of monsters and men
We were in the third grade when we first met. I was drawing a giraffe for art class, and you were sitting next to me, hogging all the yellow and orange crayons. I poked you in the side.
“Hey,” I said, pointing to your stack. “Can I have one?”
“No,” you said back staunchly, hugging the crayons to you protectively.
I scowled. “They’re all the same,” I protested. “I just need one.”
You frowned, and pushed your paper towards me. I took one look, and forgot how much I hated you in that moment.
Your drawing was of a lion with an eagle’s head. It was layered with different shades of gold and orange, and it stretched lazily, yawning. Its wings flapped once, as it tried to take off, but one wasn’t colored in yet, so it settled back down and resumed its proud stance.
“Wow,” I said, mesmerized. Then, I colored my giraffe green instead.
Afterwards, I was captivated by you and the way you could turn ink alive. I learned you were in Ms. Kramer’s class, across the hall from me, and that you were shy and continuously drew, turning out sketches that had your classmates whispering in jealous admiration.
During the combined recess, I noticed you sat alone, huddled over a brown sketchbook. When she was busy, I stole a pack of my sister’s crayons and tucked them into my coat pocket. When we were dismissed for break, I walked over to you and gave you the one that was labeled Sunshine Yellow.
You were forming a mermaid’s tail, as she flipped her dark hair over her shoulder and gave me a disdainful look. I held the crayon out to you, my hands shaking slightly.
“For you,” I said, in a way that was very unlike my quick, bossy self. You barely glanced up.
“I need purple, not yellow.”
So I dug around in my coat and handed you Priscilla’s entire box, and you stopped filling in her tail to give me a slow, careful smile.
“Do you want to sit down?” you said.
And we were friends. It was that easy.
The first and only time I was ever invited to your house, you taught me how to play Blackjack, as the television blared dimly in the background. I ended up losing 156 dollars to you, and, in the end, you said that I could pay you back in colored pencils and charcoal pieces.
The front door opened, shut, slammed. I looked up, and saw a boy before us. He looked like he was in high school, so a few years older than us, with faded eyes and a thin layer of scruff around his chin. He was rattling an orange bottle around in his hands when he noticed the two of us, stretched out on the floor.
“Oh. Hey there.”
You dropped your cards and stood up. You looked so small next to him, as you asked quietly,
“Have you taken your pills yet?”
He laughed, and tossed the bottle in the air. Each pill inside clanked, pounding on the barriers they were confined in.
“You mean these, little brother?”
Your voice grew even quieter. “Alex, Mom said you have to keep tak–”
He just laughed again, in a way that made me shrink back. In one fluid motion, he swept the bottle into his pocket and smirked.
“Sure thing, little brother. Sure. Thing.”
He walked out of the room, and you sat back down. In a soft, measured voice you told me that your brother had monsters in his head that spoke to him, crept out and wrapped around his neck—that the pills helped, but, now, his moods and thoughts were getting harsher and wilder. Then, you said it was probably time for me to leave and I agreed with you.
When I got home, I looked up the name you’d whispered to me: schizophrenia. The first thing I saw was that, being a sibling, you had a 10 percent risk of becoming affected too.
When we were both thirteen, the monsters wanted to see what color your brother’s blood was in water. He spent a week in intensive care, before your parents sent him off to the Damos Medical Facility, where he was kept under close, intense watch.
You came over the day that he was transferred, armed with six different shades of paint and a permanent marker. Together, we mapped out the outline of a phoenix on my ceiling. We colored in the bird with a burning, vibrant gold, and, when we were done, you looked up approvingly.
“Phoenix,” you said, and there was so much that was layered into your voice that, for some reason, it was all you needed to say.
I had a habit of practicing my trumpet while you were trying to paint.
Once, you set down your paintbrush and flashed me a scathing look.
“Remind me again why you joined band.”
“Varsity band,” I reminded you rather smugly. I loved that I’d finally managed to outshine you in some department of creativity—you’d tried the violin for two months in the freshmen orchestra, then immediately quit to take Art III.
“And it allows me to manifest my creative gifts and talents.”
You returned to your art.
“Did you get that phrase from an inspirational poster?”
I set down my trumpet and watched as the Loch Ness Monster disappeared under inky waters.
“There’s one in the band hall,” I replied defensively.
You smiled at that, and started on the clear sky, which hovered on a tint of icy blue.
