“Stay up as late as you want, I don’t mind,” my mother used to say. “I don’t think Raleigha will like it though.”
Raleigha was the monster who lived in our neighborhood, or so my mother used to say. He had a mouth in the palm of each hand, and barbed teeth that latched on and expanded inside the skin of any disobedient little boy unfortunate enough to attract his attention. Quiet as the falling night and swift as a guilty heart, Raleigha would stalk the house waiting for his favorite meal.
My mother never gave me a satisfying explanation for why misbehaving children taste better, but she swore it was true.
“Good thoughts spoil the meat,” she told me one night when she tucked me in. “They make you all chewy and stringy and bland. Raleigha can smell an evil thought from miles away though, and nothing will stop him from eating the person who deserves it.”
“Is that what dad is running from?” I remember asking her once. I was too young to understand how much that question hurt her.
“Exactly right,” she said. “But it won’t do him any good. There’s nowhere to run that’s too far for thoughts to follow, and wherever your dad is right now, you can bet Raleigha will find him.”
I understood that mom was trying to frighten me into being good, but I was never scared of Raleigha. I thought of the monster more like a super hero: a fantastic force of nature that hunted the wicked and brought justice to the world. I imagined Raleigha praising me when I did well, and he never punished me no matter how much I deserved it.
Other children had dads, and I had Raleigha. When the people at the grocery store made us put the food back on the shelves because we didn’t have enough money, I’d just think about what Raleigha would do to them. Or when someone was cruel to me at school – I’d just imagine how it must feel to have those swelling teeth inside you that wouldn’t ever come out. Compared to that, my troubles didn’t seem so bad at all.
Mom was wrong about dad though. Raleigha never caught up with him. Even when dad came back and started hanging around the apartment, Raleigha never touched him. When dad was shouting all those things at mom, Raleigha never interrupted. And when he hit her, grabbing her hair, her throat – throwing her around the apartment like a rag doll – well I guess Raleigha had bigger scumbags to hunt that day.
“Raleigha must still smell some good in your father,” my mother told me. “Don’t worry about me though. If it ever gets bad enough, Raleigha will know and save us from him.”
Other children had God, and I had Raleigha. And when the sacrosanct night was broken by my parent’s shouting, I’d pray to him in my own way. If I could only concoct an evil enough thought, then Raleigha would smell it and find us. I didn’t even care what would happen to me because of it. As long as Raleigha was here, he’d get my dad too, and then mom wouldn’t have to cry anymore.
I made a game out of it when I lay awake at night: trying to think of the most vile, twisted thing in all the world. I thought about hurting the kids at my school, or throwing stones through windows, or stealing. I thought about shouting at people like dad did, or punishing animals – anything so Raleigha could smell how bad it was. I tried my hardest, thinking horrible things day and night until at last during school I finally thought of the worst thing there was.
I was going to kill myself when I got home. I was going to tie one end of a string around my neck and the other end to the drain in the bathtub, tying it so tight that I couldn’t get undone even when the tub started to fill with water. I’d be stuck there doing and thinking the worst thing I could do, until Raleigha smelled it and came for me.
I heard mom and dad fighting before I even opened the front door. They were in their bedroom, so neither of them saw me twisting a dozen strings together into a rope that would be too strong for me to break. The running water couldn’t drown out the yelling, but it made everything seem a little less real. I couldn’t wait for my head to be underwater so I wouldn’t have to listen to them anymore.
My fingers were shaking while I tied the string around my neck, but it was such a horrible thought that I knew I wouldn’t have to be under for long. Raleigha was going to come before I drowned. I’d tell him what was really going on and he’d save us from dad, and then Raleigha would live with us and I’d fight evil with him like I always wanted. I thought I was going to be a hero as I tightened the tether and pressing my face under those warm comforting waves. I thought mom was going to be so happy when she found out what I did for her.
I tried to tell my body to lay still, but it wouldn’t listen. The burning pressure rippled through my body and I thrashed against the twined string. I couldn’t break it. I briefly fumbled with the knots, but the water pulled them too tight to work through. I had to wonder what would happen if Raleigha never came. If I never came back up. And still being able to hear dad shouting while I was under water, I decided that I was okay with that too.
When hands finally grabbed hold of my buckling body and ripped me free, I braced myself waiting for those hooked teeth to pierce my flesh. It was just my mom though, holding me and crying, pumping the water from my stomach and lungs.
“Did Raleigha come? Where is he?” was the first thing I asked.
“Didn’t you see him? He’s already gone,” she told me.
“And dad? Did he get dad?”
I saw the blood leaking out from mom’s closed door after I left the bathroom. I had to go stay with my grandmother for a week after that. There wasn’t any blood when I got home, and I haven’t seen dad since.
I still don’t know whether the monster came or not that night. When I told the story to some friends at school, they said Raleigha must have killed him. My friends were all terrified of monsters after that, but that’s just because they didn’t understand. If this is what humans do to each other, then I’m afraid of a life without monsters.