The Mismatched Monster
Richard E.D. Jones
In the gathering darkness before us, the rough tunnel led away from town, but toward possible safety. Behind us, Mister Shivers shrieked his crystal claws against the rocky tunnel walls, reminding us that he was still there, still coming. That sound tore at my ears, worse than the screech of a fork being scraped over an empty plate. I felt it echo in the three shallow cuts paralleled across my chest, burning each time I gasped for breath. Worst of all, Harold just wouldn’t shut up.
"What does infinite abyss mean, Jack?" Harold panted his question to me as he looked back over his shoulder.
I should have been paying more attention to where I was thudding my feet, but that's kinda hard to do when you're running for your life through a dark underground passageway. I tripped over a rock on the floor of the rough, crooked tunnel and stumbled for a few steps before I managed to catch myself against the wall. Harold stopped, a look of concern racing across his mismatched face. For just a second, I wondered how I could see that look in those dark tunnels, but we had more important things to worry about than why Harold was glowing slightly in the dark. Hunched over my knees, dragging in huge breaths, I waved him on and stumbled forward again. Another shriek reverberated behind us.
"Never mind. Just run. I can hear him getting closer."
"I'm sorry. It's just... I know I'm usually wrong," Harold said as he lurched back up to speed, "but I think this might be important. What does it mean?"
"A hole that goes down forever. Why?" It felt like it took me forever to answer his question, when I could only talk one word at a time between gasps.
"It's just that somebody told me about one of those around here. At least, I think it was around here."
Of course he didn't _know_ for sure. Harold couldn't be sure about anything. He'd led us far away from the caves of myths and monsters where the other Farmynth made their homes so we could lose Mister Shivers in those out-of-the-way tunnels. Thinking back, that probably wasn’t such a great idea.
"Around here? Are you sure? I don't see anythiiiiiiiiii..."
And we fell, screaming, into the abyss.
The wind roared past, flapping my windbreaker and jeans frantically against my body. My Carolina Panthers baseball hat flew off my head and disappeared and the only thing I could hear over the howling storm was the sound of my own screams. Harold tumbled through the dark above me. Maybe I was seeing things, but it looked like he was glowing.
"Harold! Help!" I knew there wasn't anything he could really do to help, but it was just the kind of thing that slips out when you're screaming down into an endless dark hole.
The Farmynth fell faster, straightening his body like a diver entering the water. Harold's huge hands and wire-thin arms reached for me as his goat legs kicked out behind him. The fanged mouth in his round, pumpkin-shaped head glowed in the darkness. Harold's hands scrabbled toward mine, the claws of his right hand digging into my forearm.
"Gotcha," he yelled. "Hold on tight."
"Why?" I screamed. "So we can fall together?"
"No way. Remember: I've got wings."
Oh, yeah. From when he was going to be a fairy. I wasn't sure how much good those dainty little things could do. Still, I clutched at that hope like, well, a falling kid clutches to something that might be able to fly. Thirteen years was just way too short for any kind of life. Visions of my dad and sisters, crying at Mom's funeral, raced through my head. I couldn't put them through that again. I couldn't do that to them again. This _had_ to work.
I didn't have time for any more gloomy thoughts as Harold’s wings flashed out and caught the air with a whump. It felt like Harold stopped and I kept falling. I only weighed one hundred seventeen (and a half) pounds, but it felt like I weighed a thousand as the ground kept pulling at me. I grabbed harder, yelling wordlessly, as I felt Harold’s hands start to slip. Our fingers dug into each others' wrists for a few seconds until we finally got a good grip. My heart pounded away, feeling like somebody was whacking my body with a hammer each time my heart beat. I screamed and yelled and held on for my life.
Slowly, the wind quieted, replaced by a high-pitched buzzing noise from Harold’s wings. I hollered for joy as we slowed. Finally, Harold had done something right. This was where we would turn everything around. I could see it all. We would stop falling. Harold would fly us up out of the abyss. We would kick Mister Shivers's butt. We would....
