Blame the Monster by Jennifer Lee Rossman

The night smelled like charcoal, wine coolers, and the smoky tang of fireworks. In a perfect world, it was the way all summer nights should smell. That heady mix of barbecue and bad decisions that burned itself so deeply into people’s memories that it only took the merest whiff of starter fluid, and they were transported right back to high school, young and carefree and absolutely convinced that anything was possible and that they would live forever.

On nights like that, there were no such things as college loans or office jobs. There were only fireflies and cutoff jeans and kissing your significant other down by the lake. The real world and its consequences just faded away.

And then the scream cut through that most perfect summer night, and the illusion crumbled, fizzling away like the last sparks of a fireworks finale. From that moment on, everything was too real and nothing would ever be okay again.

They found the girl by the lake, dress torn and blood streaked down her face. She shook, despite the warm breeze, despite her girlfriend holding her tight, her wide-eyed gaze locked onto the starry night reflected on the glassy surface of the water.

She whispered a single word: “Monster.”

***

The formerly perfect summer night was soon filled with search parties and ambulances. Bandages covered the girl, a high-school sophomore by the name of Grace Campbell, and the words “significant scarring” were whispered in the crowds as the flashing lights spirited her away.

Flashlight beams, both civilian and police, danced across the lake, startling frogs that splashed back into the safety of the water, but no monsters were found. Not even so much as a single footprint or claw mark in the wet sand.

“Think she made it up?”

“Probably got attacked by a raccoon and was too drunk to know the difference.”

“Just wants attention.”

“Or to distract us from what she was doing down here.”

The low voices carried on the humidity, making it difficult to discern their precise origin, but Hallie glared at the silhouetted boys up ahead all the same. Kirk Lehman and his jock cohorts, no doubt. Bunch of jerks and bullies.

Her hand tightened on her flashlight, and she walked a little closer to her father as they trudged through the weeds. They hadn’t seen the blood, hadn’t seen the terror in Grace’s eyes. They hadn’t seen the water part as the last of a reptilian tail disappeared into the deep.

Hallie had.

She would never admit to being the first on the scene, of course, as that would lead to questions about what she’d been doing down by the lake and who she’d been doing it with. The mayor’s daughter had to be better than all those other girls, with their short skirts and loose morals. The scandal that it would cause… Her father would never forgive her if she and her girlfriend ruined his chance at re-election.

But she’d seen it. She’d seen… something. A hulking shadow, a glint of eyeshine. Claws and teeth that tore into flesh. And even more chilling than the thought of such a monster lurking in the lake was the idea of no one believing in it.

The impromptu search party circled the lake for hours, even venturing into the woods on the edge of the park, but more and more people dropped off as the sky brightened, many of them muttering things about hoaxes and attention seekers. Hallie couldn’t imagine any amount of attention being worth all that blood, but she said nothing, and in the morning, the town tried its best to return to normal.

“Nothing to see here,” the townsfolk said. “Go about your day. Eat that frozen treat, blast your radio as you drive with your windows open. You’re young and invincible and the world is made of magic.”

“Yes,” they told their daughters, “it’s a tragedy what happened to that Campbell girl. But she had it coming, going down to that lake at night. It won’t happen to you. Never to you. You’re better than that.”

Grace’s hospital room bloomed with flowers and balloons from well-wishers she hardly knew, tokens to prove that they weren’t heartless, that they weren’t bad people. If they only gave enough stuffed pandas to the girl they sneered at behind her back, then maybe they weren’t the sort of girls who got their faces torn off by monsters.

A few nights later, there was another attack.

Two girls this time, neither of them so lucky as Grace Campbell.

The town mourned, because that’s what you do when you lose children. You hold candlelight vigils, and you leave sweet little cards outside the school where they will never graduate, and you dedicate a moment of silence to them before the minor league baseball game in the park.

