I was eight-years-old when I met him. He was a scrawny little thing; long, thin arms and legs, big brown eyes that were open to friends but closed to… something else. His clothes were too small, but he was always clean. Whenever it came lunchtime, he usually just sat by himself, drank a glass of water, and never said a word. I was the kind of kid who was timid at first, but if I saw that someone needed help, I would be the one to initiate conversation; I suppose I am still that way today. Something in my mind told me that I had to talk to him, or at least try. So, one day, I joined him for lunch, sitting across from him at the table. He ducked his head down as I smiled at him.
His head moved upward to where he was finally looking at me. “Y-Yeah. Porter?”
I nodded. I had an old-school name, even in the nineties, and was made fun of for it a lot. I didn’t care. It belonged to my great-grandfather who I actually got to know before he passed, and I cared for him greatly.
“Hey, how come you never have food?” I asked him, looking at his cup of water. “School food’s not that bad, and you have to be starving when you get home.”
“I don’t have money for school food.”
I took a bite out of my PB&J sandwich. “No money? Your parents forget to give it to you?” Benji cut his eyes away from me, and despite being young, I understood. “You guys are poor?”
“Cut it out,” Benji whispered through gritted teeth. “I already have it bad enough here at this school without people finding out.”
I was stunned, to say in the least. My father was a lawyer, my mother a big-head at a bank, so we weren’t hurting for money. I was an only child until I was about nine, so it just didn’t register to me that other kids could be in a situation like Benji. Sure, there were children that didn’t have much, but they either brought food from home or their parents sacrificed so their children could eat. I couldn’t believe Benji’s family was that hard off, but it explained his out-grown clothes.
I tore my sandwich in half and handed the half I hadn’t bitten off of to him. “Here.”
Confusion in his eyes, he stared at the sandwich. “Here?”
“Eat!” I smiled. “You can have my pineapples, too. I hate pineapples.”
“What? Really? I love them.”
“Then take them.” Benji shook his head. “Don’t be like that. I know ya gotta be hungry. Just eat.”
Benji reached a reluctant hand out, stopped, then took the sandwich and started slowly eating… then sped up until it was gone. I handed him my tray that now only had pineapples on it, and he gorged them down, too.
“Whoa, don’t eat so fast. You’ll get a belly ache.”
“I’m fine,” he said through bites. In no time, the pineapples were gone, and he smiled at me. “Thanks, Porter.”
“No problem. Tomorrow is pizza day! I’ll share mine with you. Do you like pepperoni or just cheese?”
Benji took hold of his cup of water, his gaze falling to it. “Why are you being so nice?”
I shrugged. “I’m nice to everyone. Well, except for meanies. Mom always says, ‘Kill them with kindness’, but I can’t do that. Not if they’re mean.”
Benji took a swig of water. “Well… thanks.”
“Yup!” I grinned. “You just gotta do one thing for me in return.”
“Be my friend.”
Again, he looked away. “What would you wanna be friends with me for?”
I crossed my legs under the table, ankle-over-ankle. “Don’t you want friends?”
His eyes shined for a split second. “Yeah!” He then covered his mouth. He was always so quiet, his outburst stunned everyone in the cafeteria. “I-I mean, yeah.”
“Then, there ya have it.” I held out my hand. “Shake on it.”
He smiled timidly as he took hold of my hand. “You’re weird, but I like you.”
That night, I remember going home and telling my mom and dad about Benji. They seemed concerned, but smiled and told me to invite him over for dinner some throughout the week and some during the weekends. I was excited. I had made a new friend, and usually, my mom and dad had to meet their parents before they would let them come over. This time, Benji was different, and the very next day, I invited him over for dinner.
“O-Oh, I don’t know about that…” he trailed off, erasing the wrong answer to a Math problem.
“Huh? Why? It’s just dinner? We’ll have you home way before dark, we promise.”
“I’ll walk home.”
I tapped my pencil on my desk, excited. “Do you live close to me? Hey, we could play every day!”
“N-Not really.” He answered another Math problem. “I live on Chestnut Lane.”
“That’s a bit of a drive from my house, Benji!” I fussed. “You’d get home waaaaaay after dark!”
“It’s fine. I’ll… come and eat.”
