by Heather Johnson
“My teeth,” she groaned loudly through barely parted lips. “They hurt too much. Can’t read today.” Muriel was never entirely sure the creature understood. Its response to most of her speech was to cuff her rudely on the ear. “Need green stuff again for teeth. Munch-munch, all better.” She mimed chewing on a handful of invisible herbs.
The creature snorted and then growled softly, “Murrr. Uhhnn,” as it rose, hunched at the peak of the ceiling. “Rooowm!” it rumbled as it squeezed out the door. From her corner of the dark room, Muriel counted to five hundred before slipping out into the thick woods. If she were lucky, she would pick the direction opposite of the creature’s destination.
She thought of it as a dream more than a memory. A memory would be too much to bear. Her stomach could never settle with that memory in her brain. The dream began with Muriel perched on a stool and reading aloud while her mother cooked dinner. Sunshine streamed in through the window above the sink. And then the back door of their home burst inward and a wall of musk, teeth, claws, and pale yellow fur stomped into the kitchen. An arm like a timber hit Muriel in the chest and knocked her off the stool. She lay face down on the tile for a moment as her breath returned. She felt the thud of her mother’s body hitting the floor. The mother grunted and screamed to her, “Muriel, run! Get up and run n–!”
Muriel pushed herself up just in time to see the beast twist off her mother’s head as if it were opening a new bottle of ketchup. It seemed to smile as its mouth opened impossibly wide and it took a bite. Clawing her way up the fronts of the cupboards, Muriel stood at last and ran for the front door. She heard the house shaking, counting 1, 2, 3, 4 booms behind her before she was picked up by the back of her sweatshirt. The beast dropped her onto the slippery kitchen tile. It tapped a giant unripe-banana toe on the book she had been reading. “Uhhhnnnn!” It grunted, lips dripping with thick blood. It kicked the book toward her. “Uhhhnnn! It insisted, smacking Muriel’s head with a giant paw. “Uhhhhnnnn!” It nudged the paperback, it’s cover now heavy and dripping, into her lap with one horrible toe.
And Muriel thought she understood. The beast sat. It twisted off an arm and crunched away as Muriel began to read in a surprisingly steady voice, “Today we is not believing in snozzcumbers…” It was dark by the time the beast was done with its meal. The pot on the stovetop had long since boiled dry and she’d gotten to the part about the queen. The beast was full and sleepy. Certain she would be dessert, Muriel gathered her courage to get up and run once again for the front door. She grabbed the hot pan with the sleeve of her sweatshirt and threw it at the beast’s head. It let out a grunt as if inconvenienced. But this time after the beast took a few lumbering steps toward her, her recapture was punctuated with a strong blow to the head. She didn’t even remember being shoved into or carried in the old seed corn sack she eventually woke up in.
“Monster!” Muriel had screamed when she found herself alone with the beast inside a dark one-room shack. The horror of everything fell on her. She screamed hysterically, nonsensically. When her voice began to give out, she whispered accusingly again and again: “Monster. Monster.” The creature tapped its chest with a paw, producing a heavy thump. It seemed to smile, although the rows of finely pointed teeth and enormity of the mouth only made its appearance more terrible. “Maaamaaa.” It stated, swatting her in the side of the head. “Maaamaaa.”
She wasn’t sure how long she’d been with the creature. The seed corn bag, now barely a bag, was her mattress in the corner of the mossy cabin that leaned inward on itself. Much had happened in the meantime too. She was sure she was quite a bit taller. Many of her teeth had fallen out. Some of them had grown back in. She knew how to avoid getting hit or dragged by her mat of hair: compliance. She ate the food, lumps of raw meat. She stayed inside. If she had to call it something, Muriel called it Mama, although in her head, she spelled it M-o-m-m-a. Mama had been the word she wrote on cards and Christmas presents.
Momma seemed to live for eating and stories. Certainly grooming was not a priority. Muriel was grateful for the mercy of no longer being able to smell its stench. She was certain that she smelled the same way. Every day, sometimes several times a day if the beast was not out hunting, Muriel read stories aloud from a pile of books. Over and over, by flashlight. The bottom of the pile was damp and molding on the mud and moss floor. Some were too damaged to read properly, so she improvised as she turned the mildewed pages. New flashlights would appear regularly. New books too. Less often, an article of rumpled, blood-spattered clothing would be waiting for her when she woke up. Muriel had taken to shoving the dead flashlights into the gaps in the wall. Lacking Momma’s thick fur, it was often too cold to sleep.
When she felt, once again, on the verge of losing her mind, she worked up the strength and courage to run away. Muriel had no hope that she would truly get away. Momma always found her. There would be consequences. Bruises, maybe broken bones. She’d lie in her corner again, consumed by the physical pain. She would heal. Read. Plot. This process had played out six times. She knew the count only because she’d started keeping track with tick marks on the wall after the third time.
Her seventh foray into the woods began with a step that landed on a sharp stick. It sank into the tender arch of her bare foot, but she didn’t have time to acknowledge it. She limped farther into the woods, cautious of her noise, her smell. Momma’s senses were finely tuned. It was, after all, a skilled hunter and stalker. Muriel wondered if the wind had already betrayed her. She paused, not breathing for a moment, listening for heavy footsteps or shaking trees but hearing only her heart and the involuntary grinding of her teeth.
In the past, with the hope of getting away for good, she had rubbed herself with wild ramps, mud, and damp leaves to try to mask her scent. This time, her goal was merely distance and time away. She pushed through the thick brambles as quickly as should could, as straight as she could. She imagined a clearing ahead. Maybe a house or a convenience store. A bait shop. Her face and arms were covered in scratches but she tried not to think about Momma’s ability to smell blood. She focused on getting through to whatever was beyond the woods. The squirrels scolded as she pushed through the brush. She wished she could strangle all of them into silence. The birds too. Who knew what they were telling Momma with their songs? Muriel imagined its massive body stooping to rip herbs from the ground, and then turning its propane-tank-sized head to the sky to sniff the wind and listen.
And then she spotted a shade of orange she hadn’t seen for a lifetime. She moved closer, cautiously through the woods. She discovered a gravel road, just yards away. On the opposite side of the road, a woman in an orange vest bent to pick up trash with a spike. She hadn’t seen another person in a lifetime either. The woman in the vest looked up in Muriel’s direction and briefly scanned the woods before getting back to work.
Muriel squinted down the road in both directions. There was no car in sight. No house. Just a gravel road, one person, and more woods. But surely something was nearby. Maybe something useful. Maybe near enough. Will I scare her? Muriel wondered. I might look like a monster. I do look like one. Will she run away? Muriel imagined the woman’s fate if Momma found her.
The familiar shaking of earth and treetops and the breaking of branches interrupted her thoughts. It was inevitable. She’d never really planned to get away. Muriel took one step backward toward the steady booming. She briefly pictured the cabin and the moldy books, recalled the stench and the memory-dreams of Momma’s brutality. Muriel stepped back toward the road, where the woman looked past her, gaping. “The end,” she whispered to herself, dashing onto the road with her arms open wide.
Congratulations to Heather, we hope she enjoys her swag.