Tom’s day at school had been rough. One of the boys had spat on his face from the top of the slide when Tom had been the Lava Monster. His collar was crusty with it now as he arrived home. He really needed a hug.
He’d followed his older brother, Hank, home. Hank’s friends threw rocks at Tom all the way just to make sure he kept his distance from them. Tom’s backpack felt incredibly heavy with the Illustrated History of Dragons, and the lunch his teacher has confiscated at noon and then forced him to take home at the end of the day. His mom should know by now that his school was a nut-free zone.
So Tom was hungry, too. But he didn’t mind that. He just needed a hug.
When they arrived home Tom’s baby sister Liza was crying. His Mom was busy mopping up the baby’s vomit and talking to someone on the phone about baby fevers.
Tom looked around hopefully, but his Dad wasn’t there. He never was, Tom never knew why he might expect him. He worked, after all. But he just hoped that maybe, by chance, this one day when Tom really needed a hug his Dad might surprise him and be home early. Then they could sit together on the couch and read his Illustrated History of Dragons and have a snack together.
But he knew that would never happen, either. Tom’s Dad just worked some more after he came home.
Tom’s Mom started yelling at Hank and his friends for tracking mud in the house after they marched into the kitchen after a snack.
She told them to get out, to go outside and play. Liza’s screaming was hurting everyone’s ears, and Tom’s Mom tried to yell louder than the scream to make herself heard. Suddenly Liza threw up on the floor again. Hank and his friends grabbed a bag of chips and ran out back onto the deck.
Tom’s Mom started to cry. She sat down slowly on a chair at the kitchen table and cuddled Liza carefully, her tears dropping into the baby’s eyes. Suddenly she noticed Tom watching and she wiped her eyes.
Tom and his Mom looked at each other. Liza was crying.
“Go out and play with your brother,” Tom’s Mom whispered.
Tom went out back. Hank and his friends were fighting over bikes. There were only three bikes, and four of them.
“I’m not riding this girl bike,” Michael, one of Hank’s friends said.
“That’s my bike!” Tom shouted.
“Like I said,” Michael shouted, “It’s a girl’s bike.”
Hank and his friends laughed hard.
Hank decided to double his best friend, Chris, on his handlebars, and the other boys settled on Hank’s old bike and Tom’s bike.
“Mom says I have to play with you,” Tom said.
“Oh, piss off!” Michael yelled.
“Don’t worry,” Hank whispered, “he can’t keep up.”
The boys opened the back gate and sped off along the path towards the dam. Only Michael was slow enough for Tom to stay close to.
Hank and the others were waiting on the bridge over the creek. They yelled at Michael to hurry up, that they’d never lose Tom if they couldn’t move faster.
So when he got to the bridge Michael hopped off Tom’s bike and he tossed it into the creek.
“There, now we’ll lose him.”
Michael got a double with the other boy and they took off along the path faster than Tom could ever hope to run. But he didn’t want to go with them anyway.
The air was dusty and cool and he sat down by the bridge rail. He turned and looked through it at his bike. He could barely make out a glint of light on its wheels under water.
He looked past the bike then, up the creek bank, and saw a trail. He’d never noticed the trail there before. It lead up the steep hill towards the mountains. The tops of the mountains were starting to catch clouds from the sky and it looked like it might rain.
As he got up Tom realized he was still carrying his backpack. He knew he couldn’t leave it here. If Hank and his friends found it, they’d probably toss the Illustrated History of Dragons into the creek.
Besides, his lunch would make a good snack somewhere along the way.
So Tom headed off along the path that followed the creek up the hill towards the mountain. It was a slender path and it was crossed by roots and sometimes lost itself among leaves and grass. But Tom naturally followed it, even through the dark patches when it veered away from the creek.
Sometimes all Tom could hear was his own breathing and the sound of his feet breaking the dirt and stones. He stopped once when he came across a beetle. It moved slowly, and made Tom feel tremendously large. Tom raised his foot above the beetle, and imagined the sickly crack of its shell as he squished it.
But something made him stop. Instead, he kneeled down and cupped the beetle in his hands. He held the beetle up and when a wind passed by the beetle opened its wings and rode the gust away across the creek. Tom watched him go, and land on a tree. It wasn’t far, but Tom guessed that it must have been quite a journey for that little beetle.
After some time Tom began to feel tired and hungry. He wished for a good place to stop but the trail had become quite steep and rocky. He thought about turning back. But there seemed to be a clearing up ahead, at the top of one particularly steep bit that Tom had to use his hands to ascend.
Suddenly he was on a large plateau that seemed to jut out into the sky from the side of the mountain. There was a bit of grass, some logs and some stones. There couldn’t have been a more perfect place to sit down for a snack.
A soft, warm wind dried the sweat from Tom’s brow. He looked out at the trees that stretched across the valley to the mountains beyond like a scratchy green sweater. Smoke rose from the empty patches of clearcut.
