Monsters of Morningside
Monsters of Morningside
Alex's dream-world shivered like the image in a shaken mirror. Mom's hard belly was smashing into his side and her voice was in his ear.
Something sharp dug into his right palm, and he sat straight up with a yelp; the action caused the open drawer of his desk to clatter closed.
The thing in his palm was the tooth-pocked stub of a pencil—which was all he'd found when he'd rummaged through his desk last night, desperate to draw everything he'd seen in the other world. Of course, there was no paper, either; Mom had taken it all away. But years later, someone else who was looking for something they weren't allowed to have would find, drawn in silver-gray lines upon the raw wood inside the drawer, a person with wings, a many-legged dragon, and a monstrous cat.
Alex stared wide-eyed into blank space as the memory of his adventure flowed through his mind, while Mom just shook her head.
"Looking for crayons?" She lifted him by his armpits and set him in the middle of his room. "If you want them back you have to stop trying to break the rules. Now get dressed and come down for breakfast." She waddled to the door.
But Alex was thinking: Maybe the monster-cat came back. Maybe it's in the back yard. He went back to his desk and started to climb on top of it again.
He swung his head around and fell off his chair. Mom was standing in the doorway with a horrible frown on her face. Alex sighed deeply and stumbled to his dresser. Underpants. He started opening drawers, his mind careening between his magical adventure and his fading dream.
Underpants, pants, shirt...
His dream—definitely one of the best he'd ever, ever had—was fading from his memory. The monster hadn't even been in it, but something exciting had been happening. The Dream Teacher was there, of course, showing him how to make something—something more real than anything he'd ever made before. He could almost see it in his mind right now...
His memory of going over the bridge, however, was crystal-clear. The other world was as real as this shirt he was half-strangled in. He straightened it out. Wait 'til I tell Linden! He won't believe his ears!
He tugged his pants on, trotted out of his room and down the stairs, stopped. Something was missing: socks!
And that was the way the morning went.
At the cubbies, Alex filled Linden in at lightning speed.
"Guess what! I went across the bridge and it was the other world! There were lights everywhere! And all kinds of magic people, and they talked to me! They tried to make me go back, but I ran away, and—"
The shrill jangle of the school bell cut him short. Alex kept whispering to the back of Linden's head as they shuffled toward their seats. "—and I almost got to the monster!"
"Linden Lighthouse," said Mr. Fine.
The boys turned their heads as one.
"Your seat has been reassigned."
At recess, Alex and Linden hurried across the schoolyard to the northwest corner where it abutted the woods. A big tree with masses of hanging, tangled twigs overshadowed a little dip in the turf where rain collected. Linden found a rock and Alex a root to sit on as Alex recounted his nocturnal adventure.
Linden kept grilling him about what was on the other side of the bridge in the daytime versus the nighttime, and Alex kept explaining. At some point Linden arose and started pacing around under the tree. Finally, right in the middle of Alex describing the silver monster, Linden stopped in his tracks and turned around.
"Parallel!" he said.
"It's a parallel universe," Linden explained. "Like this." He held up his two hands, pressed them together and turned them so that only one showed. "This way, you see one hand," he said. "Turn them," he showed the pinky edges of his hands, "and you see both. Turn again, and you see the other one." He plopped down on the rock. "Parallel."
Alex frowned. He hadn't felt the world tipping at all, and if it had, wouldn't everyone and everything have slipped sideways? Plus, the world was round, not flat like a hand. Though Linden had said "universe." He was still puzzling over this when Linden jumped up again and ran to the fence that separated the schoolyard from the woods.
"Oh my gosh… did you see that?"
Alex followed him. "What?"
"What color did you say the monster thing was?"
"You know! Silver!" Alex was pretty sure he'd called it the silver monster at least ten times. But a pleasant tingling sensation had begun at the back of his neck, and Linden was bouncing excitedly, his dark blue eyes wide.
"I see silver! Through the branches!" Linden pointed. "There! See?"
Alex squinted through the wire mesh into the tangle of twigs, needles and autumn leaves. There was orange, brown, gray, white… gray and white! That could be silver!
"I see it!"
Linden stopped bouncing and faced Alex. "Is the silver monster dangerous?"
