I know the trees ain’t getting any shorter, so I guess that means I went and grew again. What else is new? Growing is all I ever done.
It feels like forever ago, but I still remember my bedroom door frame had notches all the way up, from where Daddy kept track. I’ll never forget the day I outgrew the door frame. Daddy had just dragged the footstool out and grabbed the screwdriver.
“C’mon, Sprout,” he said. “Door time.”
Sprout’s what he called me, but my name’s really Henry.
I rolled up off my bed — three mattresses side-by-side that nearly took up the whole bedroom floor. But when I went to stand in the door frame, I bonked my head on the top bar. I couldn’t stand up straight in it no more.
Daddy’s eyes got watery. “Don’t worry, Sprout,” he said. “I reckon we’ll just have to do door time out at the barn from now on.”
When he tucked me in that night, I made him check for monsters in the closet as usual. Monsters always come for you at night. They was scary, but there was one good thing about them, too: They was bigger than me. I liked something being bigger than me. I was always the biggest one around, as far back as I can remember.
Anyway, Daddy checked all around in the closet, and came to tuck me in. “All clear of monsters,” he said.
I pulled the quilt up tight around my chin. It wasn’t a quilt, really. It was six blankets Daddy sewed together. But I called it a quilt, ‘cause that’s what it looked like to me.
What I wouldn’t give for a big enough quilt now. It’s getting cold out again. I had to use my old quilt as a loincloth. Tied it around my waist with an anchor chain I took from old Captain Stevenson’s boat down at the marina. There ain’t a tailor in the whole country who can make clothes big enough for me no more.
And there ain’t no one out here to check for monsters, neither. But I’m bigger than any monster now anyway. Unless you count Godzilla. And he ain’t real.
I’m the only real monster.
The first time someone called me that, I cried myself to sleep. But I guess they was right. You might say I was a monster since the day I was born. Daddy never told me the truth about how Momma died, but Georgie Franklin did, back in first grade. He said I came out of my momma so big that I split her in half like a pomegranate, and all the kids at recess started laughing and pointing. I pounded Georgie good that day. Then they kicked me out and said I couldn’t come to school no more. I guess I reminded those kids too much of a monster. Except I didn’t follow the Monster Rules, ‘cause I came out during the day.
It wasn’t long after I outgrew my door frame that I outgrew my whole bedroom, and Daddy had to make a bed for me in the hayloft of the barn. A barn is a heck of a place to sleep, let me tell you. All full of spiders, and creaking sounds all night, and drafty when it’s cold.
Still, Daddy used to come out every night to tuck me in, and do a monster check. “All clear of monsters,” he’d say. My quilt was up to twelve blankets at that point, and my feet still stuck out. I had to keep the potato sacks I used as socks on all night.
My tummy growls. I ain’t found no food again today, and I really don’t want to go back into the village so soon.
Keeping me fed is mostly how I ended up here. You gotta figure someone ten times bigger than a normal boy is gonna eat ten times as much food. The neighbors used to help Daddy out all the time, bringing us leftovers and whatever they couldn’t sell at the farmers market that week. But even then it sometimes wasn’t enough, and I’d go to bed hungry. The monsters was always worse on those nights.
Then there was the waste problem. Obviously there was no way for me to fit in an outhouse, so I used to do my business in a gully on the edge of our property next to Mrs. Jones’ farm, then rinse my butt off in a brook that ran behind the barn. After a while, she started hollering about all the extra flies, not to mention the smell when the wind caught it just right. It got real bad this past summer when we had a heat wave, and Mrs. Jones threatened to involve the sheriff.
Between that and always running out of food, I figured Daddy would be better off without me. So one night, when the whole village was sleeping, I wrapped up everything I could fit in my quilt and left without a goodbye.
Being hungry changes you. I don’t mean hungry like when you skip dinner. I mean real hunger, like when you ain’t had no dinner, nor breakfast, nor lunch neither, for days on end. You start seeing things, and hearing things.
And doing things you never thought you would.
I’m thinking about doing some of those things again tonight. It’s been five days since I last ate, and my tummy hurts. You can’t blame someone who’s hungry like this. It ain’t right. What am I supposed to do, just starve to death? It’s not my fault I grew so big.
Walking through the forest reminds me of when I used to walk through a cornfield when I was three years old. I was already taller than the stalks. The grown-ups all cheered at how fast I could fill up a basket with corn. Of course I’d eat practically a whole basket at a meal, so I suppose I was just earning my keep. I remember one time I ate twenty ears at a sitting. The next day was really something. Come to think of it, that was around the time Daddy started getting me to use the gully.
Peeking between the trees, I can see pretty clear under the full moon. There’s only two sheep left in Mr. Carlton’s pen. They’ll make a nice snack. I reach down and pick the first one up by the head, and whip it around to snap its neck. Then I pop it into my throat like a fuzzy pill. It’s better if I don’t taste it. I don’t like raw meat, and it’s gross when they poop in my mouth.