He must have noticed I was staring at him, so he put his pencil down and raised his hand, holding up his index finger. This meant “restroom” for our teacher. She nodded, he got up, and left. I raised mine, too, but she shook her head.
“But, Miss Emmie, I really gotta go.”
She sighed. “Fine. But don’t you two cause trouble.”
I ran out and to the bathroom, where I found Benji with a wet face, turning off the water by twisting the handle to the sink. He exhaled a long, shaky breath and stared at his reflection in the mirror for the longest time. I didn’t know what to do or say other than just stand there. Finally-
“Do you believe in monsters?”
The question came out of nowhere. I chuckled and took a step toward him. “Monsters? No. Why, do you?”
Slowly, deliberately, Benji nodded.
“Benji, aren’t we a little old for that?”
“I live with them.”
I laughed and patted Benji’s back. “I’m sure you’re just having nightmares. Monsters aren’t real.”
“Yeah, well… you’ve never seen one, have you?”
I shook my head. “Nope.”
“I see them every day.”
He sighed, shaking his head. I reached to the paper towel dispenser, gave it a few pumps, and tore some paper towel off for him, handing it to him. He took it and wiped his face off, giving the paper towel a toss in the trash.
“I guess you’re right. Monsters aren’t real.”
When school was over, I was overtly enthralled as I jumped into our family’s SUV, Benji following in behind me. My parents took a look at him, and I saw them exchange glances that back then, I didn’t understand. Dad drove us home, and while they cooked, Benji and I tossed baseball outside. He was really weak when he threw, but he wasn’t afraid of the ball at all. My mom called us inside, then took us up to my room, where the clothes and shoes I had outgrown were in a pile on my bed. I was bigger by just enough that the clothes fit him perfectly, and she told him they were all his. Benji started crying, and I heard him mutter something about the monsters, but he clamped his mouth shut. He hugged my mom, thanking her. My mom pursed her lips together, and I could have sworn to see tears in her eyes. I was just glad to get rid of those clothes. They were piling up my drawers and closet, anyway.
We ate dinner, Benji not speaking much. Instead, he listened to me and my family talk, him smiling the whole time. I thought he was being weird, him just watching us with a dopey grin on his face. My mother told him to slow down on his eating, but he just kept on… until he got sick. Hearing him throwing up in the bathroom wasn’t a pleasant sound to hear, but my dad being in there with him, giving him comforting words as he rubbed his back was a good thing to see.
Once he was out of the bathroom, my mom had put the clothes and shoes in bags that he could carry, and had even tucked some leftovers in a Tupperware container in a bag. Dad insisted he drive him home, and I got in the SUV with them. Once we got to where we needed to turn onto Chestnut Lane, Benji opened the door, bags in hand, my dad barely slowing down, and jumped out, somehow landing on his feet.
“Thank you! See you again!” Benji smiled. And I smiled back. It was the first genuine smile I had seen him give.
It went on like this for several months. My parents fed him every other day, he wouldn’t let us take him fully home… But he was finally gaining some weight, and Miss Emmie was even happy to see that. He was getting better at eating more slowly, and he would always tell my parents how good their food was. Benji started talking when he ate with us, at first extremely timidly, but then he would laugh and be as vibrant as the rest of us. He never wanted to go home, but he always insisted we never turn onto Chestnut Lane. He looked really good in my clothes, and he was doing better in school. He started making friends other than me, but I was always his go-to person. We became best friends in no time.
On the other hand, he never would stay the night. Nor was I allowed to go to his house.
“Benji, c’mon. You’ve been to my house dozens of times. It’s my turn to go to yours!”
Benji shook his head. “No.”
“Is it because of the ‘monsters’?” I asked, putting air quotes on the word monsters. Benji didn’t say anything. “I told you. I don’t believe in monsters. And you shouldn’t either. We’re not babies. So let me come over.”
I reeled back from how forcefully his words were. “Huh?”
“If you come over, you’ll see. You’ll see the monsters.”
“Oh, good grief. Is this what you tell everyone?”
“Well, good. Everyone will start thinking you’re a total weirdo for still…” I stopped when I saw something as Benji scratched up under his shirt, lifting it up slightly. I grabbed his hand and pulled his shirt up, seeing the bruises on his torso, and, in the reflection on the mirror, his back. “Benji… what is this?”