And then we hit, hard, and found the abyss wasn't so infinite after all.
Formless things with sharp, steel teeth chased through my dreams. It was one of those dreams where I couldn't run worth beans, even though I used to be on the track team at Carmel Middle School. My legs felt like they wouldn't work, jerking spastically, instead of smoothly eating up the distance. I looked back over my shoulder and the dark shapes that surrounded the gnashing steel teeth were close enough I could hear the clank of razors beating against steak knives. I stumbled toward a light in the distance, which quickly resolved into a glowing Harold running toward me in his usual white suit. He held out his hand and I dove for it, feeling safety just within my reach. Harold tripped and fell before I could get to him. Something dark and sharp wrapped me in its embrace and I screamed as the teeth bit down.
My scream still echoed through the air when I woke up. The teeth had been a dream, but that didn't make me feel much better. Pain shot through my body, forcing groan through my clenched teeth. Even that small noise set giant church bells ringing in my abused head. Keeping my eyes closed, I slowly flexed my arms and legs. They all seemed to be working. Good news there, at least.
I rubbed my temples, trying to ease some of the pain and work out the fear left behind by my dream. I had a feeling that real life was going to be scary enough without worrying about dreams. It felt so good just to lie there, not thinking, not running, to just be still. I was okay. I'd survived. If it weren't for Harold, I'd... Harold, I thought. Where was Harold? Sitting up, I looked into the darkness. In the distance, the walls of the cavern glowed dimly. I guessed there was some kind of plant growing on the walls that was giving off enough light to squint by. I'd read about things like that in science class, so I wasn't too surprised. At first, I couldn't see anything and I started to get desperate. Finally, I saw a crumpled shape off to my left.
"Harold? Is that you? Are you okay?"
No answer. I crawled about ten feet over the rocky floor and reached out to Harold's shoulder, trying not to flinch as I touched his cool, pebbly hide. Parts of his skin were scaled from when he was going to be one of the lizard men living in the sewers. Maybe I should explain that. See, every mythical creature, every brownie, werewolf or sprite – you name it – came to our world from the Farmynth caverns. From what I was told, the first human who saw a Farmynth thought it looked like a monster, so a monster it became. Human belief in monsters helped to set the Farmynth in their forms, and the new Farmynth forms helped set human belief in mythical creatures. The more we believed, the more they changed and the more they changed, the more we believed. I looked it up once. That kind of thing's called a vicious circle.
Farmynth start out as blobs, not monsters. They changed as they grew up and had to find their adult shape by the things they do. Some end up as bog monsters, some as vampires, some as fairies or whatever. At least, that was the way it usually worked before Harold came along. If Harold didn't find a final shape, the Farmynth leaders thought it was possible he would just melt back into the puddle of goo from which the Farmynth are born. As the only outsider who knew about the Farmynth, I lucked into the job of trying to keep Harold alive, by helping him find his final form. All I had to do was believe in him. Even though Harold didn't make it easy, it was still the greatest summer job ever. Until we ran into Mister Shivers.
I gently shook Harold's shoulder again and his goat legs twitched a few times before he groaned onto his stomach. His custom-made white suit had slits cut in the back for his wings and, as he rolled over, I finally saw them. They looked terrible, with ragged edges all around.
I didn't care what kind of grudge Mister Shivers had against humans, he had a lot to answer for. Okay, sure, some human thought his tooth-fairy sister was a mosquito and flattened her, but that's no reason to try and kill me. And Harold, well, Harold's Harold. A nice guy, but all the confidence of a bag of hammers.
"Oooh," he moaned. "Where are we?"
"We're at the bottom of that hole. You okay?"
"I'm bruised and I feel like I could sleep for a week, but I think I'm okay. You?"
"I’m good. I…. Thanks, Harold."
"For what?" It hurt to hear the awful self-hatred in his voice. "I'm the idiot who didn't know about this giant hole in my own home. If I'd been smarter, we wouldn't be here."
