“That’s not a sandwich,” Elise said as her sister swung the refrigerator door open. “It’s a monster.”
“I know, right?” said Carissa. “It’s, like, huge.”
Elise craned her neck so she could get a better look at the thing as Carissa hefted the platter higher. “No,” Elise said. “It’s a monster. An actual monster. Wait, let me see it.”
With her free hand Carissa set a plastic shell of grapes on the counter, then two jam jars. “There’s too much junk in this fridge.”
“You’re not putting it in there?”
A Tupperware container of uncertain age and origin joined the jam and grapes. “We’re not eating dinner until Mom’s back at eight.” She slid the dish onto the vacant shelf.
Elise caught the fridge door as her older sister pushed it closed. “You can’t, it’s a monster. I’m serious.”
Carissa sighed the sigh of affected familial patience. “You’re always so negative,” she said. “That’s a monster, this is a monster. Remember when you said that envelope on Dad’s desk was a monster?”
“It was,” Elise said. “He just got rid of it before it hurt anyone.”
“Elise,” Carissa said, “monsters aren’t real. You’re crazy. There’s no way it’s a monster.” She pried her sister’s fingers from the door. “It’s just dinner.”
As the fridge swung closed, two tiny eyes poked out of the giant hoagie roll. As Elise saw them they squinted, in triumph or in intrigue.
It was hard to tell, with the monsters, what their objectives were. Just because Carissa had brought the monster home didn’t mean it was Carissa’s monster. It could be anyone’s. Elise sometimes had a sense about who the monsters belonged to, like with the envelope: that one had been for her mother, even though it arrived in Dad’s briefcase. Dad brought a lot of the monsters home, especially from business trips.
The monsters didn’t tell her this, or even do much at first. Elise just knew, and then did her best to trick or accident the monsters away. She seemed to be the only one who saw them, so they were her problem. It was a lot of responsibility for someone only just in junior high school.
Elise had a particularly bad feeling about this one in the fridge. She had no sense of who it belonged to, and that made its motivations seem even more diabolical. Maybe it didn’t care whose monster it was. Maybe it was for all of them.
Carissa disappeared upstairs and Elise heard the pipes whine as they fed the shower. Dad was in his office doing whatever he did in there that took so much time. Elise was alone with the monster, for now.
She needed to look at it.
She pulled a folding stool out of the pantry and set it up next to the fridge. From the top step, she pressed one hand against the freezer for leverage and slowly, carefully pulled the door open. Only a crack.
The fridge light snapped on. In the golden light the sandwich sat benign on its plate. Lettuce drooped around its base, framing pointy teeth of overlapped cheese slices and little tongues of tomato. It was a good-looking sandwich, a TV sandwich, if only it didn’t move so much. As Elise watched, it shifted on the plate like an itchy person trying to sleep. Though it wasn’t really the sandwich moving. It was what was inside the sandwich, stretched out along the mattress of bread. Elise could see slivers of purple-dark between the lettuce and pickles.
Swirling beneath the fridge’s cooling hum Elise heard the sound of an ant army: millions of separate, impossibly tiny, furious sounds. She heard it because she knew what to listen for. She had a suspicious mind; a critic’s mind, or a scientist’s. Or a wet blanket’s, according to her mother. It didn’t matter what her family thought. Elise knew evil even when she saw it in a refrigerator.
The monster saw her, too. Elise could feel its tiny eyes on her, though they were tucked somewhere deep inside the bread.
This wasn’t going to be one of the easy ones, like the telephone monsters that you could just hang up on. Whatever this particular monster had planned, it was going to be awful.
The swarming sound grew. The bread twitched. From beneath the lettuce two awl-shaped legs emerged, sliding into the air like needles into flesh, with more legs coming after those as smooth as extruded glass. They stretched out into the air and then down, reaching daintily for the surface of the shelf. They touched the glass with the quiet chime of a fingernail against a coffee mug.
Elise slammed the refrigerator door. The plastic seal sucked it closed with a smack of lips.
What should she do? She wanted to run, most of all, but her hand stayed on the door handle waiting for the slam of those legs kicking against it. Nothing came. There was a quiet ticking inside the fridge, a clink of jars pushed together, and then silence.
