I tell them there are monsters everywhere, but they never believe me. Not really. They hire me often enough—I even have to turn down jobs—but they don’t really believe me. Even now they aren’t paying attention. They know where their children are, and they can be there quickly in the case of a skinned knee, but they are never prepared for what happens.
The youngest children are in the sandbox, throwing handfuls of sand into each other’s hair. The ones who can walk teeter around the swings or climb the ladder and go down the slide. On a Monday morning in October, after school has started, all the children are young. Most of them will go to some form of pre-school in the afternoon, and the park will be empty. I’ll have a few hours off, until school lets out and I start my second shift.
But for now it’s quiet. The children scream. The mothers gossip. And I watch.
It’s cool this morning, the leaves turning colors on the trees. The mothers don’t know where I am. I see them occasionally turning in circles, looking for me. They lean their heads close together and talk behind their hands, and I know they are wondering. But like I always tell them, they won’t see me. If they do, it’s because something happened.
“What would happen?” they always ask, and “Monsters,” I tell them.
It’s strange that they don’t believe in monsters, don’t believe anything will happen to their children, and yet they hire me anyway. It’s something my grandfather figured out long ago, when he started this company, and it’s held true since.
From my hidden spot I see one of the kids—a girl, long black hair lifting in the breeze— inching closer to the creek. I’m not paid to keep them from falling into creeks, but I tense anyway. I raise the rifle and scan the treeline along the creek bank, even though I know I won’t see anything until they begin to move—monsters hide too well. They can hide in plain sight, where you can even see them and not know they are near. Until it’s too late, of course.
The little girl edges closer to the brush and trees along the creek bank. Her mother only just now notices, and, still talking to the other mother, gets up to go after her. No doubt she thinks a wet child the worst thing that could happen this morning.
The mother has long black hair like the daughter. She’s young, just this side of thirty, tall, slender, the kind of woman who walks fiercely around the block nine times every evening to keep her hips slim. She’s most likely divorced—almost all of my clients are. She’ll get a mini- van when her daughter gets older, drive all her daughter’s friends to soccer games, take them for ice cream and pizza afterward.
I swing the rifle to the trees, and on my first sweep I see the wolves burst from the cover of the treeline and bolt for the little girl. I hear a choked scream from the mother, one of those involuntary screams I hear far too often. It is not the scream I would hear if the wolves got her daughter, but rather one of surprise and shock and fear.
Which is, again, why they hire me.
I catch the first wolf in the throat just as he is leaping for the little girl. The rifle makes a low, almost silent cough of air, and the wolf lands beside the girl and slides past her, almost to the running mother’s feet. My second shot takes the second wolf in the throat as well, and it goes down in front of the girl, who bends down to stroke its fur.
The mother, of course, snatches her daughter up and runs away. The playground is already emptying, mothers carrying children racing for their cars. I’ll get a call later, and a check wired to my bank—a large bonus, besides my usual monthly fee—and more clients by week’s end, when the mother calls her friends and tells them what happened.
I am not supposed to meet the women. That’s one of the rules my grandfather decided on when he started the company. Too many of them are grateful, he said. You’ve just saved their child’s life, and they want to have you over for dinner. Some of them will want to sleep with you, although that’s not always the case. But they’ll call in the middle of the night, asking you to come check out a noise they heard. They’ll ask you to give a seminar to their book club, or speak at a dinner. They’ll invite you for coffee. They’ll ask for gardening advice. They just want you around, he told me. In case it happens again.
They often miss the point, he says.
The point, as my grandfather laid it down years ago, is to show them, once, how dangerous the world can be. Then they will be on the lookout themselves. No more children will be dragged into vans. No more will disappear from city parks on October mornings. No more news reports, Amber alerts, bodies found along bike trails.
You never know what lurks in the dark corners of the earth, he said.
But he made money, and when he retired he handed the company over to me. My father said we were manipulating people. Scaring them, forcing them to live in a world of constant fear and worry. My grandfather told him the world was a place of constant fear and worry, and if they weren’t vigilant, everything they had could be lost.
And so the argument went. My father doesn’t call often. When he does, he asks if I am still lying to my clients.
My grandfather named the company Monsters Corp. We’re not listed anywhere, not even the internet. Other rules he has are: don’t scare them anymore than you need to. This is a service, like health care or insurance. We’re not here to create a society of women and children so terrified they always rely on us. We are teaching them to be self-reliant. You can always find more clients, he said.