Alex peered through the mesh again. The far-off flecks of gray and white stirred in a slithering kind of way. The tingling was all over his skin now. He nodded. "Yes. Very."
"Alright, I'm going to tell you something secret," said Linden. "There's a place where you can go under the fence."
A thrill of excitement rippled down Alex's spine. Then Mom's horrible frown popped into his mind and his stomach turned to ice. He said: "We're not allowed…"
"I've done it lots of times. No one found out."
"But—I'm supposed to be good—"
"Alex Hollow!" Linden interrupted him, sounding so much like a grown-up that Alex put his hands behind his back. "Sometimes you just have to be bad."
Those words warmed Alex's stomach right up.
He peered into the woods again. Purple-gray clouds loomed over the tops of the mountains that rose out of the trees; wind brushed his cheeks and he smelled smoke and dead leaves. He set his shoulders back and squared his jaw. "We need to find out what that monster is up to."
"We definitely do. Let's go, before the bell rings!"
The hole under the fence was just a few feet away. Alex only got a little muddy going under. From there, they just had to keep their eyes on the silvery patches some twenty feet in front of them, and follow as their target kept slipping westward.
A high, keen note sounded in Alex's ears and he halted. He knew exactly what that was! So did Linden. They exchanged knowing looks, turned around and thrashed their way back through the bushes and trees.
Minutes later, though, Alex began to think that, whatever a parallel universe was and however it worked, they were in one, because they could not find the fence.
He could hear Linden breathing as hard as he was. Both of them were looking this way and that, stumbling over rocks and roots, and getting their feet stuck in mud. It wasn't long before the jangle of the school bell told Alex that they were late. Very late.
"I'm sor—" Alex started, and was elbowed in the ribs by Linden, who said: "We got lost," and sniffled and rubbed his eyes. Both of them had leaves in their hair, mud in their shoes, and plenty of scratches and scrapes in between.
They stood in a circle with Alex's mom, Mrs. Lighthouse and the Goblin, Principal Rowan, the recess monitors Ms. Izzy and Ms. Condi, and two police officers.
Linden kept babbling and sniffling. "We were just looking at something in the woods. We never saw the fence; I don't know how we got to the other side. There must be a hole. And then we got lost."
"I swear I didn't see them—" Ms. Izzy began.
Mrs. Lighthouse cut her off. "It is your job to see them, isn't it?" She glared at Principal Rowan, who said nothing but peered over his glasses at Ms. Izzy and Ms. Condi in turn.
"The important thing is," said the cheerful-looking police-woman, "they found their way back, and they seem fine."
"You need to look at that fence, though," said her partner.
In the end, after writing some things on his clip-board and pushing his glasses to the bridge of his nose, Principal Rowan promised to evaluate the fence that Linden swore he and Alex had never seen. Mrs. Lighthouse, bouncing the squealing Goblin, gave the two monitors a short but cutting lecture. Ms. Condi cried and Ms. Izzy folded her arms. The police officers tipped their hats and headed outside. Mom said nothing. Alex was sure that the worst was yet to come—though, what else could Mom do to him?
"I'm sorry, Mom," he said as they hurried to the car. As always Mom moved much faster than someone shaped like a giant pear on legs should. "I'm really, really sorry!" Mom just hummed and flicked an unreadable look at him as she unlocked the car.
It was as though she had a sunny side and a shadow side, and all the bad things he kept on doing were putting him on her shadow side. He said yet again: "I'm really, really—"
A flash of her eyes in the rear-view mirror cut him off. He saw the crinkle of a mischievous smile. "Don't worry," she said. "I know just what to do with you."
What Mom did with Alex was to take him to the Doctor's Office, where, to his immense relief, he did not get any shots. All that happened was that the Doctor, a slim, gray-haired woman, pulled from a cupboard a few well-used toys for Alex to play with while she and Mom talked.
(When Alex asked if she had any crayons, the Doctor looked like she'd been waiting all day for someone to ask that, and produced a little plastic basket full of them, along with some sheets of printer paper. Mom pressed her lips together and said nothing.)
Once in a while the Doctor asked Alex about what he was drawing, or about the toys. Alex said mostly "Um."
