Copyright © 2017 by John Wiber
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I live with a monster.
She used to be my Grandma. She used to live with Grandpa but then he died and passed away and went to heaven. I think grandma wishes she was in heaven too. We used to go to the movies together, the mat-in-nays, and she would buy me popcorn and one chocolate bar that I got to pick out. Sometimes she would buy me two. That was a long time ago now, a whole three years ago, when I was seven.
“It’s me, mom. Your daughter. Cathy.”
“I don’t have a daughter!”
“My daughter is dead. She was an adulterous whore. Not married, you know? Couldn’t keep a man. Divorced twice. What kind of fifty year old woman goes out to the bars? Honestly.”
Mom makes sad face and turns away to look out the window. I feel bad for mom. Grandma is pretty mean now. She’s always yelling and peeing the bed and getting scared from her hall-usi-nations. I keep telling mom that grandma isn’t grandma anymore, and that I’m scared of her, but she still makes me read to her and feed her and help with washing her. Her skin is all hang-ey and gross. She has spots with little black hairs growing out of them. She doesn’t look like a woman. She’s a monster.
She says the radio speaks to her. In the night. She keeps me up with her screaming and crying. She sounds like she’s in pain. It makes me scared. She can be okay sometimes, during the days. Even if she keeps forgetting who I am.
“You should bake some muffins for your little classmates at school,” she keeps saying to me. “When I was in school, we always used to have muffins. And cupcakes. And cookies.”
“But gam-gam, I don’t know how to make muffins.”
“Oh child, I can tell you how to do that. Every little lady should know how to bake a batch of muffins. That’s the problem with all you kids these days. Waltzing around with your whole asses hanging out, little sluts. Fucking little bitches.”
Mom says grandma is old-fashioned,
It’s morning and that means I have to eat breakfast before I go to school, since it’s the most important meal of the day. Mom is talking on the phone with Uncle Jack. I can always tell when it’s him on the other end, because they only seem to talk about Grandma and Mom sighs a lot.
“She’s getting worse, Jack. It’s unbearable to be around her. Half the time she doesn’t know who I am, and the other half she spends insulting me. She’s vile! You should hear the things she says, in front of Jessica too.”
Pause. Mom taps her foot against the table leg. She always looks so sad when she rests her head against her hand. I don’t like to see her bend that way. She slow-ouches. My teacher at school tells me not to slow-ouch. I wish mom wouldn’t either.
“No, Jack. Listen. You need to step up, because I’m not sure I can take much more of this…”
“I didn’t sign up for this shit! You’re her son, Jack. Or did you forget?”
“I’m not being unreasonable! I’m working from home so I can look after her. I’m sacrificing my goddamn career, everything I’ve built these past ten years, not to mention Jessica, who is only eleven years old, in case you’ve forgot… No, Jack. I don’t think I’m being unreasonable at all…”
Tap, tap, tap.
Mom scratches her scalp and sighs.
Tap, tap, tap.
“Just promise you’ll come by after work. I’m showing a house at six and I cannot find a baby sister. I’m pretty sure mom has successfully scared them all away. She called the last girl a cunt, and the poor girl went home crying that night. Sometimes I swear she’s doing it on purpose. Like this is all some sort of practical joke to get back at us for being born. I almost wish that was the case…”
“Okay, thank you, Jack. I love you too.”
Mom hangs up and rests her head in her hands. Her long red hair falls over her eyes and I try not to get sad. Uncle Jack has a drinking problem. Mom says he’d rather spend all his time at the bar rather than deal with real life. She used to say the same thing about Dad. Sometimes, I wonder if Real Life is so great. Sometimes, Real Life seems really sad.
I wish Dad was still here.
Mom divorced him. Dad also had a drinking problem. But dad was also strong and had a beard and worked with other strong men with beards. He used to call me little angel and sweetheart instead of little bitch and slut and cunt.
“Go get your backpack on, Jessica, or you’ll miss the bus.”
Mom has her head out of her hands now and is pouring herself another coffee. Ever since Grandma moved in she stays home in the mornings and afternoons. She does all her work from her Home Office, which is the tiny room upstairs beside the closet which used to be my play room. I’m not allowed in that room anymore. Mom used to rub my back too. She would lie in bed with me forever and rub my back and my hair and it felt really good and helped me go to sleep. But she doesn’t rub my back anymore. She hardly has time to tuck me into bed now, because of the monster.
Mom’s shoes click when she walks in the kitchen. She’s a heavy walker, and so am I. My mom gave me lots of things.
I hope I didn’t get anything from Grandma.
