by Maria Dones
The monster stayed in his side of the castle, and she stayed in hers.
She thought maybe they had once been friends. That maybe, long ago, he had a name and she had a name and they would call each other’s names as they took turns looking for one another and hiding behind suits of armor, dusty wardrobes, and winding staircases.
But as it was, she only caught glimpses of him when she wandered too far.
And she was forever wandering. She thought maybe she was looking for an escape. But all she could see outside the tall windows in every room was a darkness too starless to be night, and if there was a door that led outside, she had never been able to find it.
It was possible she’d lived here her whole life, and the whole world was nothing beyond the castle and the monster and the soft thuds her footsteps made on the stone floor.
Patch 1: A bright yellow school bus fading into dawn
The first time she’d sat next to him on the bus, Ben Nguyen hadn’t realized it was her at first. Usually that seat was empty, an emptiness encouraged by the backpack he kept there. That same backpack had now been shoved onto his lap. He’d looked up from his Monday-morning trance, about to protest, when he saw that it was her. Alida Rivera. Long brown hair framed her face, and her eyes were a pink puffiness. It was the latter that encouraged him to scoot closer to the window. She slid next to him. He opened his mouth, unsure of what to say but feeling he should say something anyway.
“Don’t,” she said.
So he didn’t.
They heard whispers and laughter from where Alida usually sat on the bus. Intent on pretending she couldn’t hear them, Alida looked straight ahead, fingers tangled in the bottom of her plaid skirt. Girls were required to wear them on Wednesdays, church days. He pressed his cheek against cool glass, closing his eyes, pretending he couldn’t hear the whispers either.
The second time she’d sat next to him, he’d moved his backpack himself. By the fourth time, he’d stopped leaving his backpack on the seat at all.
The monster mostly kept to himself since he’d started stealing her memories. He wandered just as she did, through empty rooms filled with ornate furniture they never used and by walls lined with torches holding flames that never went out. But whenever he caught a glimpse of her, he turned in the other direction.
Part of it was shame, but it was also to protect himself. At first her forehead crinkled with confusion and her dark eyes glossed with hurt whenever she caught him avoiding her, but now they widened with surprise, like she was shocked he existed at all.
And those moments, now few and far between, when a memory rose to the surface — and she did remember who he was and who she was and who they had once been together — were the most painful of all. Because that’s when he had to use the magic of this place to steal her words and her memories, stretch them into thread, and weave them into the quilt.
Patch 5: A closed notebook with the pages sticking out
At first, Alida enjoyed the silence between her and Ben.
It was better than at school, where people she thought were her friends would hiss that word through glossed lips. Slut. Over and over again. It was better than at home, where parental lecture after lecture on what had happened awaited her.
And then lectures had turned into disappointed glances and, finally, no contact at all when her parents returned to working the same late hours they had before. And now at school it was like she’d disappeared, free to walk through the halls, a ghost no one could see. Even the teachers, who had once relied on her to know the answers no one else did, no longer called on her.
Now the silence was thick, humid and heavy in her lungs. Alida cleared her throat anyway, determined to speak.
“What are you drawing?” she asked Ben.
It was what he did when he wasn’t pretending to sleep next to her, scribbling into a small sketchbook, the metal spirals coming undone at the bottom.
He jumped a little, startled at the sound of her voice. She was a little startled by it, too.
Alida pressed her back against the seat, wishing she could shrink into it. Maybe she shouldn’t have said anything after all.
“Nothing,” he said, closing the book. He slid his pencil over his ear.
She crossed her arms. Maybe she should sit somewhere else tomorrow. But, no, the only seats left were in the back with the group of girls and boys she wanted to avoid. Maybe she should walk to school. She’d probably be late, but no one would notice anyway. She bit her lip to keep it from trembling, trying to keep her eyes focused on the torn leather of the seat in front of her. She thought maybe she wasn’t doing such a good job when he glanced her way.
Without a word, he passed her the notebook. She held it in both hands, hoping he wouldn’t notice they were shaking.