You talk about their innocence, about how they were taken before they really got a chance to live. And then, just when your citizens start to fear for their safety, you hold a press conference to blame them for their own deaths.

“These young women,” the mayor began, and how quickly they had become women, now that it was inconvenient for them to be innocent children, “appear to have been attacked by something unknown to modern science.”

Hallie stood uncomfortably by her father, trying not to make eye contact with the families. Could she have prevented these deaths? Could she have given more weight to Grace’s claims, made people search a little harder, if only she’d spoken up?

“Teeth like an alligator, claws like a cougar. I didn’t want to believe it, but the evidence is undeniable. There is something preying on our people.”

An uneasy murmur went through the crowd, which was dotted with reporters from across the country. One girl getting attacked was a sad occurrence, two was a curiosity, but three… ah, three was the magic number that got the rumor mills churning.

“Fear not,” the mayor continued, “for the monster only preys on those who go down to the lake at night.”

Left unsaid was the insinuation, “And we all know what kind of people go down to the lake at night.”

Hallie glared at her father from beneath her sun hat as he glossed over plans to hunt down the beast and focused instead on how the girls should have been more careful, how they should have protected themselves, looked over their shoulders, left at the first sign of danger. And she glared at all the nodding people who thought this was a perfectly reasonable response.

But nod they did, and just like that, it was no longer a tragedy but a cautionary tale.

***

No one went to the lake anymore, because that would solve the monster problem, wouldn’t it? Just put up a little yellow police tape, and the night could be carefree and endless once again.

A grand idea, except the monster didn’t take too kindly to being shunned. Once it had exhausted its supply of fish and frogs, it had to find food elsewhere. Yellow police tape meant nothing to the monster.

The sedges parted as it crept out of the water, moonlight glistening on its wet hide. It stepped cautiously, not wanting a snapping twig or rustle of leaves to draw attention, but it needn’t have bothered.

The joyful shrieks and laughter of children filled the air as they chased one another and traced their names in the sky with sparklers, giving a pleasant background noise to stargazers. A singalong in the park further camouflaged the natural sounds of the evening, the monster’s heavy footfalls included.

It crouched low to the ground, almost slithering as it wound around abandoned badminton nets and stacks of paper plates that still smelled of ketchup all those hours after the barbecue. It tested the air with its tongue, sensing the heat signatures of so many human bodies.

And then it pounced.

These shrieks were unlike those of the children. Even from across the park, even not knowing what had happened, people knew it was the monster. They could hear the bloodshed in the screams.

In the morning, the mayor had to amend his earlier statement, and “no going down to the lake” became “don’t go to the park” became “don’t go out at night.”

But the attacks continued, in the middle of town and sometimes even in broad daylight, and they soon realized they would need a new rule to keep people safe.

The mayor and the police scoured crime scene photos and incident reports, searching for any common thread that linked the victims. They could have expended this energy hunting down the monster, but then they would be liable for protecting the citizens, and any blood would be on their hands if they failed. They couldn’t have that, now, could they?

At long last, they made a shocking announcement.

Women were not to leave the house in clothes that exposed large amounts of skin.

All of the victims, they had discovered, had been wearing tank tops and short skirts, bikini tops and Daisy Dukes. It stood to reason, they argued as the crowd in front of City Hall shouted, that the monster could sense people’s pulses through their skin, but not through clothes.

“Or perhaps,” the mayor said, “thick clothing prevents it from smelling the estrogen given off by the feminine reproductive organs. In any event, if you want to keep your daughters and wives and sisters safe from harm, you will keep them decent so as not to tempt the monster with their flesh.”

Never mind the great leap in logic, the fact that most of the town had been wearing shorts all summer and only a dozen had been attacked.

Never mind that Grace Campbell, being transgender, lacked the reproductive organs the mayor no doubt thought of as “feminine.”

Never mind that women were, in fact, people with autonomy who deserved the right to dress however they damn well pleased without having to fear their hemline putting them in mortal danger or needing the men in their lives to keep them safe.

