You’d think monsters would have their own grocery store, but they don’t. They walk around with a cart the same as regular people and keep the monster part hidden inside where no one can see it. Mom’s grocery cart squeaks with every step like an elf getting squished, but Mom’s not a monster—not that I can tell anyway.
She grabs a box of granola cereal and sets it in the cart beside all our other stuff. “Pick something, Sophie. Then all we need is milk.”
Bright boxes of all colors crowd the shelves. A silly dragon peers out from behind a bowl on one box, but I bet real dragons don’t look that stupid—after they shed their human skin, I mean. I skim past the marshmallow cereals and snag a box of Honey O’s before cracking open my book and waiting for Mom’s cart to move on.The raised lettering on the cover fits nicely against my hand, and I know what it says without looking: The Big Book of Monsters. The page corners curl a little from the thousand times I’ve turned them, but mostly I’m careful.
Shuffling behind Mom as we near the dairy aisle, I try to read and watch the other shoppers from over the edge of my book at the same time.
A woman shushes a screaming kid, giving her a doll and shoving a pacifier in her fat little mouth. As we pass, the redeyed girl turns her tear-streaked face to me, and I squirm under her stare. She raises both hands and shoves the doll behind her head while sucking on the pacifier so hard, I expect the whole thing to pop into her mouth and disappear. With a shudder, I speed up so Mom’s between me and the little creature; I’m sure I’ve seen something like it before. Pages whisper as I flip through the book until I see the futakuchionna. In the picture, a woman feeds two mouths—one on her face, and the other on the back of her head, hidden in her hair.
If not fed properly, the mouths screech obscenely and demand food.
I peek around Mom as the kid drops her pacifier and cries harder, her little eyes scrunched into angry slits like she knows I figured out her secret. If I were braver, I’d go right up there and look in her hair for that other mouth . . . but I’m not. My arms ache from carrying the book all the time, and my steps lag behind Mom’s. Someone should install those moving sidewalks they have at airports in grocery stores. It’d be like riding a scaly basilisk through the aisles, and we could grab stuff we wanted as the shelves whizzed by, and if we missed it the first time around, we could just go for another ride. I bet my idea would get a million dollars, and all the little old ladies would love it—unless they fell off. Then maybe not so much.
“Do you want string cheese for your lunch tomorrow? Maybe a special treat for your first day?” Mom hovers by the cheese, and I nod.
“Yeah, and fruit snacks.” We moved from Beaverton to Portland, Oregon, last month. And we’re renting, not buying. I’m pretty sure Mom didn’t have a choice about coming here, but she pretends it’s all a great adventure. New house, new school, new doctors. None of that is a good thing, but Mom did get a teaching job here, so at least there’s one bright spot in the middle of all this.
“You got it.” She grabs a package of white cheese sticks and moves on. Her black tennis shoes barely make a sound—not that we could hear anything over the wheels—but it’s nice to be near her. She’s graceful and pretty. I think her eyes might be bad though, because she still smiles when she looks at me.
My last school was not so nice. That’s where I first saw my book in the library, and lucky I did or it would have been a lot harder to find out about monsters. The whole school was full of them—mean ones who learned my secret until I couldn’t stay there anymore. Mom says this new school is a new start, a clean slate. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a slate, dirty or clean, but if it’s better than the old place, I’m willing to try.
I pick out some fruit snacks and line up with Mom at the checkout.
A bunch of kids in front of us load the conveyor belt with junk food as their mom reads a magazine behind the cart. The littlest kid, a boy with black hair and a gold chain necklace, scopes out the candy bars. I wonder if he might be a troll since his nose flares and he likes shiny things, but he scowls when he sees me looking. I should have hidden my face then, but I didn’t. Sometimes I forget.
Most of the time, grown-ups look away when they notice me—like it’s more polite for me to be invisible than different. Most of the time, I believe them.
He tugs on his mom’s pink sweatpants until she puts the gossip magazine down and turns her bleached-blonde head. “What?”
The cashier scans the last bottle of pop and presses a button. “That’ll be thirty-seven dollars even.”
The blonde lady follows the kid’s pointing finger and stares at me, her eyebrows arching up into her poofy hair, which is okay, but then she opens her mouth, which is not. “Hey, look, kids! That girl doesn’t even need a costume for Halloween! She’s already got one.”
Four heads peek around their mother like a five-headed hydra to stare and stare and then laugh. They point their fingers and giggle like it’s the funniest joke in the world, but it’s not funny. And I’m not laughing.
Mom’s mouth drops open as the hydra family walks away, and I bury my face in my book. The echoing laughter hurts my ears. It grates and stings, and I press my face against the pages so I’ll never have to see anyone ever again. My eyes burn, but I blink fast and hold the tears inside. I don’t want Mom to see me cry, and besides, I don’t want to wreck my book.
“Sorry about that,” the clerk says over the sound of our groceries beeping across the scanner.
I peek over the book to see if he’s making fun, but he really does look sorry.
Mom’s face is red, her lips mashed tight in a thin line. The rest of the shoppers around us are quiet too, and I duck back into my book, hoping that Mom doesn’t understand what the hydra lady was talking about. She knows part of the truth about me, but not all. And she never will if I can help it.
The checkout machine prints the receipt, and I hear the cashier rip it off. Mom’s gentle touch pries my hand from the book and presses it against the cart’s handle. I wait till we’re out of the store to close my book, but even then, I keep my head down, my hair falling over my face like a curtain.
“You can open the fruit snacks now, if you want,” says Mom. I pretend I don’t hear and run the last few steps to the car. Lights flash as she pops the trunk with her key button. “We have one more place we need to go today after we drop off the groceries, then we can do something fun. Maybe plan for your birthday next week?” She winks and flashes ten fingers plus one.
“Place? Like an appointment?” My stomach churns like I ate a pile of worms, and I slip into the back seat, my hands gripping the edges of the book till my knuckles turn white. When she starts the engine, I close my eyes as the car vibrates and rumbles around me.
“Don’t worry, honey. It’s just a quick physical for the school this time.” Mom uses big words like Hemangioma and blood tumor when she talks about my face to the doctors who poke and prod, and I die inside, wishing to be anywhere but there. I keep quiet and let them think what they want.
“Sophie? You okay?” Mom checks my reflection in the rearview mirror.
I know what she sees: a spiderweb of blood-filled lumps bubbling up from inside the skin between my right ear and my eye. The mark is puffy and swollen and scary to look at because it keeps reaching for more of me, the purple-red bumps spreading out from the main body to stretch from my cheekbone up to my temple. I know she worries about it—the loads of doctors’ visits prove that—but she doesn’t know how frightening it really is because she believes them when they say they learned about it from a medical book. She doesn’t feel the hidden part pulsing inside, always one heartbeat away from pushing through my skin.
“I’m fine,” I mumble.
As long as Mom never finds out the truth, it’ll be okay. She’ll still love me, and I can stay at home. Until then, I have to do what every other kid—who’s not really a kid—does and hide my true nature from her. Only I can know.
I really am a monster.
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