What did this monster want? Was the fridge a cage or a lair? What would happen if Elise couldn’t get rid of it before dinner? If they ate it, would it die? Would she die? She could imagine her mother sinking a bread knife into the sandwich, the monster screaming and thrashing and fighting the blade, her mother never flinching.
“Ooh,” Mom might say, “this knife needs to be sharpened, Greg.” Then they would all eat, the monster’s blood slippery between their knuckles.
But probably it wouldn’t be that easy. The monster wasn’t just a sandwich, she could tell already. The sandwich was a disguise.
A door slammed and Elise jumped, footsteps across the house as loud and hollow as her heartbeats.
“Hey, Leese.” Dad stomped across the kitchen to the sink. “You planning a heist? You look like trouble.” He turned on the faucet and shoved his hands beneath the water.
“No.” Elise held the fridge door handles tightly behind her back.
“What’re you up to?” Dad asked as he turned off the faucet. An untidy floodplain surrounded the sink.
“Nothing.” Elise leaned back into the refrigerator, casually she hoped. If Dad opened the fridge door, what would the monster do?
He opened a cabinet and selected a glass. “That sounds un-suspicious.” The cabinet door clapped shut. He turned toward the fridge. Elise braced herself. Dad crossed the kitchen, reaching, and Elise couldn’t think of anything to say that would stop him. She imagined the crow-black, needle-sharp body flying out of the fridge, a thrashing insect tail and horror movie soundtrack. Her father was right in front of her, reaching past, but no, not for the handle. He pushed the button on the ice dispenser. All of her weight pushed against the door. The glass filled with ice, and the finger that had been pushing the ice button moved, slow-motion, for the water button.
Her insides went liquid with relief. She leaned her head back against the fridge and sighed. Dad looked at her weird again.
“Are you okay?” he asked, and the creases around his eyes made it look almost like he knew, like he could almost see the horror in Elise’s heart, and like he might almost, almost be willing to help her.
“Can we order Chinese?” Elise asked.
The concern slid briefly into suspicion and then sucked away into nothing. Glass filled, Dad turned back toward his office. “Maybe,” he said over his shoulder. “Ask Carissa if your mom made plans for dinner.”
Ask your sister, ask your sister. As if Carissa cared. Nobody would help; it was just Elise against the monster. They were all doomed.
Elise took another step, another breath. She looked back over her shoulder at the empty kitchen. The monster wouldn’t know if she left for just a minute, and plus, she didn’t think it could get out of the fridge unless someone let it out. Dad was in his office. It was okay.
She had to at least try to get help.
The bedroom door was closed and so Elise knocked, but too softly. She had to wait with her stomach in knots and then knock again.
Instead of answering, Elise pushed the door open.
Her sister was sprawled on the bed, ankle over knee, dangling her phone. A flush of red highlighted her cheekbones and scratched down the side of her neck. She side-eyed Elise, turned the screen of her phone away. “Yeah?”
Elise fiddled with the doorknob. “What are you doing?”
“I’m talking to someone.” Carissa narrowed her eyes. “What do you want?”
There was pressure in Elise’s chest, like helium or rising heat. Words piled up inside her. What did she want: comfort, help, someone bigger and stronger to take the monsters away. Someone to believe her. Someone to even just listen to her. She couldn’t fit the words in her mouth, couldn’t shape them right. There are no such things as monsters. You’re crazy, Elise. Monsters aren’t real.
Instead she said, “Do you think Mom and Dad would ever get a divorce?”
Carissa’s brows lowered. “What?”
Elise shuffled a step into the bedroom. “Becca’s parents are.”
The phone blipped and Carissa’s eyes snapped to its screen. “Go away,” she said. “Don’t be depressing.”
Elise stood in the doorway poking at the latch for another moment. Carissa’s phone blipped again. Downstairs, from the kitchen, there was a distant shuffling.
The light in the kitchen had thinned to a slushy gray, blurring the numbers on Elise’s algebra worksheet as she sat at the table. She wasn’t really answering the questions anyway, just writing enough that it might fool someone if they saw her. She tapped her pencil against the paper, eyes on the fridge and thumbnail between her teeth.
Elise could just open the fridge door, pull the platter out and dump it in the outside garbage. But if the sandwich went missing everyone would be so mad at her, and they wouldn’t let her explain. And Carissa already hated her.
