A monster calls, p.1
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       A Monster Calls, p.1
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           Patrick Ness
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A Monster Calls


  A MONSTER CALLS

  A novel by PATRICK NESS

  From an original idea by SIOBHAN DOWD

  Cover illustration by JIM KAY

  AUTHORS’ NOTE

  I never got to meet Siobhan Dowd. I only know her the way that most of the rest of you will – through her superb books. Four electric young adult novels, two published in her lifetime, two after her too-early death. If you haven’t read them, remedy that oversight immediately.

  This would have been her fifth book. She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn’t have, unfortunately, was time.

  When I was asked if I would consider turning her work into a book, I hesitated. What I wouldn’t do – what I couldn’t do – was write a novel mimicking her voice. That would have been a disservice to her, to the reader, and most importantly to the story. I don’t think good writing can possibly work that way.

  But the thing about good ideas is that they grow other ideas. Almost before I could help it, Siobhan’s ideas were suggesting new ones to me, and I began to feel that itch that every writer longs for: the itch to start getting words down, the itch to tell a story.

  I felt – and feel – as if I’ve been handed a baton, like a particularly fine writer has given me her story and said, “Go. Run with it. Make trouble.” So that’s what I tried to do. Along the way, I had only a single guideline: to write a book I think Siobhan would have liked. No other criteria could really matter.

  And now it’s time to hand the baton on to you. Stories don’t end with the writers, however many started the race. Here’s what Siobhan and I came up with. So go. Run with it.

  Make trouble.

  Patrick Ness

  London, February 2011

  FOR SIOBHAN

  You’re only young once, they say, but doesn’t it go on for a long time? More years than you can bear.

  Hilary Mantel, An Experiment in Love

  A MONSTER CALLS

  The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

  Conor was awake when it came.

  He’d had a nightmare. Well, not a nightmare. The nightmare. The one he’d been having a lot lately. The one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming. The one with the hands slipping from his grasp, no matter how hard he tried to hold on. The one that always ended with–

  “Go away,” Conor whispered into the darkness of his bedroom, trying to push the nightmare back, not let it follow him into the world of waking. “Go away now.”

  He glanced over at the clock his mum had put on his bedside table. 12.07. Seven minutes past midnight. Which was late for a school night, late for a Sunday, certainly.

  He’d told no one about the nightmare. Not his mum, obviously, but no one else either, not his dad in their fortnightly (or so) phone call, definitely not his grandma, and no one at school. Absolutely not.

  What happened in the nightmare was something no one else ever needed to know.

  Conor blinked groggily at his room, then he frowned. There was something he was missing. He sat up in his bed, waking a bit more. The nightmare was slipping from him, but there was something he couldn’t put his finger on, something different, something–

  He listened, straining against the silence, but all he could hear was the quiet house around him, the occasional tick from the empty downstairs or a rustle of bedding from his mum’s room next door.

  Nothing.

  And then something. Something he realized was the thing that had woken him.

  Someone was calling his name.

  Conor.

  He felt a rush of panic, his guts twisting. Had it followed him? Had it somehow stepped out of the nightmare and–?

  “Don’t be stupid,” he told himself. “You’re too old for monsters.”

  And he was. He’d turned thirteen just last month. Monsters were for babies. Monsters were for bed-wetters. Monsters were for–

  Conor.

  There it was again. Conor swallowed. It had been an unusually warm October, and his window was still open. Maybe the curtains shushing each other in the small breeze could have sounded like–

  Conor.

  All right, it wasn’t the wind. It was definitely a voice, but not one he recognized. It wasn’t his mother’s, that was for sure. It wasn’t a woman’s voice at all, and he wondered for a crazy moment if his dad had somehow made a surprise trip from America and arrived too late to phone and–

  Conor.

  No. Not his dad. This voice had a quality to it, a monstrous quality, wild and untamed.

  Then he heard a heavy creak of wood outside, as if something gigantic was stepping across a timber floor.

  He didn’t want to go and look. But at the same time, a part of him wanted to look more than anything.

  Wide awake now, he pushed back the covers, got out of bed, and went over to the window. In the pale half-light of the moon, he could clearly see the church tower up on the small hill behind his house, the one with the train tracks curving beside it, two hard steel lines glowing dully in the night. The moon shone, too, on the graveyard attached to the church, filled with tombstones you could hardly read any more.

  Conor could also see the great yew tree that rose from the centre of the graveyard, a tree so ancient it almost seemed to be made of the same stone as the church. He only knew it was a yew because his mother had told him, first when he was little to make sure he didn’t eat the berries, which were poisonous, and again this past year, when she’d started staring out of their kitchen window with a funny look on her face and saying, “That’s a yew tree, you know.”

  And then he heard his name again.

  Conor.

  Like it was being whispered in both his ears.

  “What?” Conor said, his heart thumping, suddenly impatient for whatever was going to happen.

  A cloud moved in front of the moon, covering the whole landscape in darkness, and a whoosh of wind rushed down the hill and into his room, billowing the curtains. He heard the creaking and cracking of wood again, groaning like a living thing, like the hungry stomach of the world growling for a meal.