Tom sipped a juice box for a long time. His Mom still didn’t realize that he hated apple juice. That was Hank’s favourite.
Tom decided he would live on this plateau forever. He laid his head down on his backpack and closed his eyes for a moment.
A loud sound of breathing woke Tom up. He didn’t dare open his eyes at first. It might be Hank, ready to thrash him for taking off. But the breathing was bigger than that.
So Tom opened his eyes. He was still on the plateau, the valley was still below, but the sun had moved in the sky.
Tom felt the breath behind him. It was a light, but big breath. Terrified, Tom turned around slowly.
On a large boulder, leaning against a tree, sat a huge blue monster.
Tom gasped. He was panicked, but couldn’t run. Surely he couldn’t run faster than this beast?
The monster glanced down at Tom and seemed very unbothered by him. Then Tom realized that the monster was simply looking at the valley.
Tom looked very carefully at the monster. He was huge. As big as a house. His hair was blue, like the ink of a pen, and his hair was long and shaggy. It got short around his face, which displayed a sort of yellowish skin. His upturned nose was wet, and the monster kept licking it. And each time he licked it he displayed a vast array of sharp teeth, like cat’s. The monster had two small horns growing from his forehead, which were white.
The monster wore an outfit not unlike Tom’s: a t-shirt and shorts. He didn’t wear any shoes, though. The monster’s arms and legs were covered with blue hair which seemed to be have been kept very clean.
Tom noticed that the monster’s toenails needed a clip, though. The monster wasn’t old. It was probably a kid monster. So after a while Tom stopped staring at the monster and looked back at the valley below.
But Tom was hungry and his stomach began to rumble. The monster gave him a strange sideways glance.
Tom opened his pack and pulled out his lunch. He opened it and pulled out the cellophane-wrapped sandwich. Without thinking, he took a quick bite. He didn’t chew, though.
He looked up at the monster, who was watching intently. He lifted the other half up towards the monster.
The half-sandwich was barely a crumb to the monster, but he took it from Tom by allowing the boy to place it on his finger. Tom was suddenly gripped with fear and panic as the monster tossed the tiny morsel into its mouth: what if monsters are allergic to peanut butter?
But he seemed to enjoy it, even smiling slightly the moment after he swallowed it. Tom wondered what monsters usually ate.
Tom sat quietly and enjoyed his half of the sandwich. Then he returned to gazing out at the valley.
Whereas Tom had once wanted to flee the monster, he suddenly felt compelled to stay forever.
Suddenly a tremendous thud sounded on the ground. Tom turned to look and saw a large patch of wet. It was starting to rain.
Then another thud sounded and Tom saw that it wasn’t rain. The boy looked up in time to see the monster wipe another tear from his eye.
Tom stood up and walked to the monster. He tapped the monster’s toe, and held his arms up in the air towards him.
The monster stood up suddenly, and towered above Tom. He raised his foot. Tom suddenly remembered the beetle.
But the monster stepped over Tom, moved to a clearing, and sat carefully on the grass. He laid his huge, blue hand on the grass for Tom.
Moving carefully, a little scared now, Tom went to the monster’s hand. He noticed that the hand had only three fingers and one thumb, and that each digit ended with a long, coarse claw-like nail. Tom touched the nail. It felt like rock, like a rough boulder. It was cracked a bit, and thick.
Tom laid his hands on the monster’s fingertips. They too were rough, but warm, and they gave a bit when Tom pressed on them.
Tom looked up at the monster, who was looking gingerly down. The monster was smiling, but his eyes were still sad. And then Tom knew what the monster needed.
Spreading his arms wide, and laying his head on the monster’s fingertip, Tom hugged with all his might. He hugged so hard that he feared he might hurt the monster, but he knew he never actually could. And then Tom cried a bit as when the monster’s finger twitched, he knew he was getting a hug back.
The sky was turning red when the two decided to say good-bye. The boy and the monster gazed upon one another for a very long time before the monster turned and disappeared soundlessly into the trees, moving up the mountain. Tom waited a moment and touched the monster’s tear puddle one more time before he headed down the path.
It was dark, and Tom could barely see the path, but he knew that if he followed the sound of the creek he’d be alright.
And it was a long time that he heard his brother calling and cursing him before he saw Hank.
Tom appeared on the bridge in front of his brother, who held a flashlight. It took a moment for Hank to notice him.
“Where the hell you been?”
“I went for a walk.”
“You were supposed to stay with me!”
“You guys took off, so I — ”
“You better not say that to mom!”
Tom could see that Hank’s fear was turning to anger in the dusky light.
“Where’s your damn bike?”
Tom didn’t say anything, he just looked over at the creek.
“Dammit, why’d you let him throw it in? Sometimes you gotta stand up for yourself.”
Hank grabbed his little brother by the collar of his shirt and dragged him down the creek bank to the water, then he threw the boy in.
“Get your damn bike.”