Monsters of Morningside
Alex Hollow loved Monsters.
He dreamed of them almost every night, and he was almost never afraid.
This was because Alex kept two things right next to him whenever he went to sleep. One was a stuffed cat named Heavy. The other was a River Stone.
Mom said that the River Stone was the very first present she had ever given him (Heavy was the second).
"When you were three years old," she told him, "you woke up one night crying very hard. So I turned the light on and I picked you up and hugged you and said: 'What's the matter, Alex?' even though I knew you didn't know how to talk yet. That was when you said your very first word. Can you guess what it was?"
"Monster!" said Alex.
"Exactly," said Mom. "I knew just what to do. The next day, I went to the River, and I searched and searched until I found this stone for you. It comes from the deepest place in the world, up with the fire from the Volcano, and then down with the waters of the River. And when I gave you the stone, I told you: "Whenever you go to sleep, hold the River Stone in your hand. Feel how warm it is, how solid and heavy and strong. It will go with you into your dreams, and you won't ever be afraid of Monsters again."
By the time Alex was five years old he had heard the story many times. And, the stone worked very well. No matter what he encountered in his dreams, he was never afraid. Dreams were his favorite places. And Monsters were his favorite people.
The Other World
One Fall evening, Alex and his father sat on tall stools at a workbench in the slapped-together workshop that they called the Shed. Dad, with hands that moved like crisp leaves in a sharp breeze, was carving a winged figure out of a scrap of wood.
Alex's creation, too, was to have wings, made of seashells. Only the shells, instead of sticking to the wood, clung to his palms as the little puddle of yellowish glue began to dry on its square of thick paper. Alex frowned. He saw clearly in his mind that the monster he was trying to make had wings. He pried the shell off of his hand and dunked it again into the congealing glue.
The Shed had two halves. One half housed the sort-of-scary machines and hardware that Dad used for Work; the other, dominated by the workbench where Alex and Dad sat, was stocked with paper, crayons, paint, wood scraps, glue and carving tools. There were also bins full of treasures that Alex had brought in from many trips to the woods; and drawers full of knobs, hinges, handles, nuts and bolts, and other things that Dad called "misfits."
"This is not working," Alex said; there was no hope for the seashell and the wood. His father made a sympathetic noise. Alex said: "That's okay. I can color." Dad said: "Alex Hollow? Color? Really?" Alex shifted his stool to where the crayons and paper were.
One thing that must be understood about Alex Hollow is this: he imagined he had eyes on the outside and eyes on the inside, the latter of which you could think of as eyes that feel more than see, and that know more than feel.
Whatever Alex felt with his inside eyes he knew to be at least as real and as solid as the common world he saw in the ordinary way. He knew because he felt it, the way anyone can feel a cat's purr through fur and sinew. It was like vibrations: waves, pulses, prickles; and also like light: a glimmer, a glow, a flame—seen and felt not with his eyes and skin but with whatever it was that resided behind and beneath.
Alex's inside eyes opened whenever he colored. Especially if he was coloring monsters.
Soon, Alex was coloring with both hands and not looking; his eyes were almost closed. He could smell the fuzzy construction paper and the years-old waxy colors; he could hear the snick of his father's knife and the ever-so-soft, squeaky rub of his crayons. Ribbons of air rippling in through the open door carried rumors from the forest on the mountain in faint scents and sounds… rumors that unfurled into images in his mind while his hands made circles on the paper. The afternoon's rain still shivered in droplets on pine needles; a squirrel carried an acorn into her burrow; the petals of daisies and mountain bells closed over bright middles as evening shadows fell; a bat stretched its neck earthward, dropped from its perch, and flapped up.
In thick woods on the other side of the River, something crept through the trees, shimmering with its own silvery light; something sinuous and muscular, with wings and horns and fiery eyes.
Alex stopped coloring as the truth hit him.
There's a Monster in the woods!
He could see it, feel it, with his inside eyes.
He hopped off of his stool.
Dad said, "Where are you off to, X?" But Alex didn't really hear. He grabbed the crayon box and sketchpad and dashed to the door.