For some reason, Benji got mad at me. “Mind your business!” He swatted my hand away and tugged down his shirt.
“Why are you all covered in bruises?”
“Our neighbor’s dog got loose,” Benji answered. “He’s big, and he tackled me, licking me and playing.”
“You’re lying!” I argued. “A dog wouldn’t do that!”
Benji brushed by me. “You tell anyone, and we’re not friends anymore.”
I held my hands out in front of me. “H-Hey! That’s not nice!”
“Then don’t do it, and I won’t have to be!”
He left me in the bathroom alone. I was an eight-year-old boy, lip quivering and alone, trying to process what I had just seen. A dog wouldn’t leave bruises like that… a dog wouldn’t… What was I to do? I didn’t want to lose my best friend, but…
That night, Benji didn’t come over like he was supposed to. I told Mom and Dad I was going to Benji’s house. We’d watched him walk to it every time from the turn in to Chestnut Lane, so I knew where he lived. Dad said he would drive me there, but I told him to drop me off at the turn, because I knew if Benji saw my dad’s SUV pull up, he’d never come outside to talk to me. My dad agreed, but said he’d watch for anything that may go wrong. He said he’d give me ten minutes to talk to Benji, and I told him that was all I needed.
My legs began to shake as I neared the house. The closer I drew, I could see Benji through a window that I guessed led to his bedroom. He was just sitting on something, rocking back and forth. I sneaked to the window and waved at him. His eyes widened in a panic as he scrambled off his bed, opened his window- I crawled inside, my eyes barely able to take in what I saw… or, what I didn’t see. His room was completely barren, minus for a dirty mattress with a single, thread-bare cover. The clothes we gave him were neatly folded on the floor, but I knew that was his doing. Everything was nasty, covered in filth. I wondered how he kept from stinking himself, because the house was rank. I started to speak, but he covered my mouth and put a finger up to his lips.
“Don’t,” he whispered. “Just leave. The monsters will be here soon. The lock can only hold them back so long.”
My eyes darted to the door to see a barrel-bolt lock that was barely on its hinges. How many times had he had to have fixed it? How many times had it been broken? He started pushing me toward the window.
“Porter, just go. Please.”
I moved his hand from my mouth. “Come with me.”
“You know I can’t. They know. They always know where I am.”
“My dad is here. He can help.”
I would go. But I would go to my dad and tell him. I nodded, and as I started out the window, my foot made a loud thunk! sound. Benji’s eyes at once filled with dread as he pulled me back into the house-
“BENJI?! I THOUGHT I TOLD YOU TO GO TO BED!” I heard a female voice from somewhere in the house. It was vicious, raspy. Benji pulled me by the front of my shirt with him into his closet, where he shut the door. I heard footsteps overhead heading our way.
“YOU BETTER NOT BE UP, BOY. WE AIN’T PLAYIN’ GAMES.” A male voice this time, slurred, just like the female’s had been, and just as raspy.
Benji felt along until he found a crack in the wall. He pulled on this, opening a makeshift door completely unnoticeable by the naked eye but a safe haven for him. He pushed me in and got in himself, quietly shutting the door. The footsteps were now nearing his bedroom, and it wasn’t long until we heard something slamming against the door.
“He locked the door again, that little… BENJI, YOU BETTER OPEN THIS DOOR RIGHT NOW.”
Benji shook, holding his hand over my mouth and pressing me as back into the closet as he could. He was protecting me…
“GODDANG IT, YOU STUPID BRAT.”
“Move, Jill. I got this.”
A loud bang, wood splintering, and another loud bang the door slammed into the wall.
“Darn it, Ted. I hate it when you break my dang doors!”
“You shut your face!”
A smack, and Jill gasped. Benji winced but didn’t make a sound.
“Where are you? Huh?”
“Ted. The window.”
Instantaneously, I felt Benji tense up. He’d forgotten to shut the window.
“That little brat. He knows better. He ain’t gotten far, I promise ya that,” we heard Ted rasp. “Let’s go.”
We listened as they left the room, and even more as the footsteps faded.
“Benji, no, this is great,” I whispered. “We can get out through your window.”
