From the author: As the smallest kid in seventh grade, Paul is a constant target for bullies. Only in the forest is he left alone, as rumors of monsters keep others from entering. But when bullies begin to brave the woods and threaten his sanctuary, Paul finds himself pushed to his limit...and something else that lies beyond.
“Time for school!” called Paul’s mom.
Paul rose from the bed feeling a weight inside him, like an anchor trying to hold him in place. He wanted to give into it but knew he couldn’t. Mom would make him go to school no matter what. Especially knowing that he had a math test.
He grabbed some rumpled clothes from the floor, sighing as he caught his reflection in the mirror, then headed for the bathroom to finish getting ready before heading downstairs.
“Mom, why do you always buy me clothes that are like three sizes too big?” he called, taking the stairs two-at-a-time.
His mom turned to him and smiled, “Oh sweetie, they’re just a little loose. But you’re due for a growth spurt any day now. You’ll be filling those clothes out in no time.”
“The kids at school don’t need any more reasons to pick on me,” he argued.
She shook her head, smiling as though amused. “Those kids are nothing compared to you, Paul. Pretty soon they’ll see that.”
Paul sighed again, grabbing his backpack and heading for the door without bothering to have breakfast. The heavy weight filled his stomach.
Jumping the back fence, Paul headed for the wooded area that separated his house from the school property. At least none of the kids from school took the forest path. They were superstitious and talked about the monsters that stalked kids in these woods. Paul thought they were stupid. He might have been the smallest kid in the seventh grade, but at least he wasn’t afraid of monsters. He knew there was no such thing. The only monsters he knew of had names like “Dan” and “Terry” and were considered the cool kids at school.
In the woods he felt free from them. He passed his favourite tree, the one with the bark that looked kind of like a smiling face. That’s when he saw the monarch butterfly just up ahead.
Paul wished he had his net with him, but he’d have to make due. He unzipped his backpack with care and removed a disposable plastic container of raw vegetables from his lunch bag. He opened it and let the vegetables drop into the bag. Then, using the fork for his pasta, he punched a few holes into the container lid.
Taking each step with the greatest care, he moved toward the butterfly. As he got closer, he managed to corner the monarch with the box, while scooping it in with the lid before snapping it shut. It was a tight squeeze for the butterfly, but it could still move.
“What’s that you got there?”
Paul looked up to see his next door neighbour, Mrs. Samuels, heading in the opposite direction on the path. Like Paul, the elderly woman was not superstitious and often took her daily walks through the woods.
“Hi Mrs. Samuels,” he said. “I caught a butterfly. Just to look at though. I’ll let it go, later.”
“I know you will,” she said with a smile. “Do you think you could come help me with some leaves that need raking after school?”
“Sure, Mrs. ‘S’. I’ll be there.”
“Thank you so much Paul,” she said with a smile. “I’ll see if I can maybe bake you some banana muffins for your trouble.”
He smiled and moved to the side to let the older woman pass. He liked Mrs. Samuels. She was always nice to him and always willing to listen when he needed to talk. Helping her with the things she had trouble with was the least he could do. In many ways, she was his only friend.
Paul threw the box with the butterfly into his backpack and continued up the path. As he emerged through the trees onto school grounds, he heard voices. Here we go again, he thought.
“Hey wimp,” said Dan.
A group of kids stood around Dan, snickering. Paul tried his best to ignore them and headed right past Dan toward the school building. It was so close. Just a few more steps and he’d be inside and relatively safe. But as he passed, Dan grabbed his backpack strap and yanked it right off his shoulder.
Before Paul could reach for it, Dan had unzipped it and turned it upside down so that everything inside fell to the muddy ground.
“Oh shoot! Sorry dude,” he said, laughing.
A couple of the other boys grabbed hold of Paul, while Dan made sure to stomp his things further into the mud. Then he saw Vanessa—the most popular girl in school—move toward his lunch bag.
“What have we got here?” she asked.
Reaching in, she pulled out the thermos and handed it to Dan, who unscrewed the lid and spilled spaghetti and meatballs all over the ground. Then she dumped out the vegetables. And with them the box holding the monarch.
“Whoa, what’s that?” asked Terry, one of the boys holding Paul.