  Then the cloud passed, and the moon shone again.

  On the yew tree.

  Which now stood firmly in the middle of his back garden.

  And here was the monster.

  As Conor watched, the uppermost branches of the tree gathered themselves into a great and terrible face, shimmering into a mouth and nose and even eyes, peering back at him. Other branches twisted around one another, always creaking, always groaning, until they formed two long arms and a second leg to set down beside the main trunk. The rest of the tree gathered itself into a spine and then a torso, the thin, needle-like leaves weaving together to make a green, furry skin that moved and breathed as if there were muscles and lungs underneath.

  Already taller than Conor’s window, the monster grew wider as it brought itself together, filling out to a powerful shape, one that looked somehow strong, somehow mighty. It stared at Conor the whole time, and he could hear the loud, windy breathing from its mouth. It set its giant hands on either side of his window, lowering its head until its huge eyes filled the frame, holding Conor with its glare. Conor’s house gave a little moan under its weight.

  And then the monster spoke.

  Conor O’Malley, it said, a huge gust of warm, compost-smelling breath rushing through Conor’s window, blowing his hair back. Its voice rumbled low and loud, with a vibration so deep Conor could feel it in his chest.

  I have come to get you, Conor O’Malley, the monster said, pushing against the house, shaking the pictures off Conor’s wall, sending books and electronic gadgets and an old stuffed toy rhino tumbling to the floor.

  A monster, Conor thought. A real, honest-to-goodness monster. In re
al, waking life. Not in a dream, but here, at his window.

  Come to get him.

  But Conor didn’t run.

  In fact, he found he wasn’t even frightened.

  All he could feel, all he had felt since the monster revealed itself, was a growing disappointment.

  Because this wasn’t the monster he was expecting.

  “So come and get me then,” he said.

  – • –

  A strange quiet fell.

  What did you say? the monster asked.

  Conor crossed his arms. “I said, come and get me then.”

  The monster paused for a moment, and then with a roar it pounded two fists against the house. Conor’s ceiling buckled under the blows and huge cracks appeared in the walls. Wind filled the room, the air thundering with the monster’s angry bellows.

  “Shout all you want,” Conor shrugged, barely raising his voice. “I’ve seen worse.”

  The monster roared even louder and smashed an arm through Conor’s window, shattering glass and wood and brick. A huge, twisted, branch-wound hand grabbed Conor around the middle and lifted him off the floor. It swung him out of his room and into the night, high above his back garden, holding him up against the circle of the moon, its fingers clenching so hard against Conor’s ribs he could barely breathe. Conor could see raggedy teeth made of hard, knotted wood in the monster’s open mouth, and he felt warm breath rushing up towards him.

  Then the monster paused again.

  You really aren’t afraid, are you?

  “No,” Conor said. “Not of you, anyway.”

  The monster narrowed its eyes.

  You will be, it said. Before the end.

  And the last thing Conor remembered was the monster’s mouth roaring open to eat him alive.

  BREAKFAST

  “Mum?” Conor asked, stepping into the kitchen. He knew she wouldn’t be in there – he couldn’t hear the kettle boiling, which she always did first thing – but he’d found himself asking for her a lot lately when he entered rooms in the house. He didn’t want to startle her, just in case she’d fallen asleep somewhere she hadn’t planned to.

  But she wasn’t in the kitchen. Which meant she was probably still up in her bed. Which meant Conor would have to make his own breakfast, something he’d grown used to doing. Fine. Good, in fact, especially this morning.

  He walked quickly to the bin and stuffed the plastic bag he was carrying down near the bottom, covering it up with other rubbish so it wouldn’t be obvious.

  “There,” he said to no one, and stood breathing for a second. Then he nodded to himself and said, “Breakfast.”

  Some bread in the toaster, some cereal in a bowl, some juice in a glass, and he was ready to go, sitting down at the little table in the kitchen to eat. His mum had her own bread and cereal which she bought at a health food shop in town and which Conor thankfully didn’t have to share. It tasted as unhappy as it looked.

  He looked up at the clock. Twenty-five minutes before he had to leave. He was already in his school uniform, his rucksack packed for the day and waiting by the front door. All things he’d done for himself.

  He sat with his back to the kitchen window, the one over the sink that looked out onto their small back garden, across the train tracks and up to the church with its graveyard.

  And its yew tree.

  Conor took another bite of his cereal. His chewing was the only sound in the whole house.

  It had been a dream. What else could it have been?

  When he’d opened his eyes this morning, the first thing he’d looked at was his window. It had still been there, of course, no damage at all, no gaping hole into the back garden. Of course it had. Only a baby would have thought it really happened. Only a baby would believe that a tree – seriously, a tree – had walked down the hill and attacked the house.

  He’d laughed a little at the thought, at how stupid it all was, and he’d stepped out of bed.

  To the sound of a crunch beneath his feet.

  Every inch of his bedroom floor was covered in short, spiky yew tree leaves.

  He put another bite of cereal in his mouth, definitely not looking at the rubbish bin, where he had stuffed the plastic bag full of leaves he’d swept up this morning first thing.