After a while, they said goodbye to the Doctor. Alex thought they were going home; instead, halfway, Mom pulled into a sleepy row of shops tucked into the woods. She led Alex to one of the middle ones—it had a wooden sign that Alex could not read, except for the second-to-last word: Arts!
In his heart a little flame ignited, and flickered expectantly until they stood in front of the fogged window. A few smallish, blurry forms flitted past—followed by a hulking one, with a staff. A wordless yell made of many voices rattled the glass. Alex tried to tug Mom backward by her jacket as she turned the door handle.
She grabbed his hand. "None of that. Come." The next moment, they were inside, Alex now gripping Mom's hand with both of his.
One wall was made all of mirrors. A row of people—mostly kids, big and small, sank to their knees in front of it, their backs to Alex.
Facing them, also on his knees, his staff laid across them, was someone who looked even scarier than Mr. Rowan.
Lumps that could have been either muscles or monster bumps bulged under a tattered, gray-black uniform. His hands, covered in coarse hair, look ink-stained. The hair on his head was matted and untidy, yielding to uneven stubble from his sharp cheekbones to his chin. Shaggy eyebrows encroached on deep-set eyes that looked as though they'd been rubbed by those dirty hands.
Alex thought: Troll!
Nothing happened for more than a minute. Alex tried not to breath. Finally the Troll-teacher lifted his staff and rapped it sharply on the wood floor. As one, the students raised their heads. They and the Troll rose, hands pressed together like saints in museum paintings, and bowed.
A gravelly voice bellowed: "Very good!" Alex shuddered; the Troll didn't look like the kind of creature who knew how to speak. The charcoal-smudged face cracked a sharp-toothed grin. The students broke into raucous chatter as they filed past him, shaking hands with him and with each other. The Troll-Teacher's shiny, black eyes rested on each face in turn. Not until he'd greeted all of them, and they'd trotted to the heaps of gym bags and backpacks along the opposite wall, did he turn his gaze to Alex and his mother, and open his arms. "Nushenita!" he shouted.
Mom beamed. "Daoshi!" She pulled Alex forward. "This is my son, Alex."
Daoshi made a growling sound as he stuck out a hairy hand. Alex extended his own, which felt clammy. Daoshi's was hot and rough. He gave Alex a crisp nod. "Alex Hollow! Very fine!" He beckoned for them to scoot aside as departing and arriving students bustled past each other through the door. As Daoshi gave his attention to new arrivals, Mom turned to Alex and, bracing herself on a chair, lumbered to her knees so she could look him in the eye.
"Why'd he call you Nush…"
"Nushenita. His nickname for me. You'll get one too." She helped him take off his jacket. "There's a café two doors down," she said. "I'll be there while you do some martial arts with Daoshi. I need to make some notes and call your Dad. See you in forty-five minutes."
"Forty-five…" Alex whispered in dismay. That was too many minutes!
Mom patted his cheek, winked and headed for the door. Alex turned to watch a new gaggle of students—seven of them, all bigger than Alex, lining up in front of the mirror. Four of them wore green belts, two blue, and one black.
This was going to be worse than gym class. Alex's stomach hurt.
A hot, heavy hand fell on his shoulder; his knees nearly gave way.
"Intermediate class, yes?" said Daoshi's voice in his ear. His breath smelled sharp, like the forest after a storm. "You listen, watch, follow. We will take care of you."
Take care of me?
Alex knew what that meant!
The next thing he knew, Daoshi was steering him to a place at the left end of the row, next to a blond, freckled girl with a green belt. "Miss Springer, meet Alex Hollow. You will please give to Mr. Hollow what help he requires, yes? Mr. Hollow, Daisy Springer."
Daisy cast Alex a quick smile while Daoshi stepped to the front and center of the studio. Alex smiled back at her, nervously.
Everyone drew up rail-straight, snapping hands to outer thighs. Alex copied them; heat rushed to his face at the loud slapping sound his hands made.
And that was the way the class went: Daoshi issuing curt instructions, Alex stealing glances at the accomplished Daisy, who pointed helpfully at feet and hands to correct Alex's technique—and Alex perpetually a step behind everyone else and out of breath, often altogether missing an entire set of movements. He began to lose hope of keeping up, and stopped trying. In stead, he watched Daisy. Her eyelight made him think of a bumblebee.
