Grandpa had a monster living inside of him. That’s how come I never saw him much. That’s how come he was never invited around for holidays. He told me so in the nursing home the day I ditched sixth grade science so I wouldn’t have to take a test and went to visit him. Even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to visit Grandpa alone and Grandpa knew it too.
He asked if my parents knew where I was and I said not really. Grandpa gave me a long look and a nod from his armchair and didn’t say anything else about that.
I knew he wouldn’t tell on me. He wasn’t that kind of person.
The monster, according to Grandpa, looked kind of like a toad, or its skin looked like a toad’s anyway, slimy and speckled and it sat like a toad does, crouching. But it was man-shaped for the most part. It had yellow eyes and long, bony fingers with webbing in between and a black mouth, black lips, black gums and sharp, grey teeth.
“My monster didn’t mean no harm, I don’t think.” Grandpa said. “But he did it anyway.” He shook his head, leaned back into his armchair. He was all skin and bone and his hands shook a bit when he moved them to illustrate a point. He had watery eyes, the kind that look like they’ve done a lot of crying for a lot of years—they’d been that way since the first time I met him.
I sat down on the end of his tightly made bed and he took that as a signal to keep going about the monster.
It got in him during the war, he told me, or maybe right after. He suspected it was a bitty little egg at the time, like one of those orange fish eggs they put on sushi these days and that’s how come he didn’t realize he’d swallowed a monster. Or maybe it never was an egg and it crawled into his mouth while he was sleeping, like a spider does. Or maybe he was born with it in there and it just waited until after the war to start making trouble.
Grandpa shrugged about that and coughed into a fist.
The first time the monster came out Grandpa told me he was blacked out, which I didn’t know the exact meaning of at the time but nodded like I did. He didn’t feel it, the monster coming out. He only felt it coming back in in the morning.
“I felt him prying my lips apart, really trying to shove his fingers in there and I was biting down and trying to yell your Grandma Irna’s name through my teeth, because I thought it was her, see, trying to make sure I was alive or something and I was trying to tell her I was okay so stop it. But then I finally got my eyes to open and there were those bulbous, yellow eyes looking at me like the eye of death and so I yelled like anyone would. And the monster got his hand all the way in my mouth and then shrank way down and slithered down my throat like an eel. I almost choked to death as he made his way down.”
Grandpa said he sat there where he’d spent the night on the couch, stunned and trying to figure out what to do, coming up with no good ideas. He’d never heard of anything like that happening to anyone before. He didn’t know if he should call a doctor or someone else. Or what. And after a long time of trying to think of what to do, he wasn’t even sure it had happened anymore, wasn’t even sure that monster hadn’t been a vision produced by his own sick brain. So he didn’t do anything except for hope it wouldn’t happen again. But apparently it did, a lot of times.
Grandpa told me when my mom was a baby, the sound of her crying agitated the monster something fierce. Grandpa could feel it sloshing angrily in his stomach all the time, threatening to get out and do some awful thing. So Grandpa took to staying away from home as much as he could, especially at night, which mostly meant being in bars or occasionally at a friend’s house, talking about the old days and the war.
It was cold in the nursing home that day, like it always was. There was a storm coming in, clouds all over the sky and the wind making the trees act up outside the window behind Grandpa. I was going to have to take the bus back home and I was starting to wonder by that point if going to see Grandpa had been such a good idea, if it might not have been better to just go fail that science test after all.
I noticed for the first time the popping out vein in Grandpa’s forehead, the knobbiness of his knuckles.
“He started to get out a bit more when the kids were all young, the monster did. I never could tell if it was because they bothered him or if it was because he liked them and wanted to see them or what it was but it felt like every night for awhile there he was out and about, scaring everybody.”
Grandpa looked down at his hands. “It got so bad there for awhile that I had to leave my job at the plant and Irna had to go to work at the school library and that money was all the money we had. I don’t know if your mother’s told you about that yet.”
I shook my head, thought for a second of the way my mom shifted uncomfortably every time we went to the nursing home, the way she would cross and uncross her legs a hundred times.
Grandpa told me that one day, when he was going through a good period, when the monster hadn’t climbed its slimy way out of his mouth for a couple weeks in fact and Grandpa’s thoughts had turned to trying to find some kind of work again, his youngest girl, my aunt Janey, looked up at him from where she was playing on the floor with her secondhand doll and asked where Tate was.
So Grandpa said, “Who’s Tate?”
“You know, your friend. With the—” Janey bared her teeth and held her hands up like claws next to her face and Grandpa took that to mean the monster.
He told her Tate might not be coming around much anymore, or ever again even.
He said Janey just nodded and didn’t explain herself but he remembered that day extremely well because he felt so nice and gentle that afternoon watching Janey play with her doll and he believed truly in his heart, as soon as he said it out loud, that the monster was gone. Somehow. But then that night when he was lying in his bed, not being able to sleep for no particular reason, he started to feel the throat ache that meant the monster was coming up, coming out.