The air was damp and cold. The Mountain's shadow flooded the world with dusty blue, matching the sky; stars sparked out. It was almost dark! Alex put on a burst of speed, reached the wooden bridge in moments, threw a hasty glance at the kitchen window to see if Mom was watching from there—she wasn't—set a foot on a worn plank, looked up. A delightful prickle rushed all over his skin.
He didn't see the monster yet. But across the bridge, just in the space between the end-posts that Dad had carved and painted to look like animals, the forest was different: as deeply dark as the night sky, and glimmering with all kinds of lights. Layer upon layer of dense trees marched into the distance. The lights moved among them, some in fitful spurts, some zig-zagging like darting insects, some drifting in lazy loops. And Alex had the weird feeling that the trees themselves were about to shift, or had just that instant stopped moving.
He took another step.
Creak: the back door of Alex's house opened behind him. Click-clack: it shut. A sucking sensation behind his belly-button told him that he was in trouble with Mom. He could see her frowning face in his mind. He took two more steps.
Mom's voice stopped Alex dead—though his eyes stayed glued to those lights. Was that a silvery shine deep in the woods?
Ignoring Mom was as bad as breaking her rules. He was supposed to turn around and look her in the eye. He did, as fast as he could, and turned back again. The opening to the other world was still there. A rustling sound rippled through the air, like fine chains running through fingers—
"Step off of that bridge."
"Get off the bridge."
"Look! There are—"
"But there's magic!"
Mom's mouth flattened into a tight line (Alex was looking back and forth from her evening-shadowed face to the magical forest). The rustling sound was coming closer. A glittering form emerged some fifty feet off, mostly obscured by trees. Alex shivered. He heard his own voice saying: "It's a Monster!"
Mom's hands closed around his waist. He gasped a little as, in one motion, she lifted him against her hard lump of a belly, swung him off of the bridge and dumped him into the autumn-crisped grass of the back yard. He made a whining noise and was met with her index finger in his face before she turned and squatted to yank fistfuls of vegetation from around the end posts, blocking his view. "Oh, these weeds!" she said, in the same dire whisper that had halted his progress moments ago. Alex side-stepped to see around her, but the magical world had vanished.
There was now nothing on the other side of the bridge but the dim, ordinary patchwork of tangled shrubs and trees.
Alex sank into the cool grass, balanced the sketchpad on his knees, grabbed a crayon. Dark night had fallen, but he didn't need to see now. He just had to follow with his hands the vision that remained in his mind.
Vaguely, he was aware of Mom straightening up and looking down at him, one hand at the small of her back and the other on her beach-ball stomach.
"Coloring," she breathed—not in the Stop now and listen to me voice, but in the I love you sigh. "Always coloring."
Alex was excited to go to sleep that night. He knew he would dream of the Monster in the other world. He did; in his dream it was made of all kinds of jewel colors, which glowed through transparent scales that were as big as Alex's hands. It sniffed him the way dogs do, and grinned. What long, sharp teeth! What a strange tongue: like a tendril of yellow fire!
Also, as always, the Dream Teacher was there.
Alex was sure the Dream Teacher was some kind of a Monster, even though it wasn't anything like the other Monsters in his dreams. He could never quite see the Dream Teacher; it was like a shadow that dissolved whenever he tried to look directly at it. But if he was looking a little to the side, he could just see shadowy hands, which clawed through the soil, showing him how to color with earth instead of crayons. It was important to use both hands, and to really feel the dirt under your fingers and palms. It was because of his Dream Teacher that Alex knew how to color without looking.
The next day, all Alex wanted to do (besides color) was go back to the bridge to look for the Monster in the other world. That was what he said to Mom when she told him to get into the car.
"What?" she said to his backpack, into which she was stuffing a snack box. "It's time for school."
"I don't want to go there. I want to go over the bridge. It's daytime. I am allowed to go."
She turned around and thrust the backpack into his arms.
"It will still be daytime when you get home."
"But what about making things with Dad?"
"There will be time for both."
"No there won't. It will be dark and you will say 'Alex Hollow, step off of that bridge!'"
"Alex Hollow." There was a whisper of laughter in her voice even though she was frowning. "You are in kindergarten now. Kindergarteners go to school every day."