“Ooh, is that a pretty butterfly?” Dan mocked. He then raised his foot and stomped the plastic container into the ground, crushing the monarch inside. “Not so pretty now, is it?”
The bell rang, and the other kids took off at a run, leaving Paul to pick up his muddy belongings. He didn’t care about his lunch, but he felt bad for the butterfly.
“I should have just left you in the woods,” he said. “All the monsters are out here anyway.”
The weight in his stomach now felt something more like heat. Like a furnace burning inside of him. It was not a new feeling. He often felt this when the other kids picked on him, but this time it felt stronger, as if the burning were fuelled by his anger over the butterfly. But what could he do? He choked it down as always, heading for class.
The day continued in the same way, for the most part. While in class he heard the others whispering “nerd” each time he answered a teacher’s question. Even during the math test, he caught angry glares from the corner of his eye. Once he turned in the direction of a giggle, only to catch a knowing glance between Vanessa and another girl, followed by more laughter.
Between classes, while they moved through the halls, he was shoved as other kids walked by. The girls whispered insults under their breath. One even filled her mouth with water at the fountain and spit it in his face as he walked by. He dried it hastily with his own shirtsleeve and continued on, trying to ignore everything they did. Just trying to get to the next classroom where he could pretend not to notice what they said and did around him.
Recess was a different story. There was no escape there. The teachers, more interested in their conversations than in acting as referees, pretended not to notice when other kids accidentally threw balls at his head or tripped him as he walked.
The school day dragged on, as they always did. He found himself looking forward to the time after school, raking leaves for Mrs. Samuels, and later playing videogames or just taking a nap until he was called for dinner. Sleep was his friend. It made time pass unnoticed. It took the pain away. He slept as much as he could these days.
When the final bell rang, Paul gathered his things as quickly as possible and rushed out the door. He ran for the woods like his life depended on it. Past experience had taught him that hanging around could only be bad for him.
He’d nearly made it when he felt something sharp and hard hit the back of his head, followed by a warm wetness that quickly cooled in the autumn air. The shock of it knocked him to the ground just a few feet from the woods.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry, loser?” a voice asked from behind him.
Paul turned to see the popular kids heading his way, Terry in the lead. Not far from where he found himself on all fours was a bloody rock, about the size of a softball. He couldn’t believe they’d thrown it at him. Was there nothing they wouldn’t do?
As Terry reached him, Paul watched almost as if outside himself as the other boy paused, pulled back his leg and kicked it with full force into his stomach. Too shocked and dazed to react, Paul felt his body react for him. His empty stomach lurched, heaving bile up and out of his body and onto the grass.
“Ew!” said Vanessa. “Don’t get too close Terry. You’ll ruin your shoes!”
The group laughed, then turned and headed back toward the school. It seemed that spilling two different kinds of Paul’s body fluids had been enough entertainment for one afternoon.
Paul, feeling less dazed, picked himself up. Shouldering his backpack of muddy belongings, he headed toward the woods, though much more slowly than he had been. A palm placed to the back of his head told him he was still bleeding, though not too much. He’d get his mom to look at it when he got home.
Paul opened the back door. The comforting smell of whatever his mother was making for dinner filled the room. When she saw him, she looked at him with a tender smile, her head tilted with concern.
“What did they do this time, baby?” she asked.
Paul said nothing, but dropped his backpack by the door, moving closer to show her his head.
“Little monsters!” his mother said. “They should be caged.”
“Maybe you should call the school this time,” Paul said. “I mean, they’re throwing rocks now.”
“Oh honey,” said his mother. “Your father and I both went through this same thing when we were your age. Trust me when I tell you that getting involved will only make things worse. And like your father says, you have to learn to resolve this on your own. It’s part of growing up.”
She led him over to the kitchen sink where she began washing the back of his head with cool water, taking care not to hurt him. She then patted it dry with a clean dish cloth, making sure he was no longer bleeding.
“I don’t think you need stitches,” she told him. “Looks like the bleeding has stopped and I think you’ll heal up in no time. But you might have a bit of a headache for a bit.”
