ALICE’S MONSTERS • by Helen Cattan-Prugl

When I close my eyes, I can still see her.

Before I go to bed, Alice, my cute little sister, dances behind my eyelids.

When I throw my head back with a shot of vodka, Alice’s gap-toothed smile cheers me on.

Eyes shut in the pain and ecstasy of sex with my drug dealer, I can almost feel Alice’s chubby fingers, sticky with peanut butter and jelly, reaching for my hand.

Every time I tie the tourniquet around my upper arm to shoot up, Alice is right there with me; knocking on my bedroom door, sticking gum in my hair, saying, “I love you,” her face all lit up like the time I bought her a toy rhinoceros for her birthday. And so I close my eyes again, and again, and again, because sometimes, it makes me feel like she never disappeared at all.

Alice had eyes as blue as the puddles she liked to splash in and cheeks red and like tiny balloons. She was shorter and chubbier than the average eight year-old, and looked even fatter in a beige T-shirt two sizes too big and jeans, ripped at the knees, that trailed in the mud.

She was full of spunk and energetic, loved me when I thought I was unlovable. I know a lot of my friends resented babysitting their younger siblings, but I enjoyed it. Her make-believe games were innocent and playful, and honestly, sometimes I got completely immersed in them, like a good TV show.

On the day of her disappearance, Alice had been fighting a monster. She’d taken a karate stance, weight resting on her back foot, red-and-blue polka-dotted umbrella held in front of her like a lance.

Recently, all her make-believe games had focused on the monsters in the bedtime stories I told her: worms with multiple rows of sharp teeth, spiders with extra legs, and see-through humanoid vampire ghouls from hell. The stories got more and more grotesque each time I told them until they nearly gave me nightmares, but Alice — the freak — couldn’t get enough.

The air was thick with the smell of wet compost and post-rain musk. An icy wind whipped through the bare tree branches and spun her long hair like straw around her face and into her mouth. She was the polar opposite of how I’d looked at that age.

I was curled in a hammock on the front porch, my long, bony limbs tucked underneath my butt. It was the first warm day of the year.

I was reading a book: Factotum, by Charles Bukowski. I remember thinking at the time that the narrator was weird; how could you spend your entire time drunk, useless, and without purpose? But ten years have elapsed since then, and I’m living with my parents yet again, hopelessly addicted to smack, uselessly obsessed with a girl who’s long gone.

“Hi-yah! Hi-yah!”

With a thrust, a lunge, and a karate chop, Alice jumped off the sidewalk and into the street. And then, in a moment of triumph, she stabbed the umbrella into the creature’s invisible heart.

“Victory!” She cheered.

From far away, without my glasses on, she looked like a wiggling blob of color against the gray sky. Her arms were spread triumphantly, palms facing upward, an enormous grin on her face. I looked back down at my book and began reading Chapter 34.

And then a scream, a bloodcurling scream. I felt like a truck had smashed into my ribs as I looked up to see what had happened —

It would have been better if she had been hit by a truck, I think sometimes. If she had died, at least I would have had some closure. But there was no body, no nothing. I knew how to heal wounds; I didn’t know how to deal with nothing.

“Charlie! Charlie, help me, it’s got me!”

Alice was writhing on the floor, pretending the monster’s giant pincers had pinned her down. I sighed, half exasperation, half relief.

“Don’t scream like that, Alice,” I reprimanded her, returning to my book.

I read sixteen chapters before realizing how quiet the street had gotten. It was completely still besides the whoosh of the wind and the dead leaves shaking. And when I looked up, she was gone. Only her polka-dotted umbrella, rolling lazily in the middle of the street, gave any indication that my little sister had ever been there.

Triumphant, smiling Alice, this is the last picture I have of her and this is how I’ll always remember her when I close my eyes.

Closing my eyes to cry even when I think I have no more tears left, I see Alice reaching out her tiny fists to dry them.

As I’m drifting off to sleep, Alice reminds me to pray to God. I don’t listen.

And when I’m jamming my needle into a vein for the fourth time that night, Alice tells me to stop. So I stop.

“I mean it, Charlie,” says Alice, “I can’t always be here for you. It’s time for you to start fighting the monsters now.”

“Don’t leave me,” I beg.

She’s turned into a see-through humanoid vampire ghoul from hell and is eating her own organs. I don’t want to see this.

“Go away!” I scream.

It doesn’t go away. On the contrary, it’s advancing on me; I stumble back, but my feet are tied. I’m high as balls and can’t even tell if I’m standing or lying in fetal position, awake or asleep.

Alice’s polka-dot umbrella stands, as it has for over a decade, in the corner of my shoddy room. I’m shaking as I pick it up, shift my weight to rest on my back foot. I think I’m prepared to fight.

Helen Cattan-Prugl writes in Massachusetts, USA.

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