"Yeah, we'd be getting carved up by Mister Shivers. You saved our lives."
Harold sat up and rubbed his back. His huge hands covered his shoulders and reached down to his tattered wings. He winced as his wide fingers traced the damage done to his fragile wings.
“Yeah, right,” he mumbled and put his hands in his lap. “Whatever.”
"Harold, really, you did help. You did good. You..." I stopped talking when I got a look at his face. I knew I couldn't penetrate that wall of despair. I tried to think of something to say, some way to break Harold out of his gloom, but nothing came.
The Farmynth held out his right hand, his werewolf hand, and stared at it as he turned it over again and again. I stared at the coarse, brown hair sprouting all over the back of his hand. Each attempt at a new form had left behind a physical memory on Harold's body: fairy wings, vampire fangs, lizard skin, pumpkin head. I had been with Harold long enough that I felt like I could almost see his thoughts racing darkly behind his eyes. Every memory a mistake, branded on his body forever.
"Jack?" Harold asked without looking up from his hand. "What did the Board say about me? What did they tell you? I've asked and asked, but they won't tell me. I... I've heard whispers, you know. About what might happen to me."
Oh, man. The one thing I never wanted talk to Harold about. He needed to believe if he was going to survive. What he didn't need was more bad news weighing him down. The Board had told me never to talk to Harold about that. They wanted to keep his spirits up as much as possible.
"Never mind about that. It's not important. We,...We need to get it together and find a way out. That's what we need to do.”
"Yeah, I guess. I..." Harold's mouth twitched into a small smile when he looked up. "Will this help?"
A weak glow surrounded Harold, and then flowed into a ball near the end of his outstretched index finger. Normally, it wouldn't have been very impressive, but right then it was like a searchlight. Using Harold's light I could see we were at the bottom of a circular pit, surrounded by jagged rocks rising into the darkness.
"How did you do that?"
"Don't you remember, Jack? I used to be a will-o-the-wisp, but I lost that form when I started leading people out of swamps instead of in like I was supposed to."
I guess I had forgotten that one, but Harold had been through so many different forms. His last attempt had been a bogeyman. But Harold, being Harold, became a booger-man, instead. I backed out of Harold’s snot-filled room trying not to vomit and right into Mister Shivers. He freaked. We ran. We fell.
Bogeyman was the last of the two hundred seventy-three possible Farmynth shapes. Even with my help, Harold had been all a Farmynth could be and he still hadn't found his place. It wasn't fair, really. We had both worked so hard, but something always went wrong. I kept sneaking looks at Harold. So far, he seemed to be pretty solid, but I didn't know how long that would last. The Farmynth's Board of Leaders had told me bogeyman was Harold's last chance, but we'd been too busy since that failure to really worry about it too much. I had to keep him focused, believing in himself, so I could find some way to finally help him.
"Jaaaack? Wake up, Jack!"
I jumped a bit when Harold shouted. While I had been lost in thought, the little Farmynth had found what might be a way out. Harold held his glow near the wall, lighting some rough steps cut into the side. Harold looked at me and I looked back. With a shared groan, we started up the carved stairs.
It was a nightmare. Step up. Step up. Pause and pant. Start over again. It got old fast. I guess we got into a kind of a rut and weren't paying attention. After one rest break, I stepped up and felt the stair under my back foot crumble away to nothing. Before I could scream, Harold whipped around, grabbed my shirt, and flipped me up several steps to safety. My heart hammered in the triple digits and I was too hyped up to even try talking. After a few minutes, I looked back at Harold, who was just sitting there and watching me spazz.
"That's what friends do, Jack."
Yeah, I guess it was. Before our fall, I had only seen Harold as a problem to be solved. Maybe there was more to him than I'd thought. Harold smiled as he edged around me and went back to the front. As we started climbing again, Harold's light dimmed even more.
“What’s the matter? Forget to pay the electricity bill?”
