Russell Bradbury-Carlin, Along the Monster’s Spine
Along the Monster’s Spine
Length: 234 pp
ISBN: 1533646880; 978-1533646880
title story: Along the Monster’s Spine
One of the most difficult parts about getting out of bed is the way you have to slip your hands along the mattress-edge to loosen the sheets. They’re pulled taunt against you, so you don’t fall out in the middle of the night; Sometimes, it can take a good ten minutes to unwrap yourself enough to slip your legs over the edge and place them on the floor.
Another difficult part of getting out of bed, specifically for me, is walking by Edward’s bedroom and seeing how empty it is. Actually, it is more like “feeling” how empty it is. Sometimes I try to ignore the open door as I make my way to the bathroom. But the sparse emptiness seems to yawn -- sucking air from the hall and inhaling my attention.
It’s been three months since Edward died. It’s been three months of having Edward in my thoughts pretty much constantly. When my brother was alive and living with me, I could sometimes go a week and probably not think of him once. Now his absence is a constant roar in my head.
Our town is situated on the back of a gigantic reptilian monster. Today, the monster seems pretty calm. I take a leak, make a cup of coffee, and sit in my chair without losing my balance once. On the worst days, when the monster is stalking the countryside or attacking a city, I have to crawl on my hands and knees to get around. And taking a leak? I usually hold it. Or go in the tub.
Our house, or I guess I should call it “my” house now, features a nice view of one of the huge plates that runs down the monster’s spine. The monster’s rough, greyish-green reptilian flesh rises slightly near my backdoor, then, arcs up suddenly into the hardened plate that dwarfs our home. Even if I press my face up against the kitchen window, I can’t see the top of the plate. It’s like we live in a dog house at the foot of a skyscraper.
And when the monster is attacking -- when it expels its fiery breath, the plates light up and seem to pulse with energy. Everything in my home takes on a pale greenish cast. When I’m feeling in a lighter mood, I find it to be mesmerizingly beautiful.
“Can’t remember the last time the monster went on a rampage,” Tilly says when I come into the store this morning. We run a store that sells items to keep things secured. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can be left to move around freely. Not if you don’t want it to fall over during the monster’s daily movements, or go shooting across the room when it’s on a rampage.
Tilly really can’t let more than a minute go by without trying to fill the air with conversation. I guess working with me the last three months has been torture for him. That’s why he’ll drop one of these random observations several times a day. He only has a dozen or so, so they get recycled all the time: “Wish things would get tossed around a bit and bring some people in.” “Why can’t the monster make its way to a tropical isle so we can get some warmth around here?” “Coffee’s pretty good today.”
Ultimately, Tilly’s a good soul. He knows I’m hurting and that I prefer to just be quiet, at least for now. But he still tries. “You can’t keep it bottled up for too long, Shell,” he’ll say to me. “You know you can talk to me, don’t you?”
“Of course, Tilly,” I explain. “I just don’t know what to say. He’s gone. I know that. Things move on. I know that. I’ll feel like myself again. I know that, too. It’s just taking a while for the rest of me to catch up to what I know.”
What I never tell him is that I am not actually sure that I really know those things. And, after three months, I am beginning to worry that this is just the way I’ll be for the rest of my life.
We unpack a box that contains coils of rope during which I utter a few sentences that fill the silence enough that Tilly could be quiet for a while. There’s only the sound of rope-piles being plopped into the wood boxes nailed to the floor.
That lasts ten minutes.
“Can’t remember the last time the monster went on a rampage,” says Tilly. He seems to have jumbled the order of his statements and unknowingly repeated one.
I don’t say anything, though I know what my response would be: “The last time the monster went on a rampage, Tilly, was the day Edward died.”
No one in town knows exactly what killed Edward.
I believe I do.
The monster’s towering plates are off-limits. Everyone is forbidden to go too close to them, and we’re certainly not to climb them.
Edward didn’t like limits. I don’t mean that he was a law-breaker or openly defiant. He was more of a dreamy limit breaker. Edward often walked around with his head tilted slightly up. His gaze vaguely fixed at the horizon. When he broke a limit, it was because he was lost in his thoughts or he was so curious that he forgot there was one.
I admired this about him. He seemed to have a whole world in his head that he could get lost in. It was like he lived in the real world and a vacation world at the same time. And he could switch between them at a moment’s notice.
I always wondered what was going on in his head. “Just thoughts,” he’d say when I asked. He would never elaborate.