“Don’t worry sweetheart,” she said. “They’ll get theirs in the end. You just hang in there. You’ll see. This is just one phase in your life. One day soon they’ll regret having treated you this way. I mean, you look like you’ve grown a bit since this morning, even!”
“Sure,” Paul said, “I’m a freaking giant. I’m going next door. Mrs. Samuels needs help with some leaves.”
“Sure thing,” said his mother. “But don’t be too long. The lasagna’s almost ready, and a growing boy needs a good supper.”
Paul headed out the back door again. Growing boy, he thought. I wish.
He knocked on Mrs. Samuels’ back door and she opened it, releasing the incredible smell of homemade banana muffins, which she knew were his favourite. Paul’s stomach growled with the anticipation of finally getting some food.
“Paul,” said Mrs. Samuels with concern. “Why is your head wet?”
“It’s nothing,” he told her. “My mom just had to clean a cut, that’s all. I’m fine. I’ll just go get the rake and get started.”
But as he turned to leave, she grabbed his arm.
“Come in for a second,” she said. “The leaves will still be there.”
Paul did as she said and let himself be led to her kitchen table where a bread basket full of muffins waited. She took one from the basket, placed it on a saucer and put it in front of him, then sat in the opposite chair.
“It’s those kids from school who hurt you again, isn’t it?”
Paul took a bite of muffin, but nodded.
Mrs. Samuels exhaled, shaking her head. “I don’t know why your parents let this go on. I never had children of my own, mind you, and far be it from me to criticize anyone, but this is getting out of hand.”
“It’s ok,” said Paul. “I’m used to it anyway.”
“Well you shouldn’t have to be used to it,” she said. “You’re a good boy, with a good heart. I mean, you’re so kind you don’t even fight back. You don’t deserve to be treated like this.”
Paul smiled. “Thanks Mrs. ‘S’, but I don’t fight back because they’re all bigger and stronger than me. Not because I’m so nice.”
“Well still,” she said. “You’re a good enough person to know violence isn’t the answer.”
Paul finished his muffin and stood, heading back toward the door.
“I’ll get those leaves done for you now,” he said.
“Thanks Paul,” she said. “Be sure to take home as many muffins as you like when you’re finished.”
“Thanks, I will.”
The school year continued to go pretty much the same way for Paul. Over time, though, the bullies grew more and more confident. They’d even started waiting for him at the edge of the forest. Paul felt like they were invading his only refuge. Would there soon be nowhere left that was safe? Would they follow him all the way home one day? Would they let themselves in and continue attacking him until they finished him off? Or drove him to do it himself?
He tried not to think about it too much. For the time being, they still avoided going into the woods and he was able to dodge most of their more violent attacks at school. There wasn’t much they could get away with there anyway since, by law, the teachers could only let things go so far.
Even though the bullying had gotten worse, though, Paul’s parents still refused to get involved.
“Can’t you guys do something to help me?” he asked one day.
“Son, these experiences help you grow,” his father told him. “It’s like they say, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.”
“Yes,” said his mother. “And look how much you’ve grown already this year.”
Paul shook his head and held back the tears, pushing it all down inside that furnace in his stomach. They just didn’t get it.
He let the feelings burn inside the imaginary furnace, but it seemed like they were never fully burned away. As numb as he felt when he pushed them down, he knew they were in there, bubbling at the pit of his stomach. Like a volcano waiting to erupt. He wondered what would happen if it ever did.
Paul was spending more and more time at Mrs. Samuels’ house. She was the only one who seemed to care what was going on. Paul told her how his parents refused to get involved and insisted this would pass. She didn’t say much in return, but he could tell she didn’t agree with them.
Mrs. “S” was like having a grandmother he could go to. She was always willing to listen. And while he was there he would find things to help her with.
She was the only person in his life who seemed to see him as a real person. A good person. He knew she valued his friendship too.
“Paul, how have things been going with those bullies at school?” she asked.
“The same,” he said, looking down at the dishes he was washing.
“I know it’s not my place to get involved,” she said. “But would you like me to go to the school and talk to the principal?”
Paul looked at her. He felt such gratitude for what she was trying to do, but he also knew her help would only make things worse for him. And chances were the principal wouldn’t take her seriously since she wasn’t even a family member.
