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American Monster

Story by Natalie Warther (Read author interview) June 17, 2024

Art by SmokeLong with original image by Maryam Sicard

I can speak to the monster but my parents cannot. All day, they ask me what the monster is saying, and I tell them. There is no monster where they come from, so when we see his truck rolling by, when we smell the bottles rattling in the bed before we hear them, my parents lean towards each other like plants craning towards the sunniest window–towards the thing they need most to stay living.

The monster speaks through me to them, and that makes me feel that I must be part monster–its language passing through me like a drifter pausing in a dirty motel room, on its way to somewhere else.

The landlord is the monster. The upstairs neighbor is the monster. The Fourth of July, bald eagles, Timberland boots, and Mountain Dew Baja Blast are the included accessories of the monster, making them monstrous by association.

Some monsters extend small kindnesses to me: a lollipop in the laundromat, a free sample at the deli. “The monster’s not all bad,” I say to my parents, only once, and learn quickly not to say this again, not at the dinner table, not when our plates are full of the kinds of foods that would make the monster pinch his nose and reach for a bottle of Heinz.

Sometimes I imagine my parents navigating a grocery store without me, a train ride without me, saying the only thing they know how to say under the angry gaze of monsters in a hurry: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” followed by a series of head nods and hands up in surrender, as if apologizing would temporarily satisfy the monster, but not for long.

The other children at my school are technically monsters, but they didn’t choose to be monsters, they just haven’t ever left our small town. But then again, neither have I.

I keep the lunch my mom packed in my locker and feed a dollar bill into a mechanical monster’s mouth. It spits out a package of Ritz crackers, a snack which does not raise eyebrows the way most of my lunches do. I break each cracker into four pieces, letting them become gluey on my tongue before I swallow, extending the meal, and hopefully, the sensation of fullness that 200 calories of refined carbohydrates can provide.

The monster next to me offers me some of her apple slices and I gorge on this–not the fruit, but the offering, the kindness, the second hand experience of belonging in a world where mothers in aprons cut apple slices for their daughters and squeeze a wedge of lemon into the bag.

This small monster invites me to her house where other small monsters sit on the floor of her bedroom and take turns running strands of each other’s hair through her mother’s flatiron. They try mine, but nothing happens, because my hair is already straight. “You’re so lucky,” they say, and I think about that.

We eat pasta for dinner, “angel hair,” and this is the first time I’ve ever considered that an angel’s hair is yellow, not black. This pasta is named for this fact, which makes it indisputable.

My father picks me up and speaks to the girl’s mother through me, a game of translation ping pong, my mind an outstretched net. The other girls watch this from the railing and I’m embarrassed, not of my father, (well,) but of myself for being half of everything, of possessing this adult job, translator and connector, a role that has been with me always like a birthmark, or an extra limb that refused to stay limp at my side.

It’s not that I want to be a monster, it’s that I don’t know what else there is to be, other than an apologizing parent, bowing in the shadows at the mouth of the cave.

My mother is waiting in the car. On the way home we stop at Home Depot. A monster approaches the three of us in the garden aisle and asks if we need any help. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” they begin to say, so I say it too, we say it as a family, as aliens, as weeds, all three of us apologizing to each other for the change we can’t stop from barreling towards us, the monster’s truck door hanging open, me, already halfway inside.

About the Author

Natalie Warther is a senior writer at Chiat Day with an MFA from Bennington College. Her most recent fiction is forthcoming in Wigleaf. Her story “Bye Bye Baby” was a 2024 Pushcart Prize Nominee and she is a current finalist in the 2024 American Short(er) Fiction Award. She lives in Los Angeles.

This story appeared in Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Eighty-Four — The SmokeLong Quarterly Award for Flash Fiction

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