I sometimes wonder if I would have been like him -- if I wasn’t the older brother. But, my job seemed to have been to remind him about the real world, to pull him back from his vacationland or his “Thoughts”.
As we got older, I did less and less of that. In fact, I can’t tell you the last time I told him to “be careful.” Or reminded him of some appointment. Apparently, though, he’d still needed my guidance.
I think Edward wandered over to one of the monster’s plates that day. We’d always been in awe of them, even as kids. I feel certain that he’d found himself near the one closest to our home and on a whim, decided to climb it. We used to talk about doing this -- climbing high enough so we could get a glimpse of what the monster saw. We wanted to see the countryside laid out before us, the sky a huge blue bowl over our heads. And to get a sense of the power the monster must feel -- each foot-step leaving divots in the soil, yards deep. Trees breaking like blades of grass.
They found Edward half-way between the plate and our house. His head was split open and bleeding. I think he climbed and fell. I think he tried to drag himself home before dying.
No one ever climbs the plates. So no one even thought that was what had happened.
Mr. Fielding came into the store the other day.
Tilly was dressing-up the front window display. He caught my attention and rolled his eyes behind Mr. Fielding’s back.
Mr. Fielding is a pain-in-the-ass.
“How you boys doing?” He asked as he made his way to the shelves at the back of the store.
“Not bad, not bad.” I said. “And yourself?”
Tilly pretended to be absorbed in tying down the new shipment of clamps we received.
“Oh, fine. Sure.” Mr. Fielding replied. “I’m just here to get some more ropes. Colly says the monster may go on a rampage in the next day or two.”
Colly has become something of a weather forecaster for the monster’s behavior. He records and analyzes the various levels of the monster’s movements, especially the rampages. He’s also been able to make some rudimentary maps based on glimpses of the countryside we’ve seen from our vantage point, and learned to predict when the monster is approaching a city. And as he nears a city, a rampage is likely.
“Really,” Tilly called out from the front, suddenly able to hear. “That’ll mean a good old-fashioned business rush.”
“Would you like some help choosing rope?” I offered.
“Must be awfully quiet at home,” he said.
Mr. Fielding, apparently, was preparing to live up to his reputation.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“What with Edward being dead.”
“Uh, sure. I guess so.” I picked up a coil of yellow nylon rope. “Are you tying down large bulky objects?”
“He was always lost in his head, wasn’t he?” Mr. Fielding grabbed the rope. He pulled it taunt with both hands to see how strong it was.
“Shell, can you help me with this here,” Tilly called out. He was trying to pull me out before this got worse.
“Here try this,” I gave Mr. Fielding a thicker rope made of cotton thread, trying my best not to engage in his comments.
“You got to think that there’s a connection there,” he continued.
Suddenly I felt the muscles on the back of my neck grow taunt.
“What connection?” I said.
“Edward’s mental-state and his death,” he replied. “I’m not the only one who thinks so. Some say he was so lost in his head that he must have walked into something and cracked his head open himself.”
I could feel my face grow red hot.
“I’m not trying to be insensitive, Shell,” he said. “Sorry if I sound that way. But I’m right, aren’t I Tilly? A lot of people agree.”
I shoved the rope at Mr. Fielding. It bounced off his chest and fell to the floor with a loud thump. Then I walked right past him and out the door.
My guts were twisted into a tight coil.
I found a copy of Colly’s Forecast on the floor in my front hall one morning.
Colly printed a kind of “newspaper” every so often and delivered it by sliding it under people’s doors.
He filled both sides of the paper with facts, figures, and descriptions of how he calculated things. Most of us turned the sheet over immediately, though, and read the final section entitled, “Latest Forecast”. This time Colly predicted a major rampage in the next day or two. We were, apparently, heading directly toward a major city.
I hadn’t been back to work over the last two days. It took that long for my guts to uncoil -- for the deep ache in my belly to subside. It took that long to get the image of me strangling Mr. Fielding to death out of my head.
I knew, though, that once everyone read Colly’s Forecast, the store would be overrun. I couldn’t leave Tilly on his own, so I got dressed, ate a bit of breakfast and went to work.
I had been right. The store was swamped. I think we cleared out nearly half of our inventory.
Tilly was grateful that I was there.
He didn’t mention the incident with Mr. Fielding, except to say “If he comes in, I’ll deal with him.” He didn’t even need to say his name.