Mr. Carlton’s kitchen light comes on, and he busts through the door waving his shotgun. “Goll dangit, get out of here, you goll danged monster!” He shoots at me, and it feels like a hornet stinger. He pops open the barrel to reload. Lights are coming on in some of the nearby houses. Probably heard all the ruckus.
“Mr. Carlson, I don’t mean you no harm,” I tell him. My booming voice startles him, and he fumbles with the shells.
I don’t want to do it, but I can’t have him raising such a stink, neither. So I reach down and pluck him from the ground by his legs. He dangles before my eyes, squirming like a worm on a hook, cursing at me with a blue face.
“Let me down, you wretched creature!” he says.
My tummy growls again. Even if I eat that second sheep, it’s not going to tide me over. And Mr. Carlson’s liable to go straight to the sheriff if I let him go.
You can’t really call me a cannibal, can you? If you take one look at me, it’s plain as day that I’m something different. Plus, it wouldn’t be the first time. Last month, I ate a hiker who wandered by one morning. I didn’t have no food for a week before that, so what else was I supposed to do? And afterwards, there wasn’t no lightning bolts to strike me down. I was just doing what I had to.
And now what I have to do is get Mr. Carlson to shut up.
Mr. Carlson’s neck snaps with a flick of my fingers. Then I bend him in half, crunching his bones, and pop him down my throat just like I did with the sheep.
The second sheep is my dessert.
It’s been about a week since I last visited the village.
I stretch away the day’s sleep and lean against the Eastern Pine at the edge of the clearing — the one where I stripped off all the branches on one side. I balance a lamppost I stole on top of my head, and scrape it back and forth against the trunk of the tree to make a notch. The notch is about a hand’s width higher than the last one. Almost at the top.
“Door time, Daddy,” I say. I have to swallow a lump in my throat.
The rumbling in my tummy means I’m going to have to visit the village again. I ain’t found a single deer or boar or anything out in these woods in ages. Must be I ate them all.
It’ll have to be tonight. After all, monsters are only supposed to come at night.
Somewhere downhill from me, there is a squeaking sound, and it’s getting louder. The tree branches keep whatever it is hidden, until it breaks into my clearing.
It’s Daddy! And he’s pulling a cart. And on the cart, is a whole cow — except its head.
“Howdy, Sprout,” he says. His face is all wet, and his eyes are red and puffy.
“It’s your birthday, you know.”
“Yup. Happy eighth birthday, Son. I brung you a present.” He motions at the cow.
“Wow,” I say, “thanks, Daddy. It’s just what I needed.” I won’t have to steal from the villagers tonight, after all.
Daddy sits cross-legged on the ground. “Go ahead and eat. We’ll pretend it’s a birthday cake.” He starts humming the Happy Birthday tune.
I reach over and pick up the cow by its hind legs. Blood spritzes from its severed neck.
The first time I had steak, I was barely a year old, but I already dwarfed most of the middle schoolers in town. Most kids my age was just weaning off their momma’s milk, but Daddy and I was rowing up to the table for a great big porterhouse donated by Yancy the butcher.
“I wish we could share it, Daddy,” I say.
“Me too, kiddo.” He wipes his eyes. “Me too.”
I fold the cow in two. Its spine splits with a crack, like the sound of breaking a large tree branch. Then I stuff the whole animal into the back of my throat and gulp it down. I wish it was that tasty porterhouse, but I can’t be choosy.
We sit, side-by-side, and watch the sun go down. I only just woke up, but I’m starting to feel sleepy again.
“There’s talk in the village,” Daddy says. “They say there’s a monster out in these woods.”
“A monster, huh?”
Daddy nods. “A couple of the villagers have gone missing. And a whole bunch of livestock.”
“You don’t say.” My words feel weird on my tongue. My eyelids are heavy.
“At first we figured it was maybe some wolves, getting out of hand.”
I keep it to myself that there ain’t been wolves around here for months. They was some of my first meals, after leaving home. The trees all around me are tilting at weird angles. When I start seeing double of Daddy, I lay back in the clearing with my eyes closed.
Daddy continues. “But when grown men went missing, everyone figured it had to be something else. Something bigger. Something stronger.”
“S — stronger, right,” I say. I try to open my eyes, but it feels like something is holding them shut.
“I know you were just doing what you had to, Son.” Daddy’s voice is strained. He blows his nose, and sniffles.
“H — had to,” I say.
Daddy is right next to my ear now. He runs his hand through my hair. “And now,” he says, “I’m doing what I have to.”
“D — Daddy, I’m sleepy. Will you check for m — monsters?”
It’s getting hard to breathe. Daddy is on his knees, blubbering. I re-live each notch on my old door frame, one by one, watching Daddy’s face go from proud, to confused, to concerned, to downright scared, each time he carved another notch.
“All clear of monsters,” he says.
He kisses my cheek.