She bustled past him, grabbing jackets from their hooks in the hallway as this truth settled over him like a black cloud.
Every day. What about playing in the woods, and baking cookies, and coloring? "That's terrible," he heard himself say.
"Alex. Hollow. Come now or you will not be allowed to go over the bridge at all."
Alex's shoulders sagged as he stumped after her, dragging his backpack.
"Pick that up," said Mom, holding the door to the garage open for him. Then in a coaxing voice: "Come on. In kindergarten there's coloring and snacks and small people like you. All your friends are there."
It was Alex's turn to frown as Mom helped him strap into his car-seat.
She must be thinking of a different kindergarten.
Mr. Fine's kindergarten class at Morningside Private Academy had four tidy rows of pretend-wood desks. Two walls were covered with long strips of letters and numbers, posters elucidating Mr. Fine's rules, and behavior and achievement charts. A third wall was mostly a blackboard. The fourth was full of windows.
Mr. Fine, dressed as always in an old-fashioned suit with a bow tie, stood next to a big magnet board plastered with two-dimensional farm animals. "Now boys and girls," he said, "follow along and write the numbers as we count the chickens. One. Two."
Alex's desk was in the middle of the classroom; but he could see past the two students to his left to the sun-soaked, autumnal outdoors: orange, yellow, bright blue, brown.
"Eight. Nine. Nine chickens."
Alex drew his best version of a chicken.
"Now look here. There are a number of cows. Follow along, please…"
Alex gave his chicken a pair of horns.
What was next? Alex looked to the window again—and discovered Linden Lighthouse, who sat in the desk next to Alex's, craning his neck to see Alex's paper.
"Boys and girls, let us now add the number of cows to the number of chickens. How many animals…"
Linden was so fair that his green-blue eyes, though much lighter than Alex's green-brown ones, seemed like two dark pebbles under his wispy eyebrows and a cloud of blond hair. The eyes had a seriousness that bordered on disapproval; Alex made a move to cover up his doodles—but just then Linden cracked a gap-toothed grin and gave him a thumbs up. The next moment, Linden was bending over his own paper, his tongue sticking out as he drew in careful, deliberate strokes. Alex was gratified to see that Linden, who always got the right answer when called on, was a much slower drawer than Alex was. Alex waited impatiently until Linden shifted the page slightly so that Alex could see—what!
He saw the quick flash of a green grasshopper that hurtled itself against the glass, felt its sharp surprise. Its flicker-flow was so fast! He closed his eyes to get a better feel for this grasshopper, opened them, and swiftly drew a cigar-shaped insect with bulging eyes and great bendy legs.
It was a monster; it had stubby wings, four scrawny, taloned legs, horns, and a beak. A bubble of laughter rose in Alex's chest—he swallowed it. Linden underlined a word he'd scrawled under the drawing: chicowkin.
Alex beamed. In the woods he was always seeing foxes and magpies. Quickly he drew a four-legged bird with a fox's head and tail, and kept drawing and looking over at Linden's desk to see what he was drawing—until one veiny hand slammed down on top of his doodle-covered worksheet, another on Linden's. Alex's stomach turned to ice as he looked up into Mr. Fine's normally stoic face. Mr. Fine's eyes narrowed; he crumpled the two worksheets, strode away and dropped them into the trashcan.
"I'm—" Alex piped, but stopped as the teacher jerked around to face him. He felt like he was at the top of the Wild Chipmunk roller coaster. "I'm sorry, Mr. Fine."
The teacher smiled coolly as he looked not at Alex but at Linden.
"Linden Lighthouse, when it is time to do math, what do we do?"
Linden's eyes flickered to Alex's before he said: "Math."
Dad had told Alex that "Founder" meant that Richard Rykie was even more important than the Principal, Mr. Rowan.
Alex thought that Grandma Kuku, who brought him pinecones and special rocks on his birthday, smoked a pipe, and had the same last name as he did, was more important than either of them.
"It is another thing entirely," Mr. Fine raised his voice, making Alex jump, "to get your classmates into trouble." He thrust the note at Alex. Alex took it, fumbling as he looked reflexively over at Linden.