Mr. Fielding didn’t show up that day, but everyone seemed to be glancing at me sideways. I could hear some of their whispered comments. I was “losing it”. I was “going to unravel”. All of the sympathy I received over those first weeks after Edward’s death had dissipated. I was sure that the story of my encounter with Mr. Fielding had gone around town. And the story, whatever it was, came from his perspective. In his version, I was sure, I suddenly blew up at him or treated him badly in some way - instead of a version where he disrespected my brother and acted like an ass.
I felt nauseous most of the day.
By the time I came home, I was spent. My legs felt like rubber and I had to drag them to make any movement.
I walked in the front door and dropped my keys on the coffee table. They made a loud clang that seemed to echo throughout the house. I decided to go right to bed.
Then I was in Edward’s room.
I’m not sure why, but as I made my way down the hall, I simply turned and entered his room without even considering it.
It felt like a cave. The darkness. The emptiness. My breathing seemed to echo off the walls leaving the impression that the room was much larger than it was.
I hadn’t been in his room since Tilly and I cleaned it out. I had been afraid of how empty it would feel, like it was making his absence into a real physical thing. I had been right. I don’t know how long I stood in his room. I guess a part of me was hoping if I was in there long enough that I could ride out the emptiness and everything would change.
Eventually I walked out and went to my room. I lay down on the bed, but for some reason I wasn’t feel sleepy. The room was stifling. No breeze coming in the open windows. Everything felt heavy and warm.
I decided to go out and wander around to get some fresh air.
But as I closed the front door behind me, I knew exactly where I was going to go.
The plate towers above me. In the dark, though, I cann’t see more than a few dozen feet up.
The plate is uneven and filled with cracks. The material is sort of like a monstrous version of a toenail. Only up-close, you can really see that it isn’t smooth and even. It is cragged and made up of long ridges.
It isn’t easy to climb the plate. But I am able to find some hand and foot-holds. Sometimes I have to jamb my shoulder into a crevice as I reach above me to find another place to put my hand.
I could totally imagine Edward doing this. We had talked so much about what it would be like to climb the plate. So often, as kids, it had been woven into our conversations as we lay in bed at night with the lights out. The plate was frequently the last thing we would whisper about before we’d drift off into a hush and sleep took us both away.
I could also imagine Edward falling from here. Some of the sections of the plates are slippery. I’m fairly good at concentrating, and I had also decided not to look out or down until I found a safe place to rest. I’m not so sure that Edward had the patience to do that or that his thoughts didn’t lull him into turning his neck for the view.
And then he probably slipped.
I walk the fingers of my left hand higher and higher along the plate seeking something to grip onto.
Finally, I find a small ridge that holds the tips of my three middle fingers. I place all my pressure on those fingers and the toes of my left foot onto the ridge it clings to.
Then my left foot slips and my left fingers cann’t hold the weight. They slide off the ridge. My right foot follows and pops out of the vertical ridge I had stuffed it into. My whole body swings across the plate as I dangle from the firm grip I’d found with my right hand. I hang like a spider from a single thread.
My heart leaps into my throat, my three dangling limbs scramble across the face of the plate looking for purchase. Any slight protrusion to rest on. I can feel my right hand start to tremble under the pressure.
I find a better ledge for my left hand as well as my right foot. Then my left foot discovers a place to press into, even though it is at a slight angle. I distribute my weight as evenly as I can.
I hang there and rest.
What the hell am I doing, I think to myself.
Am I trying to kill myself?
My face is pressed against the surface of the plate. I can feel the rhythm of the monster’s movement as it lumbers across the country-side.
This isn’t a very smart plan, I consider. If it could really be called a plan at all.
I also can’t just hang on the side of the plate forever. I need to go either up or down.
My limbs scream at me to go down. My brain barks at me to turn back.
But my gut states very simply that I should go just a bit further.
At first, I think the sun is coming up.
I begin to make out more details of the surface I am climbing. And I can see further out along the plate as I make for another hand-hold.
Finally, I pause and let myself turn a bit to see where the monster is headed. It is a city. A pool of bright lights and tall rectangular towers. A sparkling metal forest.
The monster lets out an ear-shattering roar. The sound vibrates along the plate, making my body tremble.
I know that below everyone is leaping out of bed now. The town is preparing for a rampage.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see a large ledge -- a flat spot near the front part of the plate that I can rest on. I make my way over to it.
Finally, I pull myself up and plop myself down. My arms and legs tremble as they try to relax.
Did Edward make it here? Did he sit in this same spot on the day of the last rampage? It certainly seems like the type of place we speculated about as kids.