It was kind of a relief, having an excuse not to open that door. All of the monsters were bad, but there was something about this one that made Elise’s bones go soft. Something extra bad. In fact, she doubted she could just take it out of the house to get rid of it. She had a feeling she would have to do something much more serious.
None of her friends had to do this monster stuff. They just went home and watched TV. Though maybe they did fight monsters and just didn’t tell her, because she sure didn’t tell them. They would think she was crazy, and the whole school would know about it in days. There’s no such thing as a real secret in sixth grade. Everything was just future ammunition.
In the growing gloom, the refrigerator was sullen and watchful. It wasn’t her enemy, she told herself. Or maybe it was and she just couldn’t tell.
Elise had made that mistake before. The first time she saw a phone monster Elise didn’t recognize it and it bit her mother on the face. Mom didn’t react like she’d been bitten. She held the phone for a moment, blinking, then put it down and walked up to her bedroom and shut the door. But Elise saw the blood and the torn skin, even if nobody else acted like they did, and Mom was sick for two days. Elise had caught every phone monster since then. When the phone rang her body reacted without her, flinging itself up. “I’ll get it!” came out without her even thinking about it.
“What’s that girl going to be like as a teenager?” Mom would mutter, shaking her head. “We’re in for a ride.”
The scar from the bite didn’t show up in photographs of her mother. Nobody mentioned it, so Elise guessed it was like the monsters themselves. Same with Elise’s own monster-scars, the big one on her forehead and lots on her hands and arms. It was lucky that she still looked normal to other people.
It was dark in the kitchen now, though a light in the hallway buttered part of the floor. Outside, the streetlights turned the front yard into a Halloween landscape. The clock on the oven flipped to 7:33. Mom would be home at eight for dinner. Elise felt sick.
The lights snapped on, turning the kitchen cheerfully bright. From the doorway, Carissa shouted in alarm.
“What the heck?” she said. “What are you doing in here in the dark?”
Elise rubbed her eyes. “I was thinking.”
Carissa’s mouth opened, her lip squared and face scrunched, a sitcom-teenager expression of disdain. “Why don’t you just go goth now, sheesh.”
“Maybe I fell asleep.” Elise looked down at her math homework, undone, but heavily doodled. She would have to actually do it at some point.
“I have to set the table,” Carissa said. “Do you want to help or should I just set it around you?”
Elise pushed up out of her chair. Set the table for dinner, which would kill them all. She tried to think. “I don’t want a sandwich,” Elise said. “I had a sandwich at lunch.”
Carissa was up on the step stool, head in the top cupboard. “Too bad,” she said. “You’ll live.”
Elise crossed to the refrigerator and leaned against it, though her body rang with electric currents of revulsion and anxiety as she touched it. “Where’d you get it anyway?”
“Brianne’s brother’s friend Chris works at the Sub Stop.”
“Did he give it to you?”
Carissa backed down the step stool, a stack of plates in her hands. “Duh.”
Elise heard scratching inside the fridge, like a cat at the door, but it was very faint. “He just gave it to you? You didn’t have to pay? Maybe there’s something wrong with it.”
“Since when are you the sandwich police?” Carissa set her stack on the table. She wore a familiar expression, a rumpled one that predicted raised voices and tears. Elise hoped she never turned sixteen. “He just gave it to me, okay? Someone, like, canceled an order or something and it was going to be thrown out. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
Elise wanted to just nod, shrink back against the refrigerator, and let her sister win. Arguing with Carissa was excruciating, and left Elise feeling like she’d had all the blood drained out of her. But inside the fridge there was a definite tap, a vibrating thunk. “Let’s order pizza,” she said. It came out like a cough.
Carissa’s eyes narrowed. “You brat. What did you do to it?”
The fridge door handles pressed into Elise’s spine. “I didn’t do anything.”
Three steps and Carissa was across the kitchen, arms reaching around Elise for the door. “If you ruined it like that time with the fried chicken,” she said between gritted teeth and yanks on her sister’s fingers, “I am going to kill you.”
Elise felt her hands slip off the textured plastic, her knuckles burning and crushed inside her sister’s grip. “Please,” she squealed. “Don’t, Carissa, it’s a monster!”