His drawings weren’t what she’d been expecting. Orchids, long and thin, flowers dangling from the top. Aloe vera, shaded in so well that, as she traced it with her fingers, she was surprised at the smoothness of the paper. And her favorite, a dahlia with petals swirling into its own center.
“They’re beautiful,” she said. “I can’t manage much more than a stick figure and birds that look like Vs.”
He shrugged. “Plants are the only things I can draw well.” He smiled at her. She liked the way his hair stuck up, making it easier to study the long lashes framing his dark eyes. “I’m rather fond of a good stick figure myself.”
“How much do you like stick figures? Enough to try to save one’s life?”
He looked at her in confusion. She unzipped her backpack and pulled out a notebook. On the first empty page she found, she drew a noose with six horizontal lines underneath. “Hangman. Guess a letter.”
She hadn’t spoken a word to the monster until she caught a glimpse of something that disturbed her. He’d turned in the other direction as soon as he’d seen her, like he always did, like she was something to be afraid of instead of him with the ivy and thorns that covered his body and the moss of his teeth and the brown trailing branches and roots that were his arms and legs. He’d turned away, but this time she followed him down a hallway filled with mirrors framed in shimmering gold. He saw her reflection, and when he looked back, she spoke.
“Your dahlias are wilting,” she said.
Dahlias had once covered his body. The few that remained now were dying, the outer petals faded and dry. When had that begun to happen? she wondered.
“Are you sick?” she asked, though she wasn’t sure how she knew what it meant to be sick.
He shook his head. His silence stifled her, and when he turned this time, she didn’t follow.
Patch 8: A tall house with round windows
“I’m not sure why you asked me to be your partner,” Ben said. “I’m terrible at school.”
He’d known her house must be big. It was no secret at school that both of her parents were doctors. But he hadn’t expected the height, the ceilings that sloped upward into a point, sunlight shining from the windows above and around them to what hung on the walls: ceramic plates with golden vines swirling in patterns, carved-out paintings of the sea reaching for the beach, saints with their hands outstretched casting sorrowful looks at something Ben could not see. The room was so big that, even with all the decorations, it did not look cluttered.
They were sitting on a long, curved leather couch, notebooks and pencils sprawled out between them. She’d wanted to work on the project as soon as they’d been assigned it. Overachiever. Still, Ben had been curious about where she lived, and it was more appealing than going home to his parents fawning over his brother’s Ivy League college acceptances.
“But it’s a botany project. You love plants.”
“I like drawing plants. That doesn’t mean I care what vacuoles do,” he said. “How about I design the PowerPoint?”
She reached into her bulging backpack before shoving a stack of books onto his lap.
“Wait, what are these?”
“Haha. Why are there so many of them? And where did you get them?” he asked, setting the books down between them. “The project was assigned today.”
“I don’t know why you bothered when we’re just going to use Google anyway.”
“Weren’t you listening? Mr. Hall said two book sources.”
“He’s not going to actually check if we cite the website like we’d do a book. I speak from experience.”
“How about I skim through the first two books to see if I can find anything relevant, and you skim the other two?”
He sighed before grabbing the book with the most vibrant cover: two red mushrooms that looked like they were curling toward each other, mid-dance. “Whatever you say.”
It wasn’t long before he got bored and started flipping through the pages idly, only pausing to study the pictures. Sometimes he’d glance up at her. He liked the way she fidgeted with her braid while she read, the way she used her finger to underline passages, mesmerized at whatever she was studying in a way he didn’t think he’d ever be able to pull off.
“Will your parents mind that I’m here?”
“They’re not home.”
“When do they come home?”
She shrugged. “Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they sleep at the hospital.”
Ben wondered if he had been here. Aaron Montgomery, the one who’d sent around the photo of Alida that’d gotten her in trouble at school. He shook his head, trying not to think about it. It wasn’t any of his business.
“At least your parents aren’t always home obsessing over your brother who is better than you in every way.”
“He is not better than you in every way. Besides, I’d rather have an overachieving sibling than live in a quiet house.”
“Alida, you’d be the overachieving sibling in that scenario.”
