The Monster at the End of This Book

Written for the Last Author Standing contest (original fiction division, round 1, challenge 6), January 2011. Trigger warning: deals with child abuse.

Alicia couldn’t tell if the blurring of the road ahead of her was from the rain on the windshield or the tears in her eyes. She’d been holding them back all day, trying to be professional. Even when she’d finally left work for a badly-needed drink with her co-workers, she’d felt compelled to hold it together, to pretend she wasn’t as close to cracking as she was.

They’d all been feeling it — she could see it in their eyes, even though everyone was trying to be strong. It was never easy for anyone when they lost one. But this one had hit her especially hard, because it was her case. The decision to leave the child with the family hadn’t been hers, thank God — she’d recommended removal, but there was a whole process to go through, and her supervisor had argued that there was no proof of immediate danger... She wondered how he’d be sleeping tonight.

Tears stung her eyes again. She’d gone into this job wanting to help children, but sometimes it felt like so pointless — innocent families were investigated because of nosy neighbours or vindictive exes, while the real monsters went undetected... until something like this happened. They were constantly understaffed, and so swamped with bureaucracy that even when you were sure there was a problem it was an uphill battle to get anything done about it. And sometimes that battle took longer than the kids had.

The job had been taking a real toll on her, between the overtime and the emotional stress. She didn’t know how much longer she could do it. But someone had to, and besides, you didn’t just walk away from a steady job in this economy — not with a child to support, and an ex-husband whose support payments were constantly late. The tension between wanting a stable enough income to support her son and wanting to be there for him, not constantly a nervous wreck from work stress, sometimes made her feel like she was being pulled in half like a wishbone, but she couldn’t see any way out.

And she couldn’t get her mind off today’s case — what kind of parents would do a thing like that? It didn’t matter how many cases she investigated — she’d never understand it. She could still hear the father’s excuses as the police took him away: “It was an accident — I didn’t mean to! She just wouldn’t stop crying...” But how did you do a thing like that by accident? And for God’s sake, if your child is crying, you comfort them, not—

She forced herself to push it aside as she pulled into the driveway. All she wanted right now was to hold her own sweet child and reassure herself that he was OK. She felt guilty for staying out this late, but the babysitter was available until midnight, and she’d desperately needed to decompress before coming home. Not that it had actually helped.

As she neared the door, her heart sank. She could hear Jason yelling, in the throes of a full-fledged tantrum, and the babysitter’s strained voice pleading with him. Oh God, not this, not now. I can’t deal with it. Not today... She knew he’d been stressed by her working so much, but she couldn’t cope with this tonight... With a sigh, she forced herself to open the door. I can do this. I can do this. I have to...

With clenched teeth, she managed to weather the onslaught — Jason hurling himself at her legs, his face red from screaming and streaked with tears and snot, the babysitter frantically apologizing. She paid the sitter and saw her out, then turned her attention to Jason. “Sweetie, I’m sorry I was out so late — again — but you really need to go to bed now. It’s almost 11:00. Come on, I’ll tuck you in and read you a story.”

She picked him up and at first he clung to her like a limpet, but as soon as she mentioned bed, he pulled away. ”No! I’m not going to bed! Not ever!”

Her nerves were fraying, but she tried to stay calm. “Sweetie, everyone has to sleep sometime. Even grownups. I’ll be going to bed soon too. Come on...”

She started to carry him towards his room, but he twisted away, hitting and kicking so that she nearly lost hold of him. ”No! No! I’m not going to bed!”

“Damn it, Jason! Do not do this! Not now! Look, I know you’re upset because I was out late, but I’ve had a really, really bad day. I promise I’ll be home earlier tomorrow. But I really, really need you to co-operate — I can’t deal with a big fight right now!”

Blinking back tears of frustration, she tried again, as he punched and kicked at her with all the strength his little body had, and finally raked his nails across her face, scratching her badly and knocking her glasses to the floor.

“God damn it, what is wrong with you?” Grabbing his arms harder than she meant to, she slammed him against the wall. “I can’t deal with this! If you don’t fucking stop—“ She caught herself, her hand raised to strike him, realizing that his screams of rage had changed to cries of pain and terror as he stared up at her, eyes wide with fear, trying to shield himself.

She burst into tears as she slid down the wall, and reached to pull him close. “Oh God, honey, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to! It was an—“ she cut off abruptly as she realized what she’d almost said. “I wasn’t going to hurt you. I’d never hurt you!” He cringed away at first, then burrowed into her arms as she rocked him, repeating the words over and over as if that would somehow make them true.

Story prompt: "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster." — Friedrich Nietzsche. This story came in second in that challenge.