He trained the first wolves himself. At times, he has used men dressed as zombies or vampires or werewolves—he always kept it traditional—but I stick mainly to wolves. Easier to use. No loose ends. Also, I like the metaphor. There are wolves out there, I tell them, but I am not talking about the four-legged kind.
Here’s how it works: They find out about me through word of mouth. I get a call. I get an address, a license plate number, a name, a description of mother and child. They get a bank account number. I sit outside the house a few nights. Watch them at the park. If needs be, I let the wolves loose. The darts I use don’t hurt them. They can be ready to attack again in a few hours.
Afterwards, the mothers call. As my grandfather said, they are grateful, once they have gone home and locked the doors and put the child to bed and had a few drinks to steady their nerves. That’s when they call. I can smell the liquor on them through the phone. It smells like fear.
My grandfather was, in many ways, a brilliant man. In other ways, very disturbed.
When I get home there are a dozen messages on the machine. Most of them are from women wanting to hire me. I close my eyes and think about how many clients I have now. The one from today—Chanel Hughes—will drop soon, when she figures out I won’t be coming around, because now that she knows to always be on alert she doesn’t need me.
Though for some reason, I keep thinking about her. I have only seen her a few times: at the park, through the window of her house as she washed dishes, pushing her daughter Emily on the swing.
I am not supposed to meet them, but I have broken my grandfather’s rules before. It’s a lonely job, voyeuristic, always watching, and I have succumbed at times. My grandfather had my grandmother, who thought he worked as a telephone repairman, which wasn’t a bad cover.
I have the wolves, and women who are attracted to me for some reason they can’t define. The last one was over a year ago. And it didn’t last long.
So when I get to the message from Chanel, I play it back twice. It’s the same message I always get, thanking me, then a long hesitation, long enough you might think they had hung up, but really they are previewing the next words in their heads before they say them, all in a rush. This time the invite is for lunch, which might mean any number of things. She names a place downtown, one of those places with a green awning and outside tables made of pebbled glass and fourteen dollar egg salad sandwiches. She says she’ll be there at noon.
She gets there early, which I like. The waitress—waif-ish, tattooed, short hair—seats her outside. She looks around carefully, which is good too. In this world, my grandfather said, you always have to be careful.
I let her sit for a few more minutes before coming down from the roof.
When I approach her, she half-raises up from her chair. I’m wearing jeans and a white shirt, no tie. She’s wearing white. They always wear white. I haven’t bothered to analyze that.
When I sit, she offers her hand. “I’m Chanel,” she says. Her voice is somewhere between business and nervous, but not too much of either. Her eyes go up and down me, assessing.“That was Emily yesterday.”
“You know my name,” I say, and she smiles. Her hand is cool, fingers long and slim. She holds on just long enough, her wrist turned to a slightly dominant position. The city councilwoman, when I met her, did the same thing, only she slid an envelope into my hand like she’d been doing it all her life. As a part of our government, maybe she had.
“I know the name you gave me,” she says, and I add another point to her score. When she lets go of my hand she hooks her hair behind her ears. There’s a slight breeze and the ends of her hair lift like her daughter’s did yesterday when the wolves were tracking her. She meets my eyes—another plus. Heather would only let me fuck her from behind, and I knew why. She liked her hair pulled, and she screamed into the pillows, but she only wanted me where she didn’t have to look at me.
“So,” she says. I expect her to be nervous, to dig in her purse or stir her water or pretend to look at the menu, but she doesn’t. Instead, she looks at me, like she is waiting.
“You called me,” I remind her, and she nods. She is still looking at me. Her eyes are pale blue, almost gray.
“I wanted to thank you.”
I pick up my napkin and unfold it and put it in my lap. The place is just now starting to fill with the lunch crowd: suits from the banks downtown, women dragging briefcases, college students studying in the sun. “You did. In the message you left me.”
She bites her bottom lip, deciding something. I wonder which way it will go. The waitress comes and Chanel waves her away.
“Do you have rules?”
I raise an eyebrow. “Rules?”
She leans closer, flicking her eyes left and right to make sure no one is close enough to hear. “Against seeing your clients?” “Yes,” I tell her.