I couldn’t see him since it was so dark, but I’m sure his eyes were full of worry. “You think?”
“I’m sure. My dad is at the turn. He’ll save us. He’ll save you. Let’s hurry.”
Benji opened the door, and we quietly left, closing it behind us. He opened the closet door, and we began to gently, softly make our way to the window. I let Benji go out first, and he pressed his back against the house. Just as I grabbed onto the sides and put a leg through-
“WHO ARE YOU TO BE IN MY HOUSE?!”
I felt a hand grab firmly around my neck and pull me down onto the ground of Benji’s room. It was his mother. Jill. Her long, black hair was greasy, stringy. She was missing teeth, and what she had were rotting, her breath putrid and of booze. Her hand was still around my throat, and without any hesitation, Benji jumped back into the house.
“Let him go! Mom, let him go!”
I couldn’t breathe, and my legs were kicking, struggling. Benji grabbed onto her arm in efforts to pull her off me.
“TED, WE GOT US AN INTRUDER!” she screamed. We heard footsteps running-
“Sorry, Mom…” Benji muttered, and the next thing I knew, he had elbowed her in the nose, hard. She cried out, staggering backwards. In her drunken state, she fell to the floor, and both me and Benji got out of the house. My dad was already running down the road when I looked, and we ran to him. We latched onto him as Ted and Jill stumbled out of their house. They saw us and made their way to my dad, who pushed us gently behind him, shielding us. My throat throbbed, and when I touched it, I could feel the indentations of her fingers on my skin.
“Is that kid yers?” Ted demanded, pointing at me.
“He broke into our house!”
“No! I let him in!” Benji corrected. Well, technically, I had entered on my own first, but he had pulled me back inside. “We were going to play outside!”
“You shut yer trap!” Jill yelled. Benji cowered behind my father, but my father stood tall.
“I see bruises on my son’s throat. Long, slender fingers… Fingerprints will prove whose they are.” He eyed Jill, who took a step back. “You are also publicly intoxicated.”
“We were lookin’ fer our boy.”
“A child can’t play outside?” my father reciprocated. Then, we heard sirens nearing, and Jill and Ted began to lose it.
“You called the cops?!”
“Last I saw my son was you pulling him back into the house,” my dad addressed. “And we have been suspecting abuse on your son.”
“We’ll kill you!” Ted yelled, running forward, fist raised. My father moved us and himself to the side, Ted staggering and falling flat on the concrete. He sat up, and I looked at him. He was thin, and I could see small little puncture marks on his arms. I wondered why he had to take so many shots for, but my parents later told me the truth. He had no hair left, perhaps three teeth, and was filthy.
By now, two squad cars had arrived, and Jill crumpled to the ground, sobbing. “Don’t do this! I’d never hurt my boy! I love him!”
My father ignored her as he spoke to one of the officers, the others arresting Ted and Jill. I thought they looked scary… like… like monsters. I could hear Jill screaming from inside one of the patrol cars. The officers examined my throat, took fingerprints. It honestly hurt to speak, but when I asked Benji if he was okay, my dad suddenly turned around and hugged us both, crying. I had never seen my dad cry before that day. For a moment, he just held us, crying, apologizing. Benji got to go back to his house to get his clothes, and he came home with us. My mom did the same thing dad did, and we weren’t sure why.
It took a long time, and because I was so young, I didn’t understand what was going on. I had to give testimonies and the like, just like Benji had to. Jill and Ted lost their rights as parents to Benji. They could never stay out of trouble long enough, stay away from the drugs, alcohol… Not that Benji ever mattered to them. My parents treated him better than he had ever been treated in his entire life. I felt like I had a long-lost brother, and sure, we squabbled here and there, but that’s to be expected.
And then, just before my ninth birthday, we officially adopted Benji. We all cried, and he thanked us for everything.
I want to say there is a happy ending to this story, but I can’t. Benji and I grew up, both became lawyers like our dad… and with every case, I am reminded of Benji’s constant declarations of monsters in his house when we were kids, before everything changed. Because… Benji wasn’t wrong. He’d been right all along. There are monsters out there, as real as you and me. They just don’t look like the ones you see in movies or storybooks. You just have to see, watch for them to appear, be vigilant.
So when someone tells you monsters aren’t real…