“Don’t worry about it, Jack. Just keep climbing." He pointed back at the step where I was about to set my right foot. "Watch out for a slippery bit there.”
I never even noticed the little bit of goo in the shape of a goat hoof sliming the step
After that, we settled into a routine. Harold tested the steps, and then I walked up. However long the climb lasted, by the end, I knew I never wanted to climb another stair in my life. My legs burned every time I lifted them and I couldn't talk for all the huffing and puffing I was doing. Finally, we made it to the top. I pulled myself over the lip of the abyss with a grunt, my hand scrabbling for purchase on another of those increasingly frequent slippery rocks. Dusting off my jeans, I walked over to Harold. He smiled sadly and held out his will-o-the-wisp. It bobbed over toward me and I found myself staring into its dimming depths.
“I’ll miss you, Jack.”
Harold looked at me with tears in his eyes.
"Just follow the wisp and go home, Jack. I think you'll be safe if you do that."
"I... I don't understand," I said, but a horrible, sinking feeling was ramming its way through my gut.
“I'm not an idiot, you know. The Board tried to keep it secret, but I can listen to rumors as well as anybody." I stepped closer, my arm held out toward him, only to see Harold step back away from me. "Farmynth only have two hundred seventy-three shapes and I failed at every single one of them. I've been losing it for a while now, in dribs and drabs. I only kept it together this long to help you out of the abyss. I guess I just never fit in. I'm just so... tired.”
Before I could say a word, Harold waved his hand one last time and… melted. His wings turned to liquid and dripped to the ground while his features ran like water. My mouth hung open as the rest of Harold’s body turned to goo and seeped into the dry sand of the tunnel floor.
“No. No, man," I moaned. "Don’t do this to me. Not now.” In seconds, the only things left were a custom suit and a flickering ball of golden light. I dropped to my knees and just lost it, crying like I hadn't since Mom died three years before. I don’t remember how long I sat there, fingers digging into the damp dirt, but after a while, my sobs quieted and my tears dried away, leaving salty tracks of clean across my grimy face. I snuffled a bit, picked up Harold’s glowing ball and wobbled toward the Farmynth’s underground city to give them the bad news. All I could think about was the friend I never knew I had until he was gone.
As I got closer, lights appeared on the ceiling, making Harold’s light look even dimmer. It was all I had left of him, so I held it closer to my body to keep it safe. Hunched around the globe, I didn’t watch where I was going and ran right into him.
In my mind, he was a fifty-foot-tall demon, with ten-foot-long crystal claws. The fact that he was really only a foot shorter than my own five feet and looked like a cuddly teddy bear did nothing - at all - to make him any less dangerous. He lifted his paw and his razor-sharp crystal claws sparkled in the light, while his lips drew back to reveal steak-knife fangs. He lived up to his name. Waves of fear rolled off the Farmynth, sending shivers up and down my spine, bringing fire to the three parallel cuts on my chest he gave me as a parting gift the last time I saw him.
"It'ss you," he hissed. The curly brown fur over his button eyes crinkled up as he snarled.
I stumbled back, a sob escaping my lips. Mister Shivers stalked forward, waving his claws at my gut and tearing through Harold's will-o-the-wisp. I gawked at the rips in the golden globe as the light tried to repair itself. Everything Harold and I had been through the past few months raced through my mind. All that pain and hard work. All for nothing, now. But I remembered and I knew Harold wouldn’t let that crazy teddy bear push us around. I inhaled deeply, ignoring the pain in my chest, forced my body to stop shivering, and made up my mind.
"Back off, psycho," I said. "I've had it with you."
Stepping forward, I shoved Mister Shivers as hard as I could. When my hand touched his chest, the teddy bear's paw flashed out and grabbed my wrist. He grinned wider, drool dripping down his fangs. I leaned back, jerking and wriggling, but I couldn't get free.
"Oh, yess. Thiss will be sso much fun."
Again, probably not a good idea.
