Every night when I was young, my father used to tell me stories. Stories about monsters living in our world, lurking in the dark, looking for new prey to catch. Naive people, too irresponsible, foolish to listen to their parents, acting courageous and venture into the night, trying to find if the stories were true or not. My father told me that only a handful of people survive. Less every year. He never mentioned who they were, how they escaped or how he knew about the monsters and their stories. Whenever I used to ask how they looked like or what they did with the people they caught, he would stay silent and look somewhere far, far beyond our house and not answer. I could see him try and keep his face neutral, not letting out any emotion, any fear or anger or pain.
I asked him once if that is what happened to mom and he just looked at me with those big blue eyes, watery from whatever he was trying to hide. He hugged me tight, said I love you, triple checked my window locks and closed the curtains before leaving the room, door open. After I while I stopped asking questions about mom. A few years later, I stopped asking questions about the monsters.
The bell rings, loud and long, squeaking the last note and it reminds me on a cat dying. I do know how that sounds like and the resemblance it’s too much sometimes. The memory of Munchkin, my old cat jumps in my head, his half tail moving rapidly, getting into my nose, paws playing with my shirt whenever I was reading or doing some work and he was trying to get my attention. He always won. I miss his warmth the most. Now my bed is cold and too lonely sometimes.
‘Are you going to stay here all day?’ Jen asks and slaps my back. ‘The most boring class in the world is over and I need a cigarette.’
I lift my head from the desk too fast and I instantly regret it as I get a head rush and the room and all inside is spinning.
‘Give me a sec’, I whisper.
‘So, did you decide yet? Can we come tonight?’ Lou shoots her long eyebrows up and waits for me to give an answer. A yes.
‘So? Can we?’
I shrug and pack my stuff. I ignore both and their questions about that sleepover we are supposed to have tonight and I get my backpack and start shoving everything into it, without caring what goes where. Only my phone. That I put in my front pocket, patting the area to make sure it’s still there. A habit I realise I do too often. Even when I don’t have the phone with me.
‘I do not know’, I finally say as I exit the classroom. World history. It could have been an interesting subject if the teacher wasn’t so boring and her voice did not make me sleepy. And bored of life and everything in it.
‘It’s the first time dad is out of town for the night. And he hates having people over later in the night.’ I look around to make sure my friends are close by and listening. And hopefully understand why I am so nervous about this idea. ‘Especially sleepovers.’
Lou runs in front of me and brings me to a stop.
‘That’s why it’s a secret’, she says clapping her hands, ‘and why it’s the best time to have one. He will never know.’
‘You’ve got to have your first sleepover sometime. Why not now?’ asks Jen skipping next to me.
‘It’ll be fun.’
‘And he’ll never know.’
Jen grins and runs over to Taylor, giving him a surprise hug from behind. He jumps and lets out a short but loud enough cry to startle her and release him from the hug.
‘What the hell, Taylor? It’s me not a 6-foot-tall monster ready to kill you!’ She takes a few steps back and looks annoyed at him.
We get closer to the others and we all exchange a look of understanding between us. They had Mr. Hooke, the angry math teacher that loves to give students surprise quizzes when he notices we struggle with the subject and could care less about our wellbeing, grades or future. We, on the other hand, had Mrs. Boil and her never-ending stories about something really boring that happened between two countries years ago and why should we care about it.
‘Did she talk about the French Revolution again?’ Matt tries to speak between two yawns. ‘I’d rather have that for two hours, to be honest, than another question about logarithms and a debate about why trigonometric functions can save the world.’
Jul playfully punches him and asks him or Lou a question and they start laughing but I do not pay attention to any of them. Instead I look to the left where Taylor and Jen are whispering, arguing for some reason – again – and I notice him turning to me. Stops dead in his conversation with her and just looks at me with a worried expression on his face. Jen notices after a while too and follows his gaze. We then both look at each other for a few seconds longer than it is comfortable and I avert my eyes, down to my shoes. I stare at them as if they are most interesting pair of shoes ever and not think of whatever just happened.
I can still feel his eyes following me as I say goodbye to them and head for the exit, hoping no one can see me blush. I almost reach the front door when I hear someone shouting my name.
‘Hey! Wait up!’ calls Lou and reaches me in a few seconds. ‘What about that sleepover?’
‘Uhm…I am – I am not too sure it is a good idea, Lou.’ I turn and look over at Jen, which is almost in our proximity by now. Taylor is with the group, still watching me with that concerned look on his face. I take – painfully slow – my eyes of him and that annoying curly hair, his deep green eyes and I look at my shoes. Again.
‘It’s now or never, Eli’, Jen smiles and puts a hand on my shoulder. It feels heavy. ‘We’ll have a pizza, watch some movies and gossip about boys. Like a true sleepover.’
It takes a moment for me to speak again.
‘…sure, why not?’
They both start giggling and jumping all over the place and for a moment I forget about my father’s rules about our house. Always lock the windows and doors. Close all curtains at night. All doors inside the house must be open. Do not have people over after ten o’clock at night or before ten o’clock in the morning. Never have people over night. And the most important, if you hear noises outside, do not go and check.
Everybody told me he become like this after my mother disappeared one night. That the trauma and pain he felt then changed him. I was too young to remember, too young to be affected by her vanishing. But my dad was deeply hurt. That’s why he can no longer trust anybody. Always paranoiac, always seeing bad in people and always locking the house, separating us from the outside world. And this is why he created the ‘monsters’ I realize now. To make sure I do not follow some stranger into the night and disappear on him too. I know better than that but he still treats me like a little girl. Frightened and fragile.
We stop by the supermarket near the school to get stuff for tonight. Soft drinks as none of us are of age yet but there is a cabinet in my dad’s office that has more drinks than he needs and he definitely will not miss one or two.
‘Sweet or salty popcorn?’ Lou asks while Jen and I are filling our hands with biscuits and chocolate.
‘Both! See if there are any with butter, please. I want some of those as well’.
‘And some chips, too’, I shout over the noise some toddlers are making nearby, at the toy section. ‘Something salty.’
I step outside the store while the girls are paying for the food and drinks. Courtesy for having my first sleepover. It does not cost me anything. I check my phone and find two new messages.
One from dad: I will be back tomorrow at 15. Stay safe. Please follow the rules, sweetie. If there are any problems, call me. I love you so much. Send me a text when you go to bed xx
I type an answer as fast as possible, a lie among the others and ignore the guilt and fear that start to overwhelm me. Nothing to worry about, I tell myself. Just a sleepover, at my house, with my friends. Nothing to worry about. No reason to worry dad.
The second message, to my surprise, is from Taylor: heard about the sleepover from Jennifer…do not go through with it, please Eloise; it’s not safe; just…don’t. please call me asap, taylor
I stare at the text for a solid minute. I read it. I read it again. And again. And I do not understand. What is he talking about? Since when he started to notice me? We are kind of friends and all but never more. I feel blood rushing to my cheeks. He and Jen are not official yet but…I do not understand. Before I come back to my senses and start typing an answer, Jen and Lou exit the store and head my direction. I shove the phone in my pocket as fast as possible and give them a big and bright smile, trying not to show the emotions stirring inside me: worry, guilt, confusion and something else I do not want to admit. The excitement for tonight, if there was any, is long gone.