you, my loyal readers, helped make my dreams a reality…’
The woman who had quit her job and been pursued by the yellow-eyed monster suddenly shoved her way toward the front. Her voice shook, but her words rang with resentment. She jabbed an accusatory finger at the author.
‘You turned my life into a nightmare! Thanks to you, I was scared for my life. I spent weeks in the hospital. Weeks! Even there I wasn’t safe from your monster! No one believed me! They thought I was crazy. But once I read your book, Second Guessing, I knew I wasn’t crazy. For the first time in my life, I was sure about something.’
There were cries of surprise from the crowd. People edged in closer, waiting for the reply.
The author looked as astonished as anyone.
‘I’m afraid I don’t understand. My monsters aren’t real. They’re just stories. I’m sorry if you have suffered in any way, truly I am, but my monsters only live in my books.’
There were a couple nods from the onlookers. Others appeared more unsure.
‘Only in books?! Where did you get the idea for them anyway?!’
It was O’Brian who had spoken, his eyes flashing with untempered fury, hands clenching into fists at his side.
The author chanced a smile.
‘Dreams naturally, or nightmares as you might call them. That’s where the best of monsters are born, I’d like to think.’
O’Brian’s face darkened.
‘You’re a liar. Those monsters are real. You brought them to life. I lost everything because of you! Your monster drove me to betray my fellow teammate, my friend! Then it tormented me until I confessed to everything. What kind of game are you playing? It’s not fair what you’re doing, hurting people like you are, making monsters to destroy us all!’
The author rose to her feet, indignant.
‘Really, this is all too absurd! You’re accusing me of setting fictional characters on you! It’s impossible, absolutely impossible!’
Whispers passed through the crowd. The author began to tremble. Seeking something to do, anything to do, she shakily withdrew from her purse a book— her newest one.
What came next is hard to describe, but my grandmother knows what she saw. She holds to it, even now.
The world came to a standstill. It was as though Medusa’s curse had descended upon the room. No one spoke. No one moved. It was a crowd of statues. Only the author and my grandmother were impervious to the spell. From her corner in the back of the room, my grandmother watched it all. The book opened of its own accord. The author gasped and backed away slowly, her countenance distorted in terror. An amorphous shadow rose from the pages. A scream simultaneously rose and died in my grandmother’s throat. The shadow enveloped the author in its smokey coils and withdrew into the book. The book slammed shut. Time resumed.
The crowd erupted into chaos. People charged for the table, tripping each other in the process. Where had the author gone? Had she slipped into the crowd? No one knew. No one had seen her vanish, no one except my grandmother.
The book The Author remained behind on the table, even as the author herself disappeared. Even today, the library prominently displays the book. As for the monsters…well my grandmother believes they’ve always been here and here they’ll remain, even if no one’s bold enough to show them to us. She never believed that the author created the monsters, only that she made them visible to some of us…”
The three of us suddenly shrieked as light blinded us. The electricity of our dorm had been restored. Huddled together, the three of us found ourselves longing for the darkness. Who knew what monsters the light might reveal?