Mister Shivers drew back his right arm, his terrible crystal claws shining along their sharp edges. I yanked again and stumbled backward, my weight finally breaking his grip when I fell to the ground. As I hit, Harold’s ball skittered out of my hand. I couldn’t stop staring at Mister Shivers’s black button eyes. I reached out for a rock, any kind of weapon, while he stalked forward. My fingers closed around something and I smashed it into the demented teddy bear's face.
His eyes widened as he was hit by a… fading ball of light. There went my last chance. Mister Shivers cackled, high and crazy. My feet scrabbled against the floor, but it was no use. I was dead meat. I closed my eyes. I didn't want Mister Shivers to be the last thing I ever saw.
I opened my eyes and saw Mister Shivers bat at the increasingly bright ball of light stuck to his face. He let go of my wrist to slice and dice at the ball, which promptly dropped into my chest. Suddenly, a blinding glow poured from my skin and I felt a soothing presence gently smother my fear. It felt so good not to be afraid. It felt like… Harold?
We stood up, and Mister Shivers lifted both arms to shield his eyes from our light. Mentally flipping through Harold’s past shapes, we settled on siren. We wouldn’t lure sailors to their deaths with our voices. We had something better in mind.
Our two voices combined, and climbed higher. Mister Shivers stared in horror as his crystal claws began vibrating faster and faster, a rising hum to match our voices. After a while, I just couldn’t keep up, my voice croaking and dying. I thought I was doomed, but I'd forgotten about Harold. Harold, who never gave up, who tried form after form. Panting and nearly breathless, I fell to my knees. The golden radiance stayed where it was, slowly forming into a familiar pumpkin-headed shape.
Harold walked forward, all trace of his clumsy shuffle gone, singing all the while. It was most beautiful thing I'd ever heard and, oh, so very, very loud. Mister Shivers stared from his vibrating claws to the Harold-shaped glow and back to his claws. He cried out and turned to run. He made it two steps before his crystal claws shattered, scattering sharp clear pieces throughout the tunnel. A glowing golden hand shot out and deflected a piece spinning toward my head.
Mister Shivers wailed, his misery echoing around the tunnel. "No. No. Thiss can't be happening," he muttered. He tore his gaze from the shattered claws and staggered into a run, staring back over his shoulder as he disappeared into the distance.
A little at a time, Harold’s glow faded. As the last bit of light went out, I saw that Harold’s skin had changed from green to gold. Even his suit was back, and colored a slightly deeper shade of gold than his skin. He turned and I knocked him onto his butt in a crushing hug.
“You’re back! You’re back!”
“Of course I’m back.” Harold smiled. One of his fangs was gold, which was, I thought, a bit much. “You never gave up on me even when I did. I couldn’t give up on you.”
Harold stood, bouncing up and down on his goat hooves, smiling like some maniac Jack-O-Lantern.
"It felt so... so right. Like it was what I was meant to do."
He stopped and looked at me. I'm sure we were both thinking the same thing.
"That's it," he said. "I'm a, a, whaddyacallit, a bank teller. One of those people who protect people."
"I think you mean a guard."
"Right, right." Harold put one hand on his hip and raised the other hand over his head in a fist. "I'm gonna name my new form Guardian. Pretty cool, huh?"
"Yeah, pretty cool."
"Ooh, ooh. Maybe I can be _your_ Guardian. I can help you and...."
All at once, I could barely stand. The excitement, terror and effort of the day crashed down on me like the pile of dirty laundry that usually covers the floor of my room at home. I felt so weak, Harold had wrap my arm around his shoulders to hold me up.
"Harold, if you really want to help, just get me home."
"Right. Sure. I'll do that. I'll..."
I tuned him out as we limped toward the door that would send me back to the real world and thought about the miracle I'd just witnessed. All two hundred seventy-three Farmynth forms rejected Harold, so he created his own, number two hundred seventy-four. Not bad. Not bad at all. I was proud of the little guy.
And then I found out what having my own personal Guardian really meant.