That night the monster did something even Grandpa had never thought it would do—it laid a hand on one of his girls.
“According to Irna, she heard sounds coming from your mom’s room. Like footsteps and then your mom’s voice, sounding fearful. And by the time Irna had thrown the covers off her legs and started down the hall she heard your mom start to cry. Not howling, just quiet tears. And when Irna opened the door, she found the monster with his black mouth on your mom’s calf and your mom lying perfectly still, tears just rolling. Next day Irna found teeth marks all over your mom’s legs. Turns out it that wasn’t the first time it happened.”
There were tears in Grandpa’s eyes and he put his hand on his heart. “I still to this day don’t know what he was doing, exactly. If I’d thought—” Grandpa flattened his lips and shook his head.
I wanted to tell him he didn’t have to tell me any more because I didn’t even really want to know and I wasn’t feeling well anymore but I didn’t say anything, I don’t know why. I thought about my mom, the way she looked when she was sitting in her favorite chair with her feet up.
“I knew before she said it that Irna was going to take the kids,” Grandpas said. “She had to. She’d begged me a hundred times to figure something out to do with the monster, some way to get it out or tame it, but the truth was maybe I liked the monster a little bit. Maybe he provided some company for me, I don’t know. Maybe he was too much a part of me by then to be let go. And once Irna and the kids left–” Grandpa held up empty hands “–the monster was really all the company I had. My whole life, I spent more time with that monster than anybody else. I never did get to spend enough time with the girls, was always too sick.”
I can’t remember much of what Grandpa and I talked about after that. I think I told him about failing science and he made me feel a little better but none of that sticks in my mind. On the bus ride home with all the rain coming down I couldn’t think about anything but the monster’s black mouth and grey teeth. On my own calves, maybe.
I told my older brother Miles about the monster that night, thinking his mind would be as blown as mine was but instead he laughed his face off.
“He’s a liar, idiot,” he said. “I can’t believe you would ever believe that. There’s no monster living in Grandpa, he’s just a drunk. Dad told me. You better just hope I don’t tell Mom about you ditching science and taking the bus out to the nursing home. If she doesn’t already know. Someone probably already called her.”
And he was right, someone had already called her and she didn’t even look at me when she told me how long I was grounded for. She was too mad. She asked what me and Grandpa talked about and I lied. Told her we talked about science and other normal things.
“Do not go there alone again,” she said, “Please.”
I heard Mom and Dad talking about it that night in their room, Dad saying he didn’t mind if none of us went there ever again.
As soon as I was ungrounded, I went back to the nursing home.
The nurse said Grandpa was asleep but I could go on in and see for myself if I wanted to. So I went in and she was right, he was asleep with his face turned toward the door. I shut the door as quietly as I could, meant to shake Grandpa awake but instead I just watched him for a minute or two, thinking about how he probably was just a drunk and how he told me that story because he thought I was just a kid who would believe anything anyone said. And about what he had done to my mom if he was just a drunk. I was getting really mad, all up in my own head like I had been doing all week. I was actually balling my fists up and everything, pacing around the room, thinking of how I would tell him off for lying but not really having the courage to say any of it out loud.
So I was getting ready to leave instead, storm out the door and slam it shut and never come back when I looked back at Grandpa’s face. It was mostly in shadow, the curtains were drawn so I couldn’t tell for sure what was happening. And I thought maybe the thing coming out of Grandpa’s mouth was just his tongue. But it couldn’t have been because it was the wrong color—grey. And when I turned my head to look better, I could see the dirty fingernail. And then another fingertip emerged and then those two fingers forced Grandpa’s mouth apart, too wide.
I ran away. Past the nurse who asked what was wrong and all the way home. And Grandpa died not too long after that. I meant to visit him before that happened but I didn’t.
Nobody seemed too sad except for me and no one could understand why I was taking it so hard. Miles called me a faker but I just said he could think whatever he wanted to, I didn’t care.
He made fun of me also, for not eating or drinking anything at the funeral. I didn’t tell him why. I didn’t tell him that the monster had to go somewhere after Grandpa died and any one of us might be looking like a nice new home right about then. I didn’t tell him how many places a little monster egg could be hiding and I didn’t tell him about seeing the monster’s dirty fingers. I never told anyone about that. Sometimes I’m not sure if I even saw it, sometimes I think it might’ve been something I made up in my own brain, some trick of the light.
But I still worry about it all the time because what if I did see it and what if a monster got in me somehow, that day or another? Or what if I was born with one? I’m not that old and there could be a monster hiding in there, in me, waiting for the right moment to start making trouble. Sometimes I think I feel something in there, something sloshing, but I can’t say for sure. You just don’t know until you know and by then it’s way too late.
Sonia Christensen lives and works in Boulder, Colorado. She graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Colorado in May 2012. She has a story called “The Fish And Other Bad Things” in Corvus, Issue 7.