No, never mind any of that silly stuff like logic and feminism. There was a monster in their town, and a dress code would stop it.

***

When Grace was finally discharged from the hospital, it was in a heavy wool dress that dusted the floor as she walked and covered every inch of her body from neck to wrist. Better safe than sorry, the nurses said.

Of all the people who had brought balloons and cards and little stuffed pandas, only Hallie was there to greet her, sweating profusely in a jacket and long pants. The rest had forgotten they’d ever sympathized with her, now that they knew her exposed kneecaps and oh-so-tempting clavicles had caused the attack.

“It hasn’t gotten you yet?” Grace asked, wincing as she slid into the passenger seat. The air conditioner felt like a miracle, but it was already on full blast and sweat still prickled on her forehead.

“Of course not,” Hallie said with a scoff. “I’m a good girl. I’m an example.”

“I seem to remember you showing a lot of skin that night down by the lake,” Grace said, voice trapped somewhere between nostalgic and mournful. Hallie nodded, taking her girlfriend’s bandaged hand.

How quickly the beginning of summer had been relegated to the distant past, how easily that perfect summer night had lost all its magic.

It wasn’t even the monster. No, there had always been monsters, lurking just on the shadowy edges of our collective consciousness, but Hallie and Grace had always thought that society would protect them. That even if they couldn’t stop the attack, nothing would stop the people who loved them from hunting down the monsters afterward. They had thought that there was such a thing as justice.

But all the magic had gone from the world in the time it took Grace Campbell to whisper “monster.” There would be no more endless summer nights, chasing fireflies and making wishes on falling stars, no more wishes at all. Just student loans and office jobs, dressing for safety and holding your keys between your knuckles as you look over your shoulder on that long, lonely walk to the car.

That was no kind of world to live in, to raise kids in.

So the girls—because no matter what people called them, they were still just girls—would have to take care of their monster problem for themselves.

***

The girls went down to the lake that night. Hallie, Grace, some of the other survivors, and a handful of those lucky enough to not have endured that particular trauma. Even Kirk Lehman, who Hallie thought had come to mock them, came in solidarity.

“It doesn’t just attack girls,” he said, rolling up his sleeves to show the scars on his arms.

They all marched down to the lake, dressed however they damn well pleased, and they kissed their significant others and they did all those evil things people told them only bad people did.

They dared to dream of a world that punished the monsters instead of the victims, and a world where clothes and love had no assigned morality, and some would say that was the most dangerous and courageous thing of all.

People came down to shame them, to warn that they were tempting the monster with their wicked deeds.

“You can’t dress like that,” they said, the mayor and the police and the journalists. All those people too stubborn and afraid to know better. “You can’t let yourself feel that safe. It will smell you. It will sneak up on you while your back is turned. You can’t go out at night without weapons. You’re not protecting yourselves at all—anything that happens is on your heads.”

But they were so very wrong.

When the monster came—sneaking and slithering up from the depths—it came not for the children. They were too confident, too organized. The monster knew it stood no chance against them, not now that they had decided they would not be shamed for being survivors.

So it turned instead to the adults, who were too busy saying “it doesn’t happen to people like me” to see it coming.

The children watched it stalk ever closer, and though the temptation to stay silent was strong, none of them would ever wish that on another person. So they switched on the floodlights.

No longer able to hide in the shadows, the monster’s true form was finally seen: a pathetic little worm so desperate to feel powerful that it sucked power from others, making them feel as tiny and as insignificant as it was.

Grace Campbell crushed it with her shoe, and the summer night returned to that perfect, endless state where anything was possible. There were still monsters, everyone knew they were out there, but those monsters could be killed, if people were just willing to try.


Jennifer Lee Rossman is a queer, autistic, and disabled nerd. She lives in a haunted group home in upstate New York and regularly has visits from shadow people and ghost cats. Find more of her work at her website.