I don’t want to turn into a monster.
“Jessica! Hurry up!”
I hop down from the chair and rush upstairs to grab my backpack. Today I have Math, English, Geography, and Gym. I like Gym and English the best. In the hallway I pass by an old picture of Mom and Grandma, before her skin got loose and her teeth fell out. She used to have dark hair and pretty lips and pale skin that didn’t have any wrinkles. And she smiled back then, in the picture. You have to remember who she was. That’s what mom told me. She’s still your Grandma, somewhere inside, she still loves you very much.
I go into my room and scoop up my backpack, but the zipper is open and my pencil case goes flying onto the floor. The lid pops open and all my pencils and markers and erasers go everywhere. I bend down and try to pick them up as fast as I can.
“Jessica! I can see the bus coming down the street.”
The sound of Mom’s shoes echo in my ear as I rush down the stairs. Clip, clip, clip. But it’s too late. I see the big yellow bus drive by through the front door and mom is standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the front hallway with her hands on her hips and her lips drawn back in a thin straight line.
“That’s fucking terrific,” she says, looking up at the ceiling. “Now I’ll have to drive you, which means I have to run next door and see if Mr. Franklin can come over and make sure Mom doesn’t croak while we’re gone, although, maybe that’d be for the best…”
She stops then, looking down at me. I can feel my face getting hot and a weird tingling feeling beneath my skin. Then Mom starts to cry.
In the car, Mom turns the music up loud. Sometimes, she sang along with the radio. Not when she was sad though. The music blares in my ears and I can see Mom’s eyes are still red and swollen and I wish I could do something to make her feel better.
“I love you, Mom.”
She turns to me and smiles funny. “I love you too, sweet thing.”
We get to the school and Mom turns down the music to say good-bye. She gives me a kiss on the cheek and I open the car door. I can hear the radio get louder as she drives away. I rush through the deserted playground because the first bell has already gone and everyone is at their desks in class by now. I hang my coat up on the rack in the hallway and walk into the classroom. Mrs. Glass is at the front going over morning announcements and everyone turns and looks at me as I enter.
“Nice of you to join us,” Mrs. Glass says from the front.
“Sorry,” I say. “I missed the bus.”
“Please, take your seat Jessica.”
After Math we have a fifteen minute break and then it’s time for gym. I got outside and play four square with Karly and Sam and Josh, and when Josh crosses the line I yell that he’s out but he says he didn’t cross it so we keep playing until the bell goes.
When we get back inside, Mrs. Glass ushers us back into the classroom.
“Please, everyone back in the classroom now.”
“But Mrs. Glass, it’s gym time. Aren’t we going to do Gym?”
“Today we are doing sexual education instead of gym, now please, into the classroom with you.”
I hate sexual education. It was my least favourite. Especially because it always meant there was no Gym that day. I cross my arms like mom does and stare up at the blackboard. Mrs. Glass begins sex-jewel ed-jew-cation and as she talks I think about basketball and volleyball and dodge ball…
“Your body is changing, even now. You are going through puberty, in one stage or another. For some of you, it will happen faster than others, but in the end, we all go through the same thing. We all grow older in the same way.”
The same way? I hope I never turn out the same as Grandma. And Mom hasn’t been very nice lately either.
“Does anyone have any questions?”
I raise my hand.
“When do we turn into monsters?”
A couple of the kids laugh, and I give them my mom-stare.
“What do you mean monster, Jessica?”
“I don’t want to turn into a monster. My Grandma turned into one, and she’s scary now. She makes mom sad and that means I get sad.”
“Jessica… getting old is a part of life. Some of us will age better than others, it’s true. But in the end, if you live a healthy life and stay away from alcohol and drugs and other dangerous things, you will live a long and happy life.”
“Hey Jessica,” Josh whispers to me from his seat one desk away. “Grrrrrrr!” he says, making monster noises and monster faces at me, wiggling his fingers and moving his eyes and mouth around.
“Stop it,” I say.
“Grrrrr! Hey Jessica! I’m a monster!”
Some of the other kids start to laugh and I can feel my face getting hot.
“That’s enough Josh,” Mrs. Glass says.
“But I’m a monster!” he says, giggling.
“No you are not!” I shout back at him. “You’re a cunt!”
Mom is mad at me. She had to drive to the school to pick me up because Mrs. Glass said I was using in-app-proprite language. The Principle talked to Mom for a while, and then we left. I was excited at first about getting to leave school early, but then mom started yelling at me.
“You can’t say cunt, Jessica! Not in school, not at home, not ever!”