  It had been a windy night. They’d clearly blown in through his open window.

  Clearly.

  He finished his cereal and toast, drank the last of his juice, then rinsed the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. Still twenty minutes to go. He decided to empty the rubbish bin altogether – less risky that way – and took the bag out to the wheelie bin in front of the house. Since he was already making the trip, he gathered up the recycling and put that out, too. Then he got a load of sheets going in the washer that he’d hang out on the line when he got back from school.

  He went back to the kitchen and looked at the clock.

  Still ten minutes left.

  Still no sign of–

  “Conor?” he heard, from the top of the stairs.

  He let out a long breath he hadn’t realized he was holding in.

  – • –

  “You’ve had breakfast?” his mum asked, leaning against the kitchen doorframe.

  “Yes, Mum,” Conor said, rucksack in his hand.

  “You’re sure?”

  “Yes, Mum.”

  She looked at him doubtfully. Conor rolled his eyes. “Toast and cereal and juice,” he said. “I put the dishes in the dishwasher.”

  “And took the rubbish out,” his mum said quietly, looking at how neat he’d left the kitchen.

  “There’s washing going, too,” Conor said.

  “You’re a good boy,” she said, and though she was smiling, he could hear sadness in it, too. “I’m sorry I wasn’t up.”

  “It’s okay.”

  “It’s just this new round of–”

  “It’s okay,” Conor said.

  She stopped, but she still smiled back at him. She hadn’t tied her scarf around her head yet this morning, and her bare scalp looked too soft, too fragile in the morning light, like a baby’s. It made Conor’s stomach hurt to see it.

  “Was that you I heard last night?” she asked.

  Conor froze. “When?”

  “Sometime after midnight, must have been,” she said, shuffling over to switch on the kettle. “I thought I was dreaming but I could have sworn I heard your voice.”

  “Probably just talking in my sleep,” Conor said, flatly.

  “Probably,” his mum yawned. She took a mug off the rack hanging by the fridge. “I forgot to tell you,” she said, lightly, “your grandma’s coming by tomorrow.”

  Conor’s shoulders sank. “Aw, Mum.”

  “I know,” she said, “but you shouldn’t have to make your own breakfast every morning.”

  “Every morning?” Conor said. “How long is she going to be here?”

  “Conor–”

  “We don’t need her here–”

  “You know how I get at this point in the treatments, Conor–”

  “We’ve been okay so far–”

  “Conor,” his mum snapped, so harshly it seemed to surprise them both. There was a long silence. And then she smiled again, looking really, really tired.

  “I’ll try to keep it as short as possible, okay?” she said. “I know you don’t like giving up your room, and I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have asked her if I didn’t need her to come, all right?”

  Conor had to sleep on the settee every time his grandmother came to stay. But that wasn’t it. He didn’t like the way she talked to him, like he was an employee under evaluation. An evaluation he was going to fail. Plus, they had always managed so far, just the two of them, no matter how bad the treatments made her feel, it was the price she paid to get better, so why–?

  “Only a couple of nights,” his mum said, as if she could read his mind. “Don’t worry, okay?”

  He picked at the zip on his rucksack, not saying anything, trying to think of o
ther things. And then he remembered the bag of leaves he’d stuffed into the rubbish bin.

  Maybe grandma staying in his room wasn’t the worst thing that could happen.

  “There’s the smile I love,” his mum said, reaching for the kettle as it clicked off. Then she said, with mock-horror, “She’s going to bring me some of her old wigs, if you can believe it.” She rubbed her bare head with her free hand. “I’ll look like a zombie Margaret Thatcher.”

  “I’m going to be late,” Conor said, eyeing the clock.

  “Okay, sweetheart,” she said, teetering over to kiss him on the forehead. “You’re a good boy,” she said again. “I wish you didn’t have to be quite so good.”

  As he left to head off for school, he saw her take her tea over to the kitchen window above the sink, and when he opened the front door to leave, he heard her say, “There’s that old yew tree,” as if she was talking to herself.

  SCHOOL

  He could already taste the blood in his mouth as he got up. He had bitten the inside of his lip when he hit the ground, and it was what he focussed on now as he stood, the strange metallic flavour that made you want to spit it out immediately, like you’d eaten something that wasn’t food at all.

  He swallowed it instead. Harry and his cronies would have been thrilled beyond words if they knew Conor was bleeding. He could hear Anton and Sully laughing behind him, knew exactly the look on Harry’s face, even though he couldn’t see it. He could probably even guess what Harry would say next in that calm, amused voice of his that seemed to mimic every adult you never wanted to meet.

  “Be careful of the steps there,” Harry said. “You might fall.”

  Yep, that’d be about right.

  It hadn’t always been like this.

  Harry was the Blond Wonder Child, the teachers’ pet through every year of school. The first pupil with his hand in the air, the fastest player on the football pitch, but for all that, just another kid in Conor’s class. They hadn’t been friends exactly – Harry didn’t really have friends, only followers; Anton and Sully basically just stood behind him and laughed at everything he did – but they hadn’t been enemies, either. Conor would have been mildly surprised if Harry had even known his name.

 
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