He hadn't thought of that. At all. He'd been so happy to be drawing with someone!
"That's right. Let me see." He turned crisply to the black board, along the bottom of which ran a row of different-colored index cards tucked into pockets along one wall, one pocket for each student. "You are on… white, Mr. Lighthouse." White was the best color; it meant perfect behavior. Mr. Fine removed Linden's white card and placed it at the back of the stack, leaving a yellow card in front. "You have a warning. Do you understand?"
"Now. Mr. Hollow." Mr. Fine made a show of searching for Alex's pocket, even though it was smack in the middle. It was green. Mr. Fine lifted it crisply and moved it to the back of the pocket, leaving a brown card.
No one else's card was brown.
"Come forward, Mr. Hollow." Mr. Fine seated himself behind his desk and took up a memo pad and a pen. Swallowing what felt like a walnut in his throat, Alex rose and walked slowly toward his teacher. "It's one thing," Mr. Fine said, writing rapidly, "to throw away your own education, especially when others are paying for it." His gray eyes shot at Alex's. He meant the Academy's "Founder," Richard Rykie, Dad's dad.
After school, Alex searched for the crop of flaxen hair in the crowd of children, and saw Linden looking around too, and they locked eyes, and met halfway to the pick-up line. Alex looked at the ground between them. His stomach had been hurting all day.
"I'm sorry I got you in trouble," he said miserably. But Linden laughed.
"I don't care!" he said. "Making monsters is a lot more fun than math." He stuck his hands in his pockets and squinted into the distance.
Alex's stomachache dissolved. He put his hands in his pockets, too. "Yeah. You know what? I saw a monster! last night in the woods by my house!"
Linden's blue eyes grew round. "Draw it! Draw it and show me! Hey! You want to come over to my house? Tomorrow?"
Alex felt happy all over. "Yes, I do! I'll ask my mom."
"Okay. I'll ask mine too."
Linden walked backwards away from him, waving and grinning hugely—as hugely as Alex was grinning. Alex's cheeks hurt from how big his smile was.
Through the window behind the little round table where the Hollow family was eating dinner, Alex watched the evening mist thickening between the trees and above the river.
There had been no outside time after school, because after school instead of going home Alex had had to sit in the front office with Mom and Mr. Fine, listening to Mr. Fine tell Mom about Alex's behavior.
Now, Mom was speaking in her I love you but voice, saying lots of things that Alex knew by heart.
The blue-gray twilight deepened to indigo. A star sparked out of the sky. The painted bridge seemed to glimmer.
"Alex, pay attention to your mother," said Dad.
Alex's gaze jumped to his mother's serious face, back to the bridge. Darkness had fallen. The space between the end posts on the far side of the bridge seemed to glow softly. A gray cat-shape crossed the space in one leap.
That cat was as big as a lion! Bigger!
Mom got up and reached over Alex's head to pull the curtains closed. The pang that went through his chest must have shown on his face, because she gave him a very unsympathetic look.
"We are talking about your behavior at school." She spoke calmly, but one eyebrow was up—a danger sign. "You have had the warning, the cold prickly, and the extra homework." She started holding up fingers, counting. "You've had the no snack, the no recess, the phone call home, and now the teacher-parent meeting. The whole rainbow, plus brown. What happens when you get to black?"
Maybe the cat was from the other world! Alex stared into the darkened hallway behind Mom, trying to picture it.
Alex slumped in his chair and looked at his lap. "I have to go see the Principal," he muttered.
"It's a good thing Mr. Rowan's not scary or anything," Dad said, with a smile in his voice. Mom's eyes flashed.
"This is not a laughing matter," she said.
Alex agreed. Mr. Rowan had tiny eyes and a lumpy face. He looked like he was lumpy all over under his big black coat, and he was probably ten feet tall.
"You have to do better, X," said Dad, frowning at his phone. "Lydia. Why's Lydia calling me?"
"Ms. Rykie?" said Alex. Lydia was Grandfather Rykie's second wife, whom Alex was always to call Ms. Rykie. He'd only ever seen her in person one time for about one minute.