“By all means then,” you said, and extended one hand in such an exaggerated fashion that it made me smile too, as I picked up my trumpet and played you a requiem fit for Nessie herself.
My sister believed in ghosts. She was going through a phase when she would wrap up all her hair in a gauzy red scarf and prance around the house with a crystal ball, trying to read our auras. One day, she told me mine was turquoise, and I threw an orange Popsicle at her face—after that, she stopped trying to “read” me.
You came over after school, like you usually did, and there she was, instead of at the movies with her friends or holed up in her room. Instead, she was poking at our walls, trying to contact some spirit lodged inside. She perked up immediately when she saw us come in.
I sighed in resignation. “Hi, Priscilla.”
She ignored me—typical—and immediately flitted over to you. She put both hands on your shoulders and frowned.
“Your aura is stronger today.”
You looked like you were trying not to laugh, but managed to keep a straight face.
This only encouraged her. She stepped back dramatically, her long skirt swishing around her ankles.
“I see pain,” she murmured. “I see your pain, unbounded, limitless. I see you, trying to stay afloat—a creature that hisses close by, with no eyes and a gaping maw—and you wish it would stop, but you know it won’t, don’t you?”
She kept rambling, but I’d stopped listening by then. I was looking at you, afraid of your reaction—except you had gone pale, so pale that your blue eyes seemed to glow brighter, harder; your right hand tightened quietly as you let out your breath in one slow motion. You would never tell her to stop—you were too kind, too gentle—so I stepped in and pulled you out of the living room before Priscilla could finish.
The next day at school, you were quieter than usual. You left your sketchbook on your desk, and, when I snuck a peek at it, instantly regretted my choice. Of all the terrors I’d seen from you before, this one leered at me, its mouth pinned into a cruel, hollow laugh. You’d drawn the nightmare Priscilla had described to you yesterday—and this was the first time I began to wonder if the monsters on the page were more than fanciful imaginations.
“You have no sense of depth.”
You were looking over at my shoulder, examining my project for history class. We were supposed to draw Attila the Hun for a poster, and I had dreamed up a masterpiece of a stick figure with a black beard.
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked, fluffing out Attila’s beard.
You didn’t even bother to reply to this, just sighed in an unusual show of dramatic flair and lowered your pen back to your paper. I leaned over your arm, and saw that you’d labeled your sketches, like usual. This one read “ATTILA: A COMPREHENSIVE STUDY.”
“That’s not Attila,” I said loudly, trying to make myself feel better. In truth, though, Attila or not, what you’d done was incredible. A water serpent grinned up at me, baring its teeth and snapping loudly. Its torso rippled under the sun, reflecting dully into the sea.
“It’s a comprehensive study,” you said back, as if I couldn’t read. When I just stared some more, you shrugged. “I see him as a snake, choking the life out of his people. This is just how I envision him.”
You went back to your art, and I leaned against the wall, annoyed at your profundity and complexity. Your bag pressed into my side, and, when I moved to push it away, I accidently dislodged a sheet of paper.
It was colored completely black, with only the faint outline of a white form pressed against the darkness, barely visible. Your handwriting had written a two-word title at the bottom, in your messy, thin scrawl. I glanced over at you, but you were already immersed in ATTILA, as the two words leapt out at me: SELF-PORTRAIT.
“Teach me to draw,” I said one day, in a fit of madness and stupidity.
You gave me a Look.
“Um,” you said, trying to mitigate the effects of your words. “Are you sure?”
When I begged, you relented, and we ended up in the sunny corner of my room, underneath the phoenix, curled on two beanbag chairs. You handed me some paper, and started to shape a fairy on the page. Her delicate smile came into view, as the petals of her purple dress fluttered softly.
I tried to copy you, to a poor effect. My poor creature grimaced, her dress askew, as she tried desperately to escape, only to be caught up in a whirl of an eraser.
“It’s not working,” I uttered, frustrated.
You took one look and started to laugh, in the nicest way you possibly could.
“Your talent is palpable,” you said, as you tried to catch your breath.
I never told you, but I didn’t really want to learn how to draw when I asked you to teach me—I already knew I hadn’t a drop of artistic talent in me. What I really wanted was for you to laugh the way you did, to forget about the beautiful, terrible beasts for just a second, even as they seemed to lurk nearer to you, baring their teeth into cold grins and snickering at me when I tried to scare them away.