Their beginnings in the castle had been happy for the girl and the monster. They didn’t know the how or why of it, but they knew who they were, and they understood this was a world for the both of them even if she looked the same and he had transformed into something new.
But when the flowers on his new body had begun to wilt, the monster somehow knew right away what they meant, that when the last one was gone, this world would be gone. When he found the quilt with blank patches in an empty room, he knew, somehow, what it was for and how to use it, how to make the patches bright with color from the memories he would have to steal. And the monster understood, somehow, that if he used the quilt to save her, she could return to where they’d come from, but he could not.
Patch 15: Neon squares that seem to flash different colors
They’d started studying in her room. The project had been over and done with for a while now, but her house felt less empty with him there. Post-it notes littered her walls. Whenever he thought she wasn’t looking, he’d stick a new one on, each one covered in a sketch of a flower. There were more dahlias than anything, since she’d told him they were her favorite and she suspected he’d started to run out of ideas. One time she even caught him reading one of the school library books on botany she’d neglected to return.
Did you know that, in some parts of the world, people believe dahlias can create worlds? he’d told her, a flush on his face from being caught in the act of caring about something.
In return for the Post-Its, she quizzed him with the flashcards she’d made for history. He did not very much like this — “I am a C-average student and proud of it,” he’d said to her. Still, she liked the way his ears turned pink when he told her his mother had hung up his latest test score on the fridge — “What am I, five?”
Sometimes she’d catch him studying the pictures she’d hung up above her desk. She’d taken down the ones with her old friends. Not all of them had ostracized her or made fun of her, but none of them looked at her the same way anymore. Several photos of her parents were still there. She was little in them, small enough that she was still something her parents could understand.
“Are these all at …”
“The Spring Carnival? Yeah. We used to go every year. We used to love the funhouse. It’s designed to look like a castle, and I liked pretending we were off on an adventure to defeat the monster who’d stolen it from the royal family that lived there. But one year my parents forgot about the carnival or maybe I was sick or one of them was on call. I don’t remember exactly, but whatever the case, we haven’t gone since. Maybe they think I’m too old.”
“Well, don’t only little kids go to that? And besides, I heard sometimes they have clowns. Why would you ever want to be somewhere that has clowns in it?”
“If you think I’d ever be too old for cotton candy, Ferris wheels, and corny miniature circus tents with drunk-out-of-their-minds performers, you are sadly mistaken.”
Sometimes the monster wove his own memories into the quilt. He didn’t want her memories of them to be alone, and when he touched the patches, he could feel their story on his wooden fingertips.
Patch 20: Two hands, firmly intertwined
One time, Alida reached out to hold his hand. They were both on her bed, him watching whatever was blaring on the TV, and her flipping through a textbook. She hadn’t dared to look at him, hair falling over her face. But he hadn’t protested.
She liked the warmth of his skin under hers. But as she looked at the glowing neon Post-Its that surrounded them, she wondered if one day she’d disappear for him, too. If one day, she’d do something he couldn’t forgive, like her parents hadn’t been able to. Or maybe she’d do something he’d mock, like her friends had. Maybe he’d turn on her, just as Aaron Montgomery had. Maybe that was why she asked him what she did.
“Do you only hang out with me because you’re hoping you’ll get lucky like Aaron?”
“That wasn’t a no.”
“Well, then, no. Of course not.”
“I just … I’ve heard people talking about it. David Nguyen’s kid brother, getting it from Alida Rivera.”
“Christ. Do people really call me that?”
She crossed her arms.
“Never mind. Unimportant,” he said. “I promise I am not Aaron Montgomery. There is not nearly enough gel in my hair.”
She elbowed him. He squeezed her hand.
Patch 23: An ice cream cone lined in sugary crisscross patterns
The first time she kissed him was after she’d offered to buy him ice cream. They were sitting on a bench outside the store. The streets were empty. She tugged on his hand, and he turned to look at her. She kissed him then. He thought she’d taste like something cliché. Candy or strawberries. But she didn’t, she tasted like her.