She holds my gaze for a second longer, then drops her eyes to the table. Her face turns red. I can tell I’ve embarrassed her, hurt her, that she’s never done anything like this before. She has a ring on her left hand that tells me her husband is dead, or the divorce is not final, or she stills thinks it will work out or she doesn’t want people to know yet—any of those things. I can tell she’s lonely, scared, but tough and fierce enough to go after what she wants, even if it’s a mistake.
And it is a mistake. She’s mistaken me—like my grandfather knew would happen—for someone who will make her feel safe.
But I take her hand anyway, and let her lead me to her car, because that’s all most of us are looking for in the end: someone to make us feel safe.
When I wake up she is resting her head on her hand and looking at me.
She says, “You talk in your sleep.”
It’s late afternoon, and the sun through the open windows is slanting toward winter. It’s cold in the room, and she is warm beside me.
“What did I say?”
She says, “You can’t lie when you’re asleep, can you?”
She calls on Saturday and asks me to come over. Her daughter is at her grandparents. “We’ll have the house to ourselves,” she says, like we are teenagers and her parents are out of town.
I tell her I have work. She says, “Monsters?” and her voice tremors just a bit. “Always,” I tell her, already dreading the conversation ahead. Not today, probably, but soon, when I tell her she doesn’t need me, and she cries, and I walk out, and she yells at me behind my back. It’s better this way, I’ll tell her as I leave, then walk to a bar and get a bottle and curl up at a corner table hunched over my drink.
But maybe not. My grandfather always said I had a flair for the melodramatic.
But that doesn’t happen. Here’s what does:
I watch her and Emily at the park in the mornings as the weather stretches toward November. I don’t carry my rifle, or bring the wolves. I am supposed to be watching other clients, too, but I don’t. I know the wolves won’t get them because the wolves are locked up safe at my house.
In the afternoons Emily goes to pre-school. When I get to Chanel’s house the door is open. She is upstairs waiting for me. We lay in bed until the day gets too cold and we hear the bus stop on the street outside just as the shadows are gathering together. I go home. I come back after Emily is asleep. One night I wake to hear Chanel breathing evenly beside me. I nudge her with my shoulder, and tell her, in a quiet voice, that’s it over. I’m leaving, I say. Because I will be bad for you. Or you will be bad for me. Or one of those things. That it won’t work out. This all started with a lie, false feelings, I say, and now we’re done.
When I finish she doesn’t say anything. I wait for a long time. Then I nudge her again. “Oh,” she says, her voice thick with sleep, “You woke me up. I thought I heard you talking, though. What were you saying?”
Saturdays and Sundays I spend at the park. The wolves are at home. I just need to be here, to watch, to decide who needs the wolves next. It’ll be the woman who is reading a novel, only looking up every twenty pages. Or the one who needs to run a quick errand and asks someone else to watch her child. Someone who needs to be scared.
But instead of watching I think of Chanel. I’m not sure why I set the wolves loose on her. She wasn’t ready yet. Or, better said, she hadn’t done any of the things that signals she needs the wolves. Most of my clients get a package from me after a few months. In the package are pictures showing times they were careless, along with an explanation of ways to keep their children safer. I keep a log of times I could have grabbed their child and been off, and this scares them more than anything. In those cases, I don’t need the wolves.
“You could stay,” Chanel told me the day before, when the afternoon shadows had lengthened into evening. She had cooked pasta, and we sat on the deck drinking wine.
“No, I couldn’t,” I told her.
She swirled her wine in her glass. “You could,” she said, not meeting my eyes. “You just don’t want to.”
“Agreed,” I said, and I knew I had hurt her again, but how do you tell a woman she will tire of you first, no matter how badly she wants you to stay now? That eventually, in a month or a year, she will realize that the reasons she had for starting this were all the wrong ones?
But knowing this doesn’t stop me from thinking about her.
The scream does. It comes from across the park, and I raise my camera and look through the zoom, my heart shredding my chest.
What I find, through the enhanced vision of the lens, is that there are no monsters. It’s only a bee sting. The monsters are with me, I think, but know it could have been worse, that it could have been a real-life monster, the ones my grandfather and I have spent our lives protecting them from, in our own weird way.
I watch the mother hugging the girl, rubbing her leg where the bee stung her. That’s when I decide to quit. I will get rid of all my clients.
When Chanel introduces me to Emily she asks if I am going to be her new daddy. Then she asks if I am a stranger or someone she can talk to. Then she asks if I am going to keep her safe. When I look at Chanel over Emily’s head she shrugs.