“Thanks,” said Paul. “I think it’s better if you don’t though. They would pick on me more if they knew that you and me were...I mean that we spend time together.”
“That you’re friends with an old lady, you mean,” she said with a laugh. “I understand.”
“My parents say this is just part of growing up,” said Paul. “That they went through it too.”
“Well, not everyone does,” she replied. “But I hope that if you must go through this, that you don’t let it make you bitter. That I still see this sweet boy when I look at the man you’ll become.” She pinched his cheek lightly enough not to hurt him and they both smiled.
“I’m glad I at least have you to talk to,” said Paul.
“Me too,” she said.
“Time for school!”
Paul felt his eyes snap open. He’d been dreaming something horrible about big, hairy monsters. A dream that made him feel like a pathetic little kid. No wonder they picked on him.
Paul turned on his tablet and checked his social media. Someone had hacked one of his accounts and posted a picture of him in his underwear, changing after gym class. He deleted it and changed his password and privacy settings for the second time that year.
As he showered, he imagined he was washing off the humiliation. He tried to visualize it sliding down the drain, gone forever. But the burning in his stomach told him it was far from over.
He dressed, noticing that his pants seemed less bagged around the ankles than they had been yesterday. The waist fit a little more snug. His shirt, too, sagged less in the shoulders and his chest seemed to fill the fabric a bit more closely. “That’s impossible,” he told his reflection. “I think mom constantly telling me I’ve grown is starting to get to me.”
His doubts were confirmed at school when no one seemed to notice he was any bigger either. He was still smaller and weaker than the rest of them and they made sure to never let him forget it.
But then something even stranger than imaginary overnight growth happened. In class, Vanessa sent him a text.
Paul’s first thought was to just ignore it, but he couldn’t help but glance at the first part. The words said, “Paul, I’m so sorry.”
He had to read it again to make sure he wasn’t seeing things, and then continued reading to see if it was just the setup to something along the lines of, “I’m so sorry you’re such a loser.”
“I saw the pic of u online this A.M. I feel so bad. I know I’ve been mean 2, but this really made me see things differently. I wish I was strong enough 2 stand up to everyone, but I’m not like u. I couldn’t take getting picked on.”
Paul stopped and glanced up at Vanessa. She was staring straight ahead at the teacher, but then shifted her eyes for just a second in his direction.
He continued reading. “I’d like 2 be your secret friend if that’s cool. We could walk home from school today. But I don’t want the others 2 know. K?”
Paul wasn’t sure what to do. But she sounded so sincere. Plus, she was so pretty. “K,” he texted back.
He looked up at Vanessa again. She didn’t look at him, but he saw her check her phone, then smile.
Paul felt a different sort of warmth inside him. It spread out from his chest and seemed to fill his whole body. He could almost feel his skin tingling. He couldn’t help but stare at her for the rest of the day. He hadn’t really thought about how pretty she was when she’d been mean to him. Sure, he couldn’t say he hadn’t noticed, but he had pushed away those feelings along with all the others. Now they had been freed and he caught himself thinking about the walk home after school. What would they talk about? What would happen if the others saw? He could never let them hurt her like they’d hurt him. He’d protect her somehow if it came to that.
He felt happy for the first time in ages. Even when other kids picked on him later in the day, he didn’t let it bother him. He thought only of the walk home. How he would show Vanessa the best path. The tree that looked like it had a face on its trunk. Maybe one day he’d even bring her over to meet Mrs. Samuels. By the time the final bell rang, Paul was all but singing to himself.
For Vanessa’s sake, he was careful heading for the woods this time, not wanting to be followed. But for once it seemed luck was on his side.
When he reached the woods, he found Vanessa waiting just behind the first few trees so that no one would see her.
“Hi,” he said, out of breath with excitement.
She smiled. “Hi Paul. Ready to go?”
Paul nodded and took the lead, following the path he knew so well he could have walked it with his eyes closed. Vanessa followed, her voice sounding a little nervous to be going this deep into the woods, but she chatted all the same about school assignments, a sleepover coming up at a friend’s house, and other everyday things.
Paul didn’t say much, but he listened, enjoying the sound of her voice, so different now that she wasn’t being mean. It was hard to see her as the same girl who not so long ago had dumped out his lunch bag.