I look down, though, and see how far away our house is, a tiny square speck. If Edward had fallen from here, he would certainly have had more than a small split to his skull. My guess is he was either on his way up here or on his way back when he slipped. I feel certain of it now.
The monster begins to accelerate its pace. It is rushing toward the city. I can make out the red pinpoints of lights that indicate emergency vehicles, police, or the military.
As the monster approaches the city’s limits, the wind begins to increase. I stand up on the ledge and pressed my back against the plate. I reach behind me with both arms and pull myself against its surface as tightly as I can. Now I am facing forward with a view over the monster’s shoulder of the world before me.
This is exactly what Edward and I used to talk about. Maybe this is part of the dreamy thoughts that always ran through his head?
I would never know, of course.
The monster roars again and attacks the city.
I can see everything. His foot-steps destroying bridges and buildings. The line of military vehicles far away below. The glow of missiles shoot at the monster, only to explode like small pin-pricks on its thick hide.
The tension in my neck tightens. My stomach begins to knot-up again.
Then the monster inhales, preparing to emit its fiery breath.
I can see the greenish glow rush up the material of the plates in front of me. Then the plate I am perched on begins to illuminate.
The monster expells a powerful stream of fire and smoke from its mouth. A heavy deafening roar accompanies it. The plate behind me lights-up like a weird blazing furnace.
It feels like the light goes through me. My body also seems to emit the harsh greenish glow.
I find that I am roaring, too.
I roar so loud that my throat begins to grate and tatter.
I must have blacked-out at some point.
When I awake, the world in front of me is a dark blanket and above it is a bowl of stars that fill the sky.
The monster is still moving. I can tell from the lumbering sway that I feel nearly all the time.
Then I realize my arms are still pressed against the monster’s plate behind me. I am still standing. But I can’t move my hands or my arms. I also can’t move my feet. I am stuck to the plate somehow.
I look away from the dazzling display of stars and my eyes adjust to the darkness around me.
Eventually I can make out what has happened.
The cuticle-like material that made up the spine covers my feet and legs up to my knees. I assume that the same is true of my hands and arms.
I try to slip my arms out of the cuticle carefully, but they make no movement. I pull more fervently. Nothing.
Panic surges through me and I begin to pull at all my limbs frantically. I am an insect stuck in amber.
The monster calls out with a ferocious roar.
I shake my whole body trying to loosen any of my limbs.
The monster’s roar continues unabated.
Eventually, I give in and still myself.
The monster’s call subsides.
My thoughts spin around as I try to think of ways to get out of this. My heart hammers away in my chest.
Maybe if I scream loud enough someone might hear me down there.
Or, perhaps, someone might notice I am missing and come looking for me. And by some wild streak of luck they will be able to make me out so high above the town on this ledge.
What if I kept tugging? There could be a chance the cuticle would weaken. Right?
Or, it eventually dawns on me, I could be stuck here forever.
I’m barely able to breathe.
This is what wakes me up. Somehow, at some point, sleep overrode my fear.
As the sun slips its first rays over the horizon, I am able to make out how dire my situation actually is.
While I had slept, the cuticle continued to creep up over me. I’m now covered up to my neck in a thick layer of the material.
The cuticle presses up against my entire body, including my chest. I have virtually no room to let my chest expand, and I have to take small thin inhalations of breath.
I try to call out. But, the sound that leaks out is wispy and weak.
The monster remains quiet.
Perhaps this is the way all of this should end.
I led my brother when we were children. Then I gave up on that. And he died.
In a sense, my brother led me after his death. Perhaps, he had given up on me, too. If Edward had indeed come to this place, or even made an attempt to, he didn’t take me with him. He didn’t even ask.
And now I will die here.
As I feel the cuticle creep up over my chin and begin to cover my mouth, I realize that in all of the times Edward and I talked about being in this exact place, we never talked about what would happen after. Not just how we would climb down from such a precarious perch, but what we would wish for once we stood on the ledge and watched the world from the monster’s perspective.
Maybe we would have actually wished to be plastered in place here, to have this view permanently frozen in front of our faces. Maybe we would have relished the idea of becoming part of the monster, if we had thought that even possible.
Perhaps, this is what our eight year old version of the ultimate future would have been.
I wish Edward were here with me. The two of us, side-by-side.
Instead, I will be the one. The one to keep this view, forever, for both of us.
Copyright © 2016 by Russell Bradbury-Carlin