My grandfather never read the Bible. But he liked that quote about fishers of men. Except I think he got that confused with the old adage about giving a man fish and feeding him once versus teaching a man to fish and letting him feed himself.
He drank whisky every evening though, so I tend to cut him some slack.
But it’s the cornerstone of our business: teaching them to take care of themselves, to watch after their children in a world where they all too often disappear.
I realize we use unorthodox methods to achieve this. But seeing your child chased down by wolves is more valuable than a dozen police or community watch classes on protecting them.
But once I start seeing Chanel and, by extension, Emily, I forget about all of that. I stay with them in the park in the morning, watching. In the afternoon I take Emily to school and walk her inside.
I pick Emily up from school, drive her home. I spend my nights there as the days grow cold and grey and winter slips in.
The wolves grow fat, and I grow complacent. Which is how he gets her, I guess.
I am waiting outside Emily’s school when it happens. The sun has already started to slant toward winter and the late afternoon light looks weaker. The sky is so blue it hurts the muscles behind my eyes, and with the window down the air is sharp.
I don’t hear the bell ring. It is the children coming out of the school that reminds me I have something to do here, but by that time it is already too late. When I look up I see a man leading Emily to his car. There are a dozen cars in the line in front of me, idling, and I can’t get out. He’s too far away for me to catch him. I think: this is what my grandfather warned me about.
When he gets in the car and pulls away I start trying to inch my way out of the line. The voices of the children—unconfined and loud now that school is over—sound like cries, like calls for help.
By the time the line moves enough that I can get out, he is gone. I speed down the street looking for him, head swiveling at each stop sign, people cursing me as I pass them on the small city streets. The engine screams at me, but I don’t care. I think of what he might be doing to her, what she is thinking, what Chanel will sound like when I tell her her daughter is gone.
Near the old waterfront I catch a glimpse of what might be his car. I get my pistol out of the glove compartment. When I catch up I can see Emily’s head in the car seat in back, but I am not thinking clearly.
I bump the car at the next stop sign. There is no one else around but a woman walking her dog down the street.
It will be over before she even notices, I think.
When he climbs out of the car I get out of mine and meet him halfway. I wonder why a kidnapper would stop for a fender bender, but the thought goes away too quickly to hold onto it. Then I am grabbing him by the back of the head with my left hand and with my right hand hitting him in the face with the pistol until he is lying on the sidewalk and I am standing over him.
“If you ever touch Emily again I’ll kill you,” I tell him, pointing the pistol at his face. He looks up at me in confusion, hurt, blood running all over his face, one eye already swollen shut.
I am trying to decide if I should call the police and report the kidnapping when he speaks. At the same time I see Emily looking out the back window, crying.
“She’s my daughter,” he says through a mouthful of broken teeth.
When I get to Chanel’s late that evening his car is there. I sit in the driveway for a long time with the lights off, wishing I still smoked. After he told me he was Emily’s father I gave him my handkerchief and stood there in the road with a bloody gun in my pocket while he cleaned the blood off his face. We didn’t talk except when he said “So you’re the guy?” and I wasn’t sure what he meant.
When he finished cleaning his face he stumbled back to his car and drove away. Emily was still crying in the back window. The car weaved all over the road. I followed him to Chanel’s house to make sure he got there, but I didn’t pull in. Instead I went down by the river and sat and watched the water seep past. Beneath the docks the water was filthy. A slick film of oil covered the surface, and cans and bottles and trash collected in the rainbow water. I tossed the gun in the water, just in case. The sun went down, and it got cold.
Maybe there was another reason my grandfather had his rules.
I should have realized all the mistakes I made. The school would never have let him take her without proper ID. And no kidnapper would pick her up in front of a hundred witnesses, then take the time to put her in the car seat.
But you spend your life creating monsters, and maybe you see them everywhere. Maybe if you’re a monster yourself, you begin to think everyone else is too.
Or maybe you just are one. Sitting at the river with dried blood on your hands, still feeling the smack of metal on flesh.
And maybe the worst part is: I’ve always enjoyed it. Seeing them scared, feeling the panic in the air when the wolves break from cover. I’ve always loved it. The phone calls afterward. The invitations. The sexual favors, since they can’t think of anything else to offer for the saving of a child, so they give themselves.