Alex snapped out of his reverie and discovered that he was in the wrong stance in spite of staring at Daisy. Everyone was looking at him. He squeaked: "I'm sorry!"
"No sorry!" the Troll barked.
To Alex's horror, Daoshi advanced on him; Alex unintentionally took a stumbling step backwards as Daoshi placed a leathery hand on his shoulder. The black eyes glinted.
"New for you, yes?" Alex didn't really understand the question but nodded anyway. Daoshi took his shoulders and steered him to the row of shabby chairs at the back of the studio. "Sit. Watch."
His face burning, Alex took a seat, and Daoshi pointed at his own two eyes. "Watch," he repeated, pointing now at the row of students. "Not just with eyes. With the whole self." Daoshi whipped around and said: "Tùdzeitos!" (What's Tùdzeitos? Alex wondered as everyone snapped to attention again.) Daoshi lumbered back to the front of the class, and proceeded to man-handle the students into pairs, facing each other. "Attention! Bow! Hands! Fighting stance!"
The students froze in their stances, hands raised, while Daoshi prowled among them, using his stick to make corrections. "Knees are bent," he growled. "Hands are where? Yes. By the rosy fat cheeks. Eyes?" He struck his own chest. "On the heart!" His eyes flashed to Alex and back. "We strike lightly, yes?" He struck one hand gently with the other. "Body punch, front kick, knee strike only. Begin!"
The quiet of the studio was replaced by the shuffling of bare feet, soft panting and sharp out-thrown breaths as the students circled, punched, kicked and dodged, while Daoshi grunted things like "Intent," and "Circle," and "Breathe," occasionally inserting his staff between a pair of students and chuckling at the ensuing consternation. Alex tried to watch as he'd been commanded to do, but what was he supposed to look at? The dojo was like the bottom of a pan full of hot oil and popcorn. Heads bobbing, legs kicking, hands punching, eyes squeezing shut. "Open eyes!" Daoshi barked. "Intent!"
Without exactly deciding to do so, Alex finally settled his gaze on the black belt, who faced a stout, dark-haired girl with a blue belt. The boy, sandy haired and flint-eyed, kept delivering quick blows. The girl dodged and kept her balance; never the less he pressed her steadily toward the corner. Alex found himself overwhelmingly drawn to the boy's lancing energy. Daoshi shouted "Zunito! Circle!" and the pair of them shifted back to their place. The boy then focused his pressure inward, commanding a circular space within which the girl began to look trapped, her calmness beginning to dissolve. The boy finally landed a front kick solidly in her middle and she staggered backwards; he pursued and delivered another kick. They were in the corner again; his fists flew lightly but accurately, too quickly for her to block.
"Stop!" came Daoshi's shout.
The students lined up, panting; Alex was still lost in the boy's fierce, molten energy. It drowned out everything else.
Alex snapped out of his trance. Daoshi was beckoning with his long, blackened fingers. Reluctantly, Alex rose and headed for his place at the end of the line, but Daoshi pointed to the ground right in front of him.
"Here, Mr. Hollow. Yes. Now. Tell me: what did you see?"
Alex swallowed in a dry throat.
He moved his mouth wordlessly for a moment. Then he said: "Um." Had it been forty-five minutes yet? There was a clock on the back wall—the round kind with arrow hands. He didn't know how to read that kind of clock.
Daoshi waited, his seamed face relaxed, both hands on his staff.
"I saw…" Alexe said slowly, "…they kicked. And punched. And—and circled." The circling seemed important. He checked Daoshi's face; it had not changed. Alex was supposed to say more, but what? "You have to… go in a circle. And… and keep your hands up, and… bend your knees." What else? "Open your eyes. And…" Alex got an idea. "Intent!" he barked, just like Daoshi.
The Prowler's eyes glinted and the corners of his mouth twitched. He knelt, drawing so close to Alex that Alex could smell his piney breath. "Alex Hollow," he said, his voice now soft, meant just for Alex, "what did you see?"