Lost in these thoughts, he didn’t notice at first when she stopped. He turned to see her standing a few feet behind him on the path, an odd look on her face.
“Don’t worry,” he told her. “We’re almost half way through. There’s a tree just up ahead that has these knobby bumps on the trunk that kind of look like a face. Come on, I’ll show you.”
She smiled then, and he couldn’t help but smile back. But then something in her smile changed and without knowing why, he felt a chill in that place in his chest where he’d been so warm earlier that day. A familiar tight knot began to form in his stomach.
“It’s about time you got here, loser.”
Paul turned and saw Dan and Terry blocking the path in front of them. His first thought was to protect Vanessa, but when he turned to reassure her, he saw the old, familiar smirk on her face. She’s just playing along with them, he told himself. She’s just scared. But as the punches and kicks began to land, he had no choice but to accept the truth. She’d tricked him. It had all been a lie. She’d gotten him to drop his guard just so they could hurt him, and here of all places. The woods were no longer his.
He didn’t know how much time passed, but when they finally got tired of kicking him, they stopped. Then Vanessa kicked mud in his face and they began walking back in the direction of the school. Paul lay there on the path listening to the voices get quieter until all he could hear was the sound of his own breathing.
It took more effort than he’d expected to get himself up on all fours. He didn’t bother trying to stand but crawled the rest of the way home. As low to the ground as his mood.
When he arrived home, his mother saw him through the window and met him at the back gate. Mrs. Samuels, who’d been watering her rose bush in her back yard, walked over and joined them. Together they helped him up and led him into the house. There he cried in spite of himself, feeling as though he were growing smaller, no matter what his mom told him.
“Look at him,” said Mrs. Samuels. “Look at what these kids have done to him. Enough is enough. You need to tell the school.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Samuels. I’ll take it from here,” said his mother. She all but pushed the older woman out the door, then shut it behind her. “Poor thing,” she said to Paul. “Looks like you’ve had a rougher day than most. That’s the thing about kids. They come into this world so innocent and pure, but as they grow they’re capable of such cruelty. What they don’t see is that with every vicious act they take a piece of that pure soul and use it to feed the monster.” She smiled at this part, which seemed strange to Paul.
He wasn’t sure what she’d meant by all that, but he didn’t care. He dragged himself upstairs and lay down without even bothering to clean himself up. Then he slept until morning, having no idea if his mother had even called him for supper.
As he showered and washed off the blood and dirt, Paul noticed each sore muscle, feeling his ribs with care. He’d expected broken bones but was surprised to find none. It seemed he was made from tougher stuff than he’d thought.
He dressed, noticing the bruises in the mirror. But he also noticed something strange. His clothes fit. This time he was sure of it. Yesterday they’d still been a little loose, but now they fit perfectly. He actually looked kind of good.
Running downstairs, he stopped to grab a piece of toast before heading out the door. He was in such a rush he barely paused to nod to his parents. They said nothing, but as the door slammed shut behind him he could have sworn he heard his father say, “I think he’s nearly ready.”
Paul felt strange. He’d expected to feel sore and broken today. He’d gone over in his head how he would convince his parents to let him stay home from school, but something was pulling him there instead. He hopped the back fence with greater ease than ever. The weight in his stomach was gone, replaced by a lightness that warmed him almost as yesterday’s short-lived joy had. He felt confident for the first time in his life. Whatever those jerks had in store for him today, he would face it head-on. He would not hide.
“Paul!” called Mrs. Samuels from her yard.
Despite his haste, Paul stopped and waited for the old woman to reach her gate.
“Paul,” she said again. “Are you sure you’ll be alright walking to school on your own? I can go with you if you like.”
Paul smiled. “I appreciate it Mrs. ‘S’, but I’ll be fine. Really. You don’t need to worry about me.”
She gave him a strange look, but Paul didn’t have time to figure out the mind of an old lady. He gave her a quick wave and headed off toward the trees.
As he reached the centre of the woods, he began to hear laughter. But he’d expected this. Now that the woods didn’t scare them anymore, they’d be waiting. They would always be waiting. But he would not let them have this place.