“But Grandma says it all the time!” I yell at Mom. I can feel the tears slipping from the corners of my eyes. Why is she so mad? I don’t like making Mom mad.
“Grandma isn’t grandma anymore,” Mom says, leaning down and placing her hand on my shoulder.
“I know that. She’s a monster.”
Mom smiles with water in her eyes. “She’s not a monster, Jessica. She’s just… sick. She’s very sick and it’s only going to get worse. There’s no cure for what she’s got.”
“Alzheimer’s, yes, my sweet.”
“I don’t want Grandma to be sick anymore.”
“Neither do I,” Mom sighs. “Neither do I.”
“Maybe I should make cupcakes for my class,” I say, trying to hold back my tears. Only babies cried. “Maybe that would make Grandma happy?”
“Yes,” mom smiles. “Yes, I think it just might.”
We stop at the con-veen-yance store and pick up sugar and chocolate chips and butter. Mom says she has some cupcake mix at home we can use. She buys me a chocolate milk and I ask for a straw so I can blow bubbles in the milk and mom laughs with me on the way home while I blow chocolate bubbles. I like when mom laughs with me. She doesn’t do it very much anymore.
When we get home, I notice Uncle Jack’s red truck in the driveway. It has much bigger wheels than mom’s car.
“Thank god, he actually showed up.”
“Can we make the cupcakes now?” I ask.
“Mom has to go try and sell a house, sweetheart, so we can keep living in ours. Go on inside with Uncle Jack and he’ll get you guys some dinner. Maybe you can watch a movie too.”
I watch her drive away and then go inside. Uncle Jack hears me and comes to the front door. He picks me up in a big bear hug. I love Uncle Jack’ bear hugs.
“Look how big you’re getting!” he says.
“I’m not getting big. I am a skinny girl!”
“Yes, yes you are. I mean tall!”
Uncle Jack asks what I want for supper and I tell him pizza. He grins and says that sounds good to him. Uncle Jack always said yes, unlike mom. He has hair on his face like dad but not so much, and he’s not quite as tall either. But he smelled the same. It’s sort of a sour smell, but kind of good sour, like sweet. But after a while the smell changes and then it’s hard to talk to dad or Uncle Jack because they get stinky breath.
“Can I make cupcakes?”
Uncle Jack laughs. “After pizza.”
We watch a movie in the living room while we wait for the pizza. I love ordering pizza from the pizza store. It was always better than the pizzas from the freezer. At one point grandma starts making noises from her room so Uncle Jack has to run up and check on her. But he isn’t gone for long and we keep watching Pirates of the Caribbean until finally there’s a knock on the door.
“Pizza’s here!” I say, throwing my hands in the air.
I ask if we can eat it in the living room and Uncle Jack says yes. He goes to the kitchen to get me a pop, and a silly-pop for himself. There are two empty silly-pop cans on the coffee table already. Mom says you should never have more than one pop at a time, but maybe silly-pops were different. I don’t mind though, because we are having fun and watching movies in the living room while eating pizza. After we finish I ax-a-dentally burp really loud and cover my mouth in surprise. Uncle Jack laughs and burps right back at me, taking another sip from his silly-pop.
“Can we make cupcakes now?”
“I suppose we can, my little princess,” he says.
I burp again and we both laugh.
In the kitchen we get all the in-greed-ee-ants ready and Uncle Jack pours them into a bowl. At first it just looks like dry oatmeal, but after we stir them together it starts to look better.
I look up at Uncle Jack who stops stirring and stares out of the kitchen towards the stairs.
“IS ANYBODY THERE? ANYBODY? I SHIT MYSELF. I SHIT IN THE BED. MY OWN FUCKING BED!”
“Goddamnit,” I hear Uncle Jack whisper. He turns to me. “Okay sweetie, Uncle Jack has to go handle this, but you just keep stirring and when I get back we can pour the mix into the cupcake holders and start cooking!”
“Sounds good!” I say.
Uncle Jack runs upstairs and I keep stirring the cupcake mix. I can hear grandma still yelling and suddenly I remember something that I had forgotten. It was a secret recipe that grandma told me, something that would make all the kids in my class really happy.
I set down the bowl and move over towards the sink.
Always remember to add a little something extra…
What had grandma called it?
You’ll find it under the sink…
There were lots of different sorts of bottles under the sink. Jessica was unsure which one to use.
It will have a scary skull on it, a white skull with a line through it…
I find the white skull and clap my hands together, excited and proud that I was smart enough to find the right bottle. Grandma would be happy.