Cookies-and-cream dribbled down the cone he was holding and onto his fingers.
Sometimes she caught herself sitting next to the monster in the dining room or the plushy armchairs in the library or against the wall on the floor. Her mouth would be open, like she’d been telling him something. But she couldn’t remember what. She would stand up, stunned by the green of his face.
“What were we talking about?” she’d ask.
He would look down at the blanket he carried around, his strange blanket that was the most colorful thing in this castle of dusky curtains and faded wood. Did monsters get cold? And then he would get up and leave the room like he hadn’t heard her, like she wasn’t the only person to hear in this whole castle.
But when the same thing happened again after she noticed his dahlias wilting, when she found herself sitting in front of him on the stone floor of a hallway, she reached out and wrenched the blanket away from him.
Patch 40: Four tickets, the tabs never ripped off
Ben had bought her tickets to the Spring Carnival. And not just for the two of them.
“Why’d you invite my parents?” she’d asked, sitting in front of him on the bed.
Alida had asked him to play with her hair, enjoying his fingers on the back of her head. She closed her eyes but yelped when he tugged on a tangle.
“Careful!” she said.
She looked back at him, expecting his dark eyes to be lit with mischief. But they weren’t. They were serious.
“You think you’re invisible,” he said. “But maybe they still want to know you, too. They just don’t know how. Make them see you.”
She hadn’t quite believed him, but she’d invited them anyway. And she hadn’t quite believed it when they took the day off to come or when the three of them stood outside the carnival together, for the first time in years, as they waited for Ben to meet them. But Ben never made it.
Patch 31-50: A variety of different foods, never eaten
After the accident, Alida spent days in her room, not quite sleeping but not quite awake either. Uneaten dinners of beans and plantains and overcooked steak littered her desk, but her parents still left new plates outside her locked door. She thought it was strange they’d noticed her at all.
At night she couldn’t sleep. She’d leave her house, careful not to make too much noise. At first, she just wandered around the neighborhood. One night she wandered to the graveyard. The day after that, she skipped school and gathered all the dahlias she could from every flower shop, market, and convenience store she could. She found ones that were purple, red, yellow, white, orange. When she got home that night, her parents were waiting. Not eager to be yelled at, she gathered her dahlias and walked right back out the door, her parents calling after her.
Alida returned to Ben’s grave and covered the stone and the grass and herself in dahlias. Did you know that, in some parts of the world, people believe dahlias can create worlds? Ben had once told her. In Alida’s sleep-deprived state, she hoped it was possible.
She fell asleep in the flowers and hoped for the best.
As soon as she touched the quilt, she recognized the brown in the monster’s eyes even though the torches in the hallway illuminated the green vines and dead dahlias and thorns that he had become. She knew who he was and who she was and what he’d stolen from her.
“Why would you do this?” Alida said. “Why did you take these away from me?”
“I had to,” he said. “When you first got here, you didn’t want to leave, even when I told you this world wouldn’t last forever. You didn’t want to wake up. You wanted to die, too.”
“You had no right to do that,” she said. “Just because you’re gone doesn’t mean I wish I hadn’t met you.”
“But you’d be happier if you didn’t remember me when you woke up. You wouldn’t be sad anymore.”
His wooden hands lay at his sides. She reached for one and was surprised at the warmth she felt. It was Ben.
She did not want to forget him. She would not let him disappear as she had been so afraid she would before she’d met him.
Without another word, Alida pulled the quilt over the both of them.
When Alida woke up, she was in front of Ben’s grave. She wondered how she got there. She wondered why she was surrounded by dahlias.
In the distance, she heard her parents calling her name. When she saw them approach, she looked at them, really looked at them, for the first time since Ben had died. Her mother’s hair stuck to her cheek, her lips tight with concern. Her father’s eyes were blotchy, his normally pressed pants wrinkled.
They were worried about her.
Maybe Ben had been right about them.
When Alida stood up, a patchwork quilt slipped off her. She thought maybe she recognized it. She traced her fingers over the patches and thought of him.
Copyright © 2020 by Maria Dones