THE BOY WHO DREW MONSTERS
by Keith Donohue
by Keith Donohue
A pale yellow sun hung low in the salt sky. Winter had blown in overnight, and the cold gave an air of lonesomeness to the empty roads and deserted vacation homes. Tim loved the dying light of December and the absence of the people and set about his business with a kind of gleeful freedom. He had a dozen properties to take care of in the village and another dozen scattered on the eastern edge of the peninsula, and he had worked his way through three of the four homes on his list for the day with not a soul to bother him.
The Rothmans’ summer place was the biggest and finest house in the village, fronting the crescent beach, ideally situated with a view of the lighthouse to the north and the unspoiled sand and rocks to the south. Tim parked the Jeep around back and stood in the driveway, admiring how seamlessly the new mansion blended in with the grand old New England Victorians that dotted the coast. But it had been built less than ten years ago. His son was older than the house. The wind cut through his jacket, so he hooked the lapels against his throat and jogged to the door and fumbled for the keys.
The house was colder inside than out, and he searched for the thermostat to turn up the heat and flipped on the lights in the pale noontime. In the kitchen, new and clean birch cabinets glowed like honey above smooth slate countertops and the spotless stove and refrigerator. A few tasteful prints lined the walls, and in the dining room, the chairs sat precisely three inches from the edge of the table, awaiting company. Alert for drafts, he wandered room to room, absentmindedly checking windows that he knew were closed. A layer of dust furred the shells and curios laid out carefully on the sideboard, and he drew a line with his fingertip along the edge of a mahogany credenza. Bound in frames, pictures of the Rothmans were everywhere: the father in his white dentist’s jacket, brandishing a tool of grave menace; the mother with the same practical smile in every photograph. Two children—a boy and a girl—progressively aging from toddlers to teenagers, perfect teeth glistening in the Maine summer sun. Even the dog was perfect, a Shiba Inu regal as a coiffed fox. In a gilded mirror, Tim saw himself prowling through their possessions like a thief, and he quickly turned away.
Tim sat in Dr. Rothman’s easy chair and inspected the Persian rug between his feet, wondering if he had dragged any sand or mud inside. The room was simple and elegant. A Steinway upright took up one wall. More photographs of Mrs. Rothman in her best swimsuit. Arts and Crafts mirrors and lamps. White pine beams and finishing trim. The furniture, spare pieces, summer home, finer and newer than his own. A castle built crown by crown, bridge by bridge, tooth by tooth.
Money. He dug into his front pocket and fished out a ten, the same crumpled bill he had tucked away three days ago. He knew without looking that his wallet was empty. Never enough money. The plan had been for him to go back to school, finish his degree, but when their son was born and later diagnosed, they decided after many long nights of argument that Tim would put ambition aside to care for the boy most of the time.
“I make more money,” she had said, and it was true, even as a small town lawyer just starting out. “So it only makes sense, when he’s still little, for me to keep my job. What’s so terrible about being a stay-at-home dad? You can always find something seasonal or part-time, we’ll work it out.”
He had stumbled into the caretaker’s position with Coast Property Management, but he often wondered if Holly had not secretly welcomed the chance to escape the responsibility of daily care for the boy, right from the beginning. When J.P. was younger, Tim took him along for odd jobs when Holly was not free or when they could not find a sitter. But after Jip developed his phobia, those excursions with his son became nearly impossible. Just as unlikely as returning to college after all these years. He was old enough to be a freshman’s father.
With the sole of his boot, he scraped at a spot on the rug. The wind rattled the windowpanes behind him, and he hoisted himself from the easy chair, stiff with cold, and climbed the stairs to check for drafts in the bedrooms. In the dentist’s boudoir, the king-size bed floated like a raft on a wide expanse. A single wrinkle creased the bedspread, and he smoothed it with two hands, picturing Dr. Rothman and his wife, perfect and tan, resting on a summer afternoon, worn out with relaxation. The wind whistled through a chink in the walls, and Tim followed the sound, past the daughter’s room. He caught a glimpse of a giant stuffed bear, won at some seaside carnival, sitting on Goldilocks’s chair.
The door at the end of the hall was closed, and when he opened it, a sharp odor leapt from the boy’s bedroom, as if it had been trapped for three months. Something dead in there. On the walls were posters of all the Boston sports stars, Red Sox and Patriots, Celtics and Bruins. A pair of water skis stood in the corner, and on the shelves and dresser careful lines of shells and starfish, a dried mermaid’s purse, a stick of driftwood bent like a narwhal’s horn. A scrapbook lay open on the schoolboy’s desk. Pages of an ordinary summer. The whaleboat out of Boothbay, a clambake on the beach, a set of printouts from the big annual fireworks in Portland. And the boy and his sister in the bright sunshine, climbing on rocks, kayaking on the calm Atlantic, holding a pair of trophy fishes no bigger than perch. The boy and his sister, darkening to bronze from July to September. He turned the last page and thought of his son.