The opening door pitched her out of the way.
The refrigerator was still, but the suspicious kind of still when all the roaches have scrabbled back into the walls. The sandwich sat, fat, jaunty and delicious, in the middle of its shelf. Festive layers of vegetable and cheese propped the bread open like a grin.
“You need serious mental help,” Carissa said.
Elise peered over her sister’s arm. A thin orangey-pink liquid pooled on the tray beneath the bread. “Look,” she said. “What’s that? It’s leaking.” Elise could smell the sharp, wretched vinegar of it.
Carissa reached into the refrigerator–Elise froze, waiting for the black legs to flick out of the sandwich and pierce her sister’s wrist, but the sandwich just sat there like a sandwich–and swiped a finger in the liquid. “It’s just thousand island,” she said, and stuck the finger in her mouth. Something passed over her face, a bad thought perhaps. The finger popped out of her lips. “Go move your school stuff,” Carissa said. “Mom will be home in a few.”
Elise stood alone in the kitchen, staring at the refrigerator. Carissa had gone upstairs with her cellphone, and as soon as she left the hive-humming had begun. It was louder this time and had a metallic edge to it, like a chainsaw far away.
Mom would be home soon, and once she was home she and Dad and Carissa would be in the kitchen, and the monster would do whatever it was planning to do. If Elise was going to stop it, she had to do it now.
Elise pulled open the knife drawer and touched the handles of the knives lined up inside. The cleaver was the meanest-looking; it would feel safe to hold it. But the fridge was a tight space and the cleaver blade was long and wide. Elise closed her hand around the polished handle of a short, bright paring knife. Her mother had told her many times–almost as many times as Elise had touched the knife–that it was very sharp.
She’d never tried to use a knife against a monster before.
The buzzing sound was inside her, now, bees coursing in a circle knot. The distance across the kitchen was so long; Elise had never noticed how much linoleum lay between the counter and the fridge. Miles. She crossed it in less time than it took to take a deep breath. She opened the fridge. The handle of the knife fit snug between the fat muscle of her thumb and fingers.
There was the monster, still in its sandwich guise. It smiled patiently at Elise. Elise was not fooled.
The buzzing rose in volume until it was so loud Elise had to grit her teeth against it. Someone must be able to hear it, Dad in his office or Carissa in her bedroom. But if they did, nobody came.
The bread flapped once, twice. Elise’s stomach jumped.
A fat belching sound came from the fridge, the squeezing jokey fart of a whoopee cushion, and more of the pink liquid squirted from the sandwich, splatting over the side of the tray. The bread began to lift.
Black segmented legs unfolded inside the bread, the unnerving knobby joints of a crab. The legs kept coming, so many and so long that Elise didn’t know how they’d ever hidden in there. The bread fell off onto the shelf, exposing a segmented carapace, a black body paneled like a lobster’s, but longer, mottled with sticky bits of cheese and lettuce.
With a mouth full of horror Elise saw there was more monster folded beneath this body; unfurled, the thing would be longer than her arm and thicker than a soda can. It was black and purple and silver mixed together and Elise still couldn’t find its head. The sound it made hummed behind her eyes, growing to a soprano whine. The hair stood up on her arms, her neck; even at the edges of her face Elise felt the prickle of follicles tensing.
The monster gave a little shake, dislodging a tomato slice from its blunt end, and now Elise could see its face. If she could call it a face. It was more an absence of legs, with a dozen dark little glistening beads that must be eyes set flush against the body. Something separated from beneath this, and, yes, it was the face, because there was the mouth, sticky with orange fluid and full of little spines–teeth, a million tiny quills. From between the teeth came a hiss, and the monster’s body bunched up as if to pounce, and so Elise grimaced and pounced first. The blade in her hand winked in the refrigerator light.
“I’m home,” Mom called. The garage door rumbled closed. “Who’s hungry?”
From her usual chair at the kitchen table, Elise heard Carissa’s bedroom door bang open, heels pounding on the stairs. Dad called something indistinct from his office.
“Mom,” Carissa said, which was enough for greeting. Dad emerged from the hallway and wrapped an arm around Mom’s waist, pressing his lips to the side of her head. The heater kicked in, too, adding its rumble to the evening.
“I’m starving,” Dad said into Mom’s hair. “What’d you plan for food?”