Dad blinked at him. "Never mind." He thumbed the red hang-up icon and pocketed the phone.
"When you're at home, Alex," Mom continued, "you can color as much as you want. But at school you have to follow Mr. Fine's rules. To help you remember, we are taking your crayons away for tonight."
A cold wave overtook Alex's middle as he pictured a whole night with no going outside and no coloring.
"Maybe then you will remember how to behave in class tomorrow, so that you will be allowed to play at Linden's house after school."
Pebble-dark eyes and an enormous grin popped into Alex's mind. His stomach felt warm again.
Mom was smiling. "Remember, Alex: if you want to play with Linden, you must follow all the rules tonight and tomorrow. Got it?"
Alex nodded vigorously.
"That means," Mom went on, her eyebrows arched, "absolutely no coloring in kindergarten unless Mr. Fine tells you to color. You must be good all night long tonight and all day long tomorrow. Do you understand?"
"Yes, yes, yes!" Alex jumped up from the table and grabbed his dishes. "I'm good, I'm good! I'm going to Linden's house!"
Even after Mom tucked him in and came back for another hug, and then more snuggles, Alex could not get to sleep. He kept seeing Linden's face, the bridge, the cat, and the Monster.
He climbed up onto the desk in front of his window, and sat on his knees and looked into the deep blue nightscape.
There was no moon. But the stars! A brilliant stripe of glitter-glue clusters arced right over his house to the top of the forested mountain, shedding a crystalline light over the scrubby grasses, the closed-up flowers, the lumps of turf where ground rodents burrowed, and the bridge.
Dad had carved and painted the two end posts on its near side to look like a giant chameleon and moth. The other side was guarded by a turtle and a whale. By daylight, their fading hues still recalled the original colors: emerald, sapphire, amber, ruby, amethyst. But under starlight they looked like they were made all of fool's gold: mottled and glittering.
Something moved next to the moth.
Alex's hands went to the window glass. He strained to keep the shadowy form in sight, but it was lost in the darkness on the other side of the bridge.
There was a trick that Mom and Dad did not know about. It involved the crank that opened the window, the shutters outside, a ledge of roofing, and the sprawling Escape Tree.
Alex laid his hand upon the crank—
At that instant he heard the sounds of footsteps in the hall. His stomach jumped.
No crayons for the rest of your life! he heard in his head. And no outside time!
And... no playing with Linden!
He dashed to his bed, flung himself on top of it, rolled over and squeezed his eyes shut.
The handle of his door clicked and someone stepped into the room; Alex recognized the weight of Dad's footfall. Alex snored.
Dad laughed very softly, crossed the room and leaned so close that Alex felt his prickly whiskers and smelled his woodsy breath. "The forest will be there tomorrow, X. Sweet dreams."
A ghost-gray figure, long-limbed and shaggy-haired, stepped in front of the bridge, paused, turned its head first one way and then the other, and stalked across.
Mom sighed. "Alex, do you know why you're about to go see the Principal? Do you know why you had no outside time today?"
Alex swallowed. "I'm not supposed to color." Sudden tears blurred his vision.
In the silence that fell while he wiped his eyes and gulped back a sob, he heard Dad's phone buzz.
"You're not supposed to color," said Mom, "during math, or reading, or story time. You're not supposed to color in class, unless Mr. Fine says: 'Alex, this is coloring time. Please draw a picture.'"
Alex tried to remember if Mr. Fine had ever said that.
Mom went on. "This time, you got your friend in trouble too."
Alex hung his head. Maybe Linden's parents were making him not go outside.
Alex did have sweet dreams.
He dreamed that he crossed the bridge, and there just a few yards off was the silvery Monster, looking over its folded wing at him with deep, glittering eyes. It said: "Come with me!" and crept away through the trees.
Alex dreamed that he followed the Monster all the way to the entrance of a cave, which was full of a strange kind of darkness—a darkness that glittered not with light, but with darker dark.
The Monster turned around and said to Alex: "Bring me the best gift you have, and I will let you inside."
End of Chapter One
Coming November 30:
Goblins and Good News
© 2021 by Katherine Hahn