But I know this time I’ve gotten too close. Because, what worries me now, sitting outside the house and watching the silhouettes move past the windows, is what happens next, how Chanel will react, if I’ll get to see Emily again.
When I knock, he answers the door. His face is swollen, yellow and purple, and my first thought is: he looks like a monster. Chanel stands behind him. She has been crying. His face is bandaged and washed clean, and I know she did it. When she sees me she turns her back, and I can’t tell if she is crying or not. Her husband is still standing there, looking at me.
He says, “If you leave now and never come back, I won’t press charges. Otherwise, I’ll have a warrant issued for felonious assault. You might find it hard to keep your business running after 20 years in prison.”
When I look at him, I see him for the first time: manicured nails, a hundred dollar haircut, two thousand dollar suit. Even with a smashed face he looks like a lawyer, and I wonder how many heavyweight friends he has. Twenty years is a long time.
But I am not worried about the twenty years at the moment. Past the lawyer husband, Chanel still has her back to me. She is hugging herself around the stomach. Into the silence she half-turns, looks over her shoulder.
“Emily is terrified,” she says. “You were supposed to protect her, not scare her to death.”
When she turns her back again, I know it’s time to go, that she has made up her mind. The door shuts behind me, and I hear the deadbolt thrown. I don’t even have time to tell her that the only way to protect her is to scare her. At this point, I don’t think she’d listen.
When I get home I let the wolves out of the cage. They’re not really wolves—you can’t train wolves because they are too wild, real monsters. These are a mix of Alaskan husky and wolf, but they look close enough no one can tell the difference—especially when they are running for their car holding a screaming kid.
I load them in the back of the truck I use for jobs, but this is not a job. Instead, I take them out of town, out to land my grandfather bought a long time ago, and let them run.
The moon is close to full, and I sit in the darkness and the cold listening to them howl as the wild part of them takes over. Their eyes shine in the moonlight. They ghost through the night. When they return, they have blood on their muzzles.
They have gained weight since I have been with Chanel and Emily, but now they look sleek and slick in the moonlight. My heart flutters beneath my ribcage, and I wonder if my grandfather knew all the dangers involved in this job, if he knew how easy it was to fall in love with a woman who absolutely needed you. And if he knew what happened to you on the day she no longer did. I wonder where the husband has been, and how long he’ll stick around. I wonder if Emily is in her bedroom crying herself to sleep, remembering how the monster beat her father senseless in the middle of the street.
Even out here, with the wolves running around me and the stars spinning in the sky, I can smell Chanel. I can feel her warm breath on my neck, feel her cool hands sliding down my stomach. And I think, more than anything, that she needs me. There were things I didn’t tell her, like not to trust anyone, or give them the keys to her house and the security code, that some people she should not fall for. She never learned to watch for the monsters that live in our world, never really learned what they were capable of.
Which is why I load the wolves in the truck and drive back home and put them back in the cage. But instead of going inside I get in my car and drive to Chanel’s house. It is late now, well past midnight. The husband’s car is still there. All the lights are off, and I wonder if he is sleeping on the couch or in the bed I used to share with her.
I let myself in the back with the key Chanel gave me, then punch in the security code to shut off the alarm. Enough streetlight comes in the window that I make my way through the first floor and up the stairs. The house is quiet, ticking and settling the way houses do at night. I can hear the refrigerator running and a dog barking in the neighborhood somewhere.
In Emily’s room the nightlight is on. Her face looks smooth, the hair combed from her forehead. Her tiny chest rises and falls. I thought she might sleep with her mother tonight, but perhaps the husband is in there. No matter. I know she needs me. I just have to show her. My grandfather has a lot of land, much of it soft, sandy soil, easy to dig. The world won’t miss another lawyer.
But first I have to show them, remind them how much they need me. I ease open the closet door and squeeze in. It makes a nice low squeak, just like I rigged it a few weeks ago when Chanel was asleep. That was another genius idea my grandfather told me: always have a contingency plan, in case something falls apart. Easy enough to make a closet door squeak loud enough to wake a sleeping child. Easy enough to scare a child with images of monsters. It might take a while, but it will work. And if it doesn’t, something else will. They’ll see they need me, to protect them from things that go bump in the night. Doesn’t matter that I am the one causing the bumping. I am doing this for her. As my grandfather said, you never know what monsters lurk in the dark corners of the earth.
Photo credit: “Till the end of the world” by ArTeTeTra