I saw you in the hallway, your backpack slung over your left shoulder. You were angled away from me, so I could see your profile, as you stared at an empty space where silence clung to the air.
Then, before I could say anything, you’d disappeared into the crowd of people, vanishing like a ghost into a field of empty, happy chatters.
The day I marched into your room was the day I was so determined to save you.
God, I’d had it all planned out. I’d go and give you a giant speech on how you weren’t schizophrenic—how you had nothing to be afraid of and how you didn’t have to hide from me and how that was that.
You were painting a dragon on your wall, one at least three feet long in length and height. Its scales were black and its tail clipped the edge of your door. You had flecks of black paint on you, as you turned slightly and your expression hardened.
“Look,” I said, and my tone immediately hinged on desperation. I steeled myself and plowed ahead. “Look. I know you think that you’re in trouble and that you’re starting to becoming schizophrenic, but I, for one, am not about to believe it.”
You folded your arms. Your look was one of dry amusement.
For some reason, this made me angry. I gritted my teeth.
“Where’s your proof?” I shot back. “You told me that Alex—” at your brother’s name, you flinched, “—would talk to people that weren’t there and have mood swings and, frankly, you haven’t done that.”
“Yet,” you muttered.
“You won’t,” I snapped. “And I know you’re scared that you will and that you’re exactly like Alex, but I can promise you—”
“YOU CAN’T!” you gasped out, and your voice broke, shattering down the middle. You stood there, your arms hanging uselessly against your sides, your breaths coming out in short gasps. All around you were pieces of light, reflected off the opened window, as you stared right back at me.
“You can’t promise me anything—I can’t promise me anything! Alex—Alex was fine too, you know. He was fine too until he was seventeen and my age and then the fucking monsters started talking to him, yelling at him. God, I saw what they did to him—so I tried to make sure that it never happened to me and I drew every monster I thought was coming my way—“
The dragon on your wall smirked at me, its lips turning up slyly. It blew a gentle smoke ring in my direction before settling down again, its red eyes blinking, eager to hear what came next.
You clenched your fists, bringing them up to your temples furiously.
“Katie,” you said to me, and I will never forget the way you looked, a streak of black paint on your forehead, shadows under your eyes, red flooding your cheeks.
“I know you saw me in the hallway, looking at nothing. Katie, I thought I heard someone calling my name. More than thought. The voice was so real, he could’ve been standing next to me—and, God, Katie, it’s happening all over again.”
You laughed suddenly, a short, resigned laugh at the way life had knocked you into a hole you couldn’t climb out of. Slowly, slowly, you reached into your drawer and pulled out a vial of snowy pills. Then you threw them at my feet, where the pills spilled out, one by one.
“There,” you said, in a very quiet voice. “There’s your proof.”
And that’s when I realized that the mythic beast might be coming to life on your wall, but the monster was already beside you, blurring into reality and taking you by the hand to lead you away. I wasn’t ready for it to take you yet—I would find some magical sword to cut it down, because every monster could be killed, no matter what.
But you had your own ideas.
Three days later I got the phone call.
You never did finish that dragon on your wall.
I can’t think about the day that follows that.
After, I kept replaying everything in my head. I remember the way you looked at me, as the dragon roared. I remember the way you sounded, as your hands balled into fists and lifted to your face.
I could almost envision you beneath a moonless sky, as it blinked down and a giant’s hand scooped you up and slammed you to the ground, where you lay, staring up at the gray drifts, the quiet silence scaring away all the monsters at last.
After all this, after the tears, the denial, the anger—after, after, after they all tell me that it’s going to be all right. They say that you thought this through, that you felt that it was your only way out, that you’re so much happier now than you could’ve ever been. They say that you wanted this.
I say, okay. Okay, okay, okay, as I lie in my bed at night, staring up at the ceiling, at the phoenix that explodes into colors of Sunshine Yellow before settling back down to sleep, nestling its golden head beneath the glorious plume of its wing.
You wanted this.
Dear God, I hope you did.
Tiffany Wang is a junior at John H. Guyer High School, a school on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas. She loves to experiment with all different stylistic forms of prose, and usually comes up with story ideas right before she falls asleep. Her work has been nationally recognized by the Scholastic Arts and Writing Awards, and has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Blue Monday Review, The Apprentice Writer, and Cadaverine Magazine, among others. When she’s not writing, you can probably find her playing the piano, attending a debate tournament, or studying furiously for the SAT.