Monster under the bed. Turning back the bedspread, Tim fell to his knees and peeked beneath the mattress. Squatting like a dried toad were a pair of swimming trunks in the shadows. He strained to reach them and recoiled when he touched the calcified folds and creases. As he dragged the stiff cloth across the floor, a trail of sand spilled out. In the pockets were four hermit crab shells reeking of the sea. He poked at the little bodies one by one but they did not flinch. Some monsters. The Rothmans must not have noticed when they packed up for the season, and that the cleaning crew must have neglected to look under the bed was no surprise to Tim, for they were quick and careless, often leaving behind surprises for him to remedy. He set the swimming trunks and the dead crabs next to the scrapbook, the shells dark against the wood.
Holly had been so angry that morning, filled with a deep disappointment that had rarely surfaced despite their hardships of the past ten years. The mark on her cheek already blossoming into a red plum. She never understood how best to deal with the boy, how to approach him sideways and give him space to come into the real world from his far-off land. Only once had Jip raised a fist against him. It was on the first day of school after the near drowning three summers ago, and Tim was sure that his son would not want to miss the chance to see his friends. He had tricked him into getting out of bed and even made it through breakfast, but as the time to go approached, the boy simply stopped moving.
“Put on your socks and shoes,” Tim had barked. “We’re late for school.”
His son balked and bent his legs to hide his bare feet beneath his bottom.
“You know you want to go. Dammit, Jip, hurry up and do as I say.” He could hear the rising anger in his voice but did nothing to stop it.
Lowering his head, the boy glowered at him, defiance steadfast in his gaze. He shifted farther away, anchoring himself in the chair, wrapping his thin arms around the rails.
“No,” Jip yelled.
Tim reached and grabbed at his arm, intending to wrench him free and make him put on his socks and shoes, but in the same instant, his son twisted and swung wildly, small fists beating like a drummer against his father’s hands. Realizing his mistake, Tim stepped out of range, and watched the boy flail at him and then collapse, overcome by his rage, a different creature altogether, a mad dog snarling and showing his teeth. The display alarmed Tim at first, but he thought to simply wait and betray no emotion. Just as he had guessed, his son came back into himself and settled.
Standing tall and looking down on the child, Tim said, “You must never hit.”
His little boy convulsed with one short spasm, just longer than a twitch. “No,” he said.
From that moment, Tim knew to take care in any sudden and unexpected touch, and that’s what must have done in Holly. She forgot. She scared him. It would never happen again, Tim would find the right opportunity to talk with Jip and put the fear of God in him. Send him away, indeed.
The Rothmans would never have to send away their little boy. He would come to this room every summer until he was a young man, and probably come back with his own son in time, and that boy would be normal, too, and on it would go for them, the lucky, the untroubled, the well-to-do. And Tim would be coming here forever, checking on someone else’s second home, closing up every winter and caretaking their dreams. He listened for the wind, but it had abated. No breeze whistled through the cracks. An oppressive silence gave him the uneasy sensation of being all alone in a strange place, and then the house heaved a sigh as though it had tired of him. When he realized it was just the furnace shutting off, Tim laughed at himself. Acutely aware of his own breathing and feeling like a trespasser, he turned to leave, only to be stopped by a small and uncertain sound. Something scratched, like fingernails raked across a sheet of paper, barely audible but enough to unsettle him. It clicked again, a staccato of movement emanating from inside the room. Spooked by its suddenness, he pricked up his ears. The third set of delicate clicks came from the direction of the boy’s desk, and he heard and finally saw the scuttling of a pair of hermit crabs resurrecting themselves in their shells, fiddling their great claws and wriggling their legs to meander across the wooden surface.
All four crabs were on the march, heading off to the four corners, and he pounced, collecting them one by one in the scoop of his hands. Each quickly withdrew into its whirling cone. How they had survived for months in the boy’s pockets was a mystery to Tim, but he quickly dismissed the question and carried them downstairs and put them in the sea grass behind the house. He watched for a long time to see if they would move, but they remained still as stones.
The sun had long since reached its winter day apogee and now arced toward the west as though rimed in mist. A frosty afternoon was sneaking in, and he was late. He left the crabs where they lay and hurried off. As he approached the Wellers’ house, he could see their son, Nick, waiting patiently on the front porch, cold as an icicle, and he raced to the Jeep as Tim pulled into the driveway, as if he had been a prisoner a long, long time and was now released from his sentence. His cheeks were red and chapped, and the boy beamed with an eagerness nearly impossible to bear. Nick was such a good friend to have for Jip. Such a good boy.