He almost ran to them when he saw them. Vanessa was snickering as Dan and Terry came closer to start the fresh beating. Dan landed the first punch. It was strong and hit Paul square in the face, but he stood his ground. Then Terry shoved him. Paul stepped back but he didn’t fall.
Vanessa still laughed, but she seemed less sure now as the boys continued their attack and Paul continued to take it.
Paul felt his stomach grow warm again, and that warmth spread through his body. It was pure rage that filled him, and he let it. He no longer pushed it down, he set it free. The volcano was erupting. He felt his whole body change then. The warmth moved into his limbs and he felt himself stronger. His skin began to almost glow as the heat reached his face and then he felt the anger pour out his eyes.
Vanessa stopped laughing, and he saw pure terror bleach the colour from her face. She looked like she was about to run, but then something seemed to stop her, and she just stood there, tears streaming down her cheeks.
The boys also stood where they were, shocked and speechless until Dan said, “Jesus Christ! What are you?”
Paul took hold of Dan’s shoulders. He’d imagined that he would start to hit Dan back, but instead he just held the other boy. Not with any real effort, as Dan seemed frozen, but just enough as if to hold him steady. Enough for Paul to focus on him. Then he felt a powerful surge fill him. He could see something draining out of Dan and feel it entering him. He couldn’t stop himself, nor did he want to. He let the feeling fill his body, getting ever stronger. Watching Dan get weaker. Then the feeling stopped and he let Dan go, the boy’s lifeless body dropping to the ground.
Paul didn’t know why the others didn’t run. Maybe they couldn’t. Maybe he was somehow keeping them there. It didn’t matter. He moved to Terry next, repeating the process. Feeling himself grow stronger as the other boy grew weaker. This was it, he thought. This was what mom meant when she talked about kids feeding the monster with their cruelty.
Having finished with Terry, he moved to Vanessa. He no longer felt the urgency he had when he’d first found them in the woods, so he took his time with her. He held her almost gently, tears still streaming from her eyes though she made no sound. It was like a rich dessert after a feast, meant to be savoured.
When he finished, he lay her down on the path next to the boys. He stood tall, looking down on them for a moment. They couldn’t hurt him now. Sure, the school had plenty of bullies left, but he knew he could handle them.
He noticed how much larger and stronger he was now. Like the pictures he’d seen of his father when he was younger. Lean yet muscular. Powerful.
“Paul...what did you do?”
He turned to see Mrs. Samuels, standing on the path just behind him. Her eyes were glued to the other kids, her mouth open in what looked almost like a soundless scream. Then her eyes shifted to Paul’s and she took a step back. Then another, nearly bumping into a tree. Her face went a sickly pale colour.
“No,” she said. Then she turned and ran as fast as her old legs could carry her, stumbling as she went.
“Mrs. Samuels!” Paul called after her. He started running too, but soon stopped. What did it matter anyway? He didn’t need her anymore. “Well no one told you to follow me anyway!” he yelled.
Instead of heading to his neighbour’s, Paul went home. He walked through the door, somehow knowing that his parents would be expecting him. As he stepped into the living room he found them sipping their morning coffees. They looked up at him and smiled.
“See sweetie,” said his mother. “I told you you’d fill those clothes up soon enough.”
His dad patted him on his shoulder.
“I’m proud of you son,” he said. “I knew you’d be able to handle this on your own. And look how much stronger you are for it.”
“You two went through this too,” said Paul. “This...change.”
“Like a butterfly,” said mom. It’s what happens to our kind at this age. The age at which human children are often the cruelest. Their anger and hatred feed us. So, we become our true selves.”
Paul thought of the monarch butterfly crushed to death in his plastic container. For the first time since it had happened he could picture it without cringing. Without sadness. Without feeling anything, really. He wondered why such a pathetic creature had even mattered to him in the first place.
“Mrs. Samuels saw,” he said.
“Don’t worry about her,” said mom. “We’ll handle her.”
“Now get your things together son,” said his dad. “This is just the beginning. You have a big day ahead of you. Lots of bullies left.”
“That’s right,” said his mom. “Time for school.”
This story originally appeared in Monsters: A TPQ Anthology.