I pour in some of the white skull bottle and keep stirring. I can hear Uncle Jack saying things to grandma. He sounds angry, but I know he is just busy and trying to help. Finally, after stirring forever, he comes back down and we pour the cupcake mix into the round holes in the tin tray.
“You can be the one to put it in the oven,” he says to me.
“Really?” I can’t believe it. Mom never let me use the oven.
“Yes, only if you promise to very careful.”
“I promise, I promise!”
Uncle Jack opens the oven door for me and shows me where to set the cupcakes. The glowing orange rod looks pretty but Uncle Jack warns me not to touch it. That’s the hot part, he says. I put the tray down on the black lines and then Uncle Jack grabs another silly-pop from the fridge.
“Let’s watch TV till your mom gets home,” he says.
When mom gets home the cupcakes are finished and I can smell them from the living room. Mom looks surprised to see Uncle Jack which is weird because she knew that he was here.
“You’ve been drinking,” she says to him.
“Just a few casuals.”
“How was she?”
“Well, this one here,” he says, pointing at me, “has been a delight.”
“Good to know.”
“The other one… not so much. There’s some sheets and a duvet in your washing machine at the moment…”
“Jesus Christ, piss or shit?”
Mom sighs and rubs her hair with her eyes closed.
“Mommy, mom! Want to try one of my cupcakes?”
“That sounds delightful,” she says, smiling and opening her eyes.
“Here, let me show you!”
I jump and grab mom’s hand, dragging her to the kitchen. The cupcakes are sitting on a dish towel on the kitchen counter.
“Smells tasty,” mom says. “Help me pick one.”
I pick the biggest, fluffiest cupcake I can find and mom scoops it out from the little hole. She smiles again at me and I feel a warmness in my face and fingers. A good kind of warmness though, not the hot tingly kind.
Mom brings the cupcake up to her mouth and takes a bite.
“Mmmm,” she says. “So good!”
“Yay!” I clap and laugh.
Then mom notices the bottle on the counter beside the empty bowl. She picks up the yellow bottle with the white skull and calls into the living room.
“Hey Jack, what were you cleaning down here?”
“Wasn’t me sis. Can you bring me another beer?”
Mom stares at the bottle and then looks over at me.
“You didn’t play with this Jessica, did you?”
“Yes mommy, that’s the special ingredient!”
“Special ingredient for what?”
Mom’s face goes scary and she throws the cupcake in the sink. Her cheeks puff out and her eyes look huge and I start to cry because mom just threw away my cupcake.
“Jesus Christ!” she screams.
Uncle Jack rushes into the kitchen while mommy sticks her hand in her mouth and starts to make scary noises over the sink, scaring me so that I run over to Uncle Jack who scoops me up in his arms. Mom vomits into the sink, all over her cupcake, which makes me even sadder. I cry hard and Uncle Jack rubs my hair and tries to tell me to calm down.
Finally, mom stops making the scary noises and turns around. Her eyes are red and her lips look swollen and wet.
“Jesus Christ,” she says again. “Am I going to be okay?”
“How much did you have?” Uncle Jack asks.
“Just a single bite.”
“And you puked it up?”
“You should be fine. Best to call poison control though, just to make sure.”
“Weren’t you watching her, Jack? Jesus Christ, what if she would have eaten one? What if you had decided to have one? And if she would have taken those to school, I can’t even fathom the thought….”
“I’m sorry sis, it must have been when I was upstairs with mom…”
Grandma must have heard Uncle Jack because she starts moaning and making ugly noises again. Mom rolls her eyes and Uncle Jack sets me down.
“I’ll take care of her,” he says. “You call 9-1-1.”
Mom talks on the phone for a while, and after, she takes all of my cupcakes and throws them in the garbage. I start to cry again. Uncle Jack comes back down and asks me what’s wrong.
“Mom threw away my cupcakes.”
“I know sweetie. They were fabulous cupcakes. You did a really great job. It’s just… grandma’s special ingredient is bad. It’s a bad trick she tried to play on us, and it could have hurt you, or your classmates, or your mother.”
“I don’t want mom to get hurt,” I wail, unable to control my own voice.
“Shhh,” Uncle Jack says, stroking my head. “It’s okay sweetie. We will fix this.”
I look over at mom and she is looking at Uncle Jack with her intense mom-stare. The two of them nod to each other and my mom crosses her arms.
“Okay, sweetie. It’s okay.”
“It’s us mom, it’s Cathy, your daughter, and Jessica, your granddaughter.”