Alex's heart skipped a beat; he drew back. He felt like he had no clothes.
Daoshi turned away. "Mr. Ford," he said loudly, "face Mr. Hollow."
The black belt stepped forward. Alex gulped.
After shuffling the rest of the students, Daoshi called them all to attention again. "Bow," he said. "Mr. Ford, light contact."
The black belt nodded. His eyes flashed at Alex and he smiled grimly.
Alex thought his heart was going to jump out of his chest as Daoshi used his staff to tap his feet into some kind of stance; Alex couldn't remember what it was called. One leg forward, knees bent, hands up—
There was a blur of movement, and Mr. Ford's foot thumped Alex's chest. Alex tottered backwards.
"Eyes on heart, Mr. Hollow. Intent!"
Mr. Ford was practically sideways to him, his raised fists screening narrowed eyes. Alex craned his neck to get a look at his chest— and Mr Ford's fingers grazed his cheek.
"Sorry," said the black belt. "Block me!"
"Body only, Mr. Ford. Alex! Block!"
Block. Here came hands; Alex slapped at them. And a foot. Alex staggered backwards again. The room was a kaleidoscope of colors, pulsing in time with Alex's galloping heartbeat.
"Kick back!" That was Daisy's voice.
Alex swept his foot up in something resembling a front kick. The black-belt knocked it aside with one hand and punched him in the ribs with the other. It hurt.
"Eyes, Mr. Hollow. Elbows in!"
Elbows? Where were his elbows? Alex took another blow to his belly.
"Kick! Punch! Intent!"
Blindly, Alex flung out one foot and both hands, heard a short, soft laugh from his opponent. A hot redness flooded his brain. His throat and eyes burned. Here came Mr. Ford's hands again. Alex kept backing away, flapping his arm wildly in front of him, tripped and sprawled.
The shuffling and striking sounds ceased, leaving only panting breath—and a loud, croaking sound: Alex's sob. At that sound, everyone else seemed to stop breathing. Alex swallowed hard and stopped crying.
"Come, Mr. Hollow." Daoshi's big hands were on his arms, pulling him upright. "Mr. Ford, please place color belts on line and drill primary forms. This way, Mr. Hollow." Daoshi guided him toward a door in the back.
"I'm—I'm sorry!" said Alex. It was all he could think of to say. He was terrible at kicking and punching.
Daoshi made no reply, but guided him down a short hallway to another door and opened it.
A breath of cool air washed over Alex as he crossed the threshold. The door clicked closed behind them, and Alex stood motionless.
The room was full of a dreamy light, which came from a huge window looking into the woods; a round moon shone through interlaced branches. The light was so beautiful it was almost like a song. Alex felt the red heat drain out of him.
Daoshi stumped past Alex and switched on a table lamp that stood on a long workbench beneath the window. Upon the workbench was a row of strange-looking plants in ceramic basins, interspersed with little statues and other small, unidentifiable objects. There were also scattered books, a canister with brushes, pens and pencils, and a few sheets of paper half as big as Alex himself. Alex drifted forward, past bookshelves to his right and more tools and instruments to his left, between framed pictures on the walls, to the workbench.
The place reminded Alex of the Shed at home. His eyes stung again, but in a different way. How many days until the weekend? Or was Mom taking away his Shed privileges too? He placed his hands on the big sheet of paper.
Daoshi sat down on a cushion in one corner, laying his staff across his knees, and spoke quietly. "Do you know why I asked 'What do you see?'"
Alex turned his head a little, not quite registering the question, his eyes still on the smooth, white, paper, which reflected pearly moonlight from the window and golden light from the lamp. Those plants… they were trees! Tiny little trees. They looked like they belonged in a fairy world—
Alex whipped his head around, even though the Troll's voice had been mild. The beady eyes flashed at him from the gloomy corner.
"Um…" Alex put his hands behind his back, hung his head. He should be feeling small and sorry. But it was as though the plain white paper was taking up all the space normally reserved for his shame. Still, he said: "I'm supposed to pay attention?"
Daoshi grimaced, stood and started pacing around, leaving his stick behind this time. Without it, his movements were nearly silent. He stopped right in front of Alex.