Carissa led them into the kitchen. “I got dinner,” she said over her shoulder with an affected casualness, as though she picked up dinner all the time.
The kitchen was suddenly crowded. “Hey, sweetie,” Mom said to Elise.
Elise said nothing, and nobody noticed. She sat still, looking at the purpling welts on her hands. Strands of her hair had whipped out of her ponytail and fell into her eyes. A long, thin gash on her cheek seeped blood. Elise patted a drop away as it tickled down her jaw. The wadded tissue she held was already liberally stained.
“You getting a cold?” Mom asked Elise, picking up a stack of mail off the counter.
“Maybe.” Elise’s voice sounded froggy enough to pass as sick. She didn’t bother to clear her throat.
Dad had the fridge open. “You want a diet?” he asked.
“Sure, thanks,” Mom said.
Dad set two cans of soda on the table. Behind him, Carissa had taken his place at the fridge. She slid the sandwich platter off the shelf.
“Woah,” Dad said. “Where’d you get that monster?”
Carissa grinned as she set the tray on the table. The sandwich lay in tatters, bread soaked in sour pink liquid and stained in places with what looked like prune juice. Cheese, lettuce, tomato and pickles were twisted into a sloppy quilt. Nobody noticed besides Elise.
“From the Sub Stop,” Carissa said. “I have a friend who works there.”
“A boyfriend?” Mom stage-whispered, and Carissa pursed her lips in a small pleased grin, her back straightening, color rising in her cheeks. Mom and Dad pulled their chairs out and sat. Before Carissa joined them she stepped back, hooking her thumbs under her sweater and peeling it up over her head. As she pulled it off and turned to drape it over the back of her chair, Elise’s stomach wrenched cold and heavy: across the back of Carissa’s neck and left shoulder, the flesh was mangled. Torn skin folded under itself; muscle lay exposed like sticky, fraying rope turning gray in the air. Elise clamped a hand over her mouth. Didn’t that hurt? Carissa moved like she was fine, muscle and sinew gliding together as she lifted her arm, turned her head. It was grotesque, a science museum exhibit that it hurt to look too much at.
Sickened, Elise forced herself to look away. Her father’s face caught her attention. He was looking at Carissa, too, frozen, the skin around his eyes and cheeks paled. Elise felt something thump inside her. He saw? Did he see Carissa too?
As if he’d heard Elise’s thought, Dad startled out of the moment. He turned away, looking briefly at Elise and then intentionally away, toward the sandwich, which he stood up to lean over. Mom handed him a knife. Elise saw the traces of the horror they’d shared sinking inside of him, sucked down into somewhere just as hidden as the monsters’ scars. Dad sunk the knife into the sandwich at intervals and slid the end piece onto his plate, sitting down with it. Mom and Carissa dragged bits of carcass onto their plates as well.
“Dad?” Elise said it so quietly, so carefully, that nobody seemed to hear her. Especially not Dad.
“You want this piece?” Mom asked, sliding a sopping slice toward Elise.
“I’m not hungry.” Elise searched for any hint of fear or nausea or fury in her father’s blank face. “I think I’m sick.”
Mom stopped. “Oh,” she said, abandoning the plate to lay a hand on Elise’s forehead. “What kind of sick?”
“Mentally sick,” Carissa said. Her shoulder wound glistened in the light. Elise could smell it, the blood smell of a dingy grocery store meat counter. “She’s being weird again.”
Elise turned to her mother. “Can I please go lie down?”
“Sure, sweetie. I’ll come check on you after dinner.”
Elise dragged her chair out from the table. Her tailbone hurt from the impact of hitting the floor, where the monster had briefly pinned her. She cradled her left elbow in the opposite hand as she shuffled toward the stairs. She did not glance back at her family in the kitchen. She wished she felt like she needed to.
“This sandwich is great,” said Mom. Everyone agreed.
Tegan Moore spends a lot of time thinking about animals, the inherent weirdness of being, the future and the end of the world so she tends to read and write fiction about those things as well. She has eight toenails, is allergic to chocolate and is more likely to remember your dog’s name than yours. Sorry. It’s not you, she’s just really into your dog.
Tegan is a graduate of Clarion West and blogs at www.alarmhat.com.