I wish Uncle Jack was still here but he had to leave and go pick up some medicine for mommy. He promised he was going to buy more cupcakes too, but I think he just said that so I’d stop crying. I don’t care about cupcakes anymore. I just want mom to be happy.
Grandma is lying on the bed wrapped in one of mom’s old quilts. Her skin looks like my clothes if mom forgets to take them out of the drying ma-sheen. I wrinkle my nose at the smell in the room. It was hot and dark and I am scared to look at grandma. Her eyes seemed black when the room was dark like this. The radio is on, but the sound of static is the only thing coming from the speakers.
“Fucking little sluts. Idiots. What do you want? More money? Huh? All you kids are the same, always with your damn hands out, like money just grows on trees, eh? Well, I won’t be around forever, huh! And what will you do then?”
“We will remember you, mom.”
I look up and see tears running down mommy’s face. She is holding my hand very tight.
“Mommy, you’re hurting me.”
“Sorry darling. Here, help me with this.”
“She’s no darling! She’s a slut! She’s a filthy whore! Just like my own daughter, the divorcee. The scorned woman. The disgrace.”
“Grandma is very tired now,” mom whispers to me, looking down at me with watery eyes. “She needs our help to go to sleep.”
“Will she be happy?”
“Will you rub my back after?”
I help mom hold the pillow down over grandma’s face. I can hear the monster beneath the pillow, and feel it squirming as well. I start to get scared and push harder down on the pillow, not wanting to see what’s beneath.
“Not so hard, sweetie. We don’t want to leave any bruises.”
After a while the scary noises stop and so does the squirming. Mom stands beside the bed for a long time, staring down at the pillow but not moving. I wonder if the monster is still under there, but when mom moves the pillow I see that it’s grandma again. She isn’t making scary noises anymore. She looks surprised, but sort of happy, with her eyes wide and lips drawn back. Mom gently closes her eyelids with the palm of her own hand. Grandma wasn’t so bad when she was sleeping.
“Let’s get you to bed, little one. It’s been quite a day for you.”
Mom carries me to my bedroom and waits for me to brush my teeth. When I get back I see that she is crying again and I give her a big hug, squeezing as hard as I can. She sobs a bit and then stops. She tucks me in and rubs my back and hums to me a nice song. I feel tingly and happy and warm and good. She rubs my hair too, and for a very long time. I start to fall asleep when I hear the front door downstairs bang open. Uncle Jack was back with mom’s medicine.
“Okay my sweetness. It’s time for sleep now.”
“Just like grandma?”
“Just like grandma, except…. Grandma is going to sleep much longer than you. Much longer.”
“Was she very tired?” I ask, mumbling my words because I’m so sleepy.
“Yes, she was,” mom sighs. “She was very tired and so am I. But at least one of us can sleep now. At least she is finally at peace.”
Mom kisses me on the forehead and gets up from the bed. She leaves the door open a crack so the hallway light seeps into my room. I’m not scared of the dark but I like a little light. I can hear her and Uncle Jack talking downstairs, and the sound of more silly-pops being opened. I fall asleep and dream about gym class and cupcakes and grandma. In my dream, grandma isn’t a monster at all, and we eat cupcakes together and play basketball and ride horses. I love this grandma and I hope she stays this way.
In the morning, mom takes me to grandma’s room and I see she is still asleep. I smile and look up at mommy.
“I saw grandma in my dreams last night,” I say.
“She was happy.”
“That’s good,” mom says. “I think she is too.”
“Are you happy, mommy?”
“Yes, my precious. I am happy and I am sad. But I love you forever, Jessica. Just promise me you’ll… you will….” But mommy can’t finish because her crying is too much.
“I will mommy, I will rub your back until you fall asleep. Just like you do for me.”
“Thank you,” she says, and I watch her rub at her swollen eyes.
I give her a hug around the waist and squeeze as hard as I can.
“Let’s go make some cupcakes,” my mom says. “No school for you today!”
We go downstairs and start mixing the cupcake in-greed-ee-ants. I do the stirring while mom watches. She makes coffee for her and Uncle Jack. I am too young for coffee.
“Can we give a cupcake to grandma?”
“I’m afraid not,” mom says. “but you can bring her one in your dreams tonight.”
We put the cupcakes in the oven and I stay away from the orange glowing rod.
“I’m not scared of grandma anymore. I’m sorry I called her a monster.”
“That’s good, sweetheart. That’s very good.”
Outside I can hear birdies chirping and the sun is bright in the window while I feel my mother’s warm embrace from behind me, wrapping her arms around me and squeezing.