"You watched Mr. Ford, no?" he said. Alex nodded. "What did you see?" The Troll's hairy hand went up—Alex flinched, but the hand simply covered Alex's eyes. "Not here." He moved the hand to Alex's chest. "Here."
Without knowing why, maybe because of the fairy-land trees and the smooth paper and the pencils and brushes, Alex didn't answer but instead asked: "What do you see?"
Daoshi cocked his head and grinned. He leaned close to Alex. "I see," he said, "a boy who hides his power."
This was so unexpected that Alex was struck dumb.
"Now. Answer. What do you see?"
Alex's eyes wandered around the room. But his vision, his outside-eyes vision, had grown misty, while his inside-eyes vision was growing strangely sharp. With his inside eyes he saw the other world: the magical world full of glimmering lights and strange beings… and the Monster.
But: grown-ups don't believe you when you tell them about magical worlds and monsters. Alex remained silent.
Daoshi slapped the workbench, whisked a stool out from under it. "You like my paper, eh? Go to work then. Pens and pencils, ink, yes? Messes? No worry. The workshop it is meant for messes. Unless the old man he is much mistaken, it is in this way that the young Mr. Hollow may use the eyes of his heart. I leave him to it."
Alex's jaw fell open. Had the Troll-Teacher just instructed him to color? But before he could get a question out of his mouth, Daoshi had left the room and shut the door behind him.
Alex stared at the door for two seconds. Then he climbed onto the stool and reached for a blue pencil. He let his hand hover over the silky, moonlit paper. He heard himself whisper: "Intent." He dropped his hand and let it move in gentle circles. And he remembered his dream!
It was almost as though his Dream Teacher were right there with him in Daoshi's dimly lit workshop; he heard, within himself, the music—the low, expansive song that the Dream Teacher always sang. He closed his eyes, recollecting how the teacher's great, shadowy hands had moved, showing him what to do.
You take a deep breath, and let your hands circle through the soil. You create in your mind a thing that makes you very, very happy (or very, very sad, but Alex chose happy).
You breathe out, and lift your hands up in a certain way, and up too comes the thing that you have been scribbling into the earth.
Or, with blue and purple pencils, onto silky white paper.
Up came Alex's hands… and up came Alex's very first real life home-made scribbled monsters: one, two three of them.
Up like smoke they drifted: see-through creatures made of Alex's blue and purple lines. They settled lightly on the workbench. And then, without warning, they started scrambling madly around, chasing each other. Alex let out a half-laugh, half-shout.
That was when the door handle turned. All of Alex's hair stood on end. He whirled around on his stool, throwing his arms out, trying to hide the spectacle. At the same time, from the workbench he heard a soft scrambling sound, like a twiggy broom whisking across wood.
In came Daoshi with Alex's backpack. After him came Mom. Her eyes fell on the workbench and turned stormy.
"Daoshi," she said, "the whole idea was martial arts!"
"There were martial arts! And there will be!" said Daoshi, crossing the room and setting Alex's backpack on the bench. Alex saw his beady eyes scan the surface; his shaggy brows drew together. He sees the monsters! Alex thought frantically. But Daoshi merely folded his arms and watched Mom pacing around the room.
Her eyes wandered over the shelves and paintings. "I told you: art is a big problem right now," she said.
Alex took advantage of her distraction to search the workshop with his eyes. However, not only could he not spot the scribbled creatures, but the paper, though slightly rumpled, was blank. He was so relieved that he laughed out loud.
Mom's eyes flashed angrily at him. "Oh, you think this is funny—"
"Nushenita." Daoshi interrupted. "You ask that I instruct your child. This I can do only if you give to me your trust."
Mom folded her arms and glared at him. Then she blinked and her frown went away. "You did train me," she said quietly.
Daoshi grunted, and Alex couldn't help smiling. This was going well.
"And look, Mom!" He picked up the blank paper and held it in front of his face.
There was a moment of silence.
He lowered the paper, found himself nose to nose with her. She was frown-smiling. "I see," she said. "You haven't lost any more privileges, then. For now. Come along, and don't forget your backpack."
End of Chapter Four
Coming February 28, 2022:
Whisper Stones and Zoombies