The front door creaks open as Cole leads Mother into PetMonster Market. An oppressive humidity smacks them in the face followed quickly by the scent of cedar chips, piss, and rotting fish.
Now that Cole is thirteen, Mother has finally agreed that he is old enough for this burden. All the kids at school already have a monster, but until now Mother has resisted his best arguments. If Father were still around, he wouldn’t have denied him one.
A cadaverous teenager greets them with a yawn.
“What’re lookin’ for?” The words squeeze around a chewed pen cap.
Cole presses his face against a storage tank containing an inky cloud of flickering light. The creature sounds like a creaking floorboard in an abandoned house.
“What’s this one do?” he asks.
“Likes closets and dark spaces under the bed. Feeds on nightmares. Low maintenance.”
Mother has that worried look she gets when Cole rides his bike after dark or doesn’t text her his location every hour.
“I don’t know,” Mother says. “With all your father’s stuff under your bed and in the closet, I doubt it would fit. Maybe, if we get rid of all the junk . . .”
Cole’s glare stops her. This so-called “junk” is the only reminder he has of the man who has been missing for 7 years. He scans the rows of aquariums and terrariums and sees an open enclosure with a sign that reads, “Bargain Bin. 50% off.”
He doesn’t care about the money. All he wants is something that will make the kids at school take a step backward when he approaches. Something dangerous, but not deadly, just a coasting-down-a-steep-hill-on-his-bike-with-his-eyes-closed kind of thrill.
These critters are the exact opposite. They look like hamsters with oversized heads and googly, watery eyes. When Cole puts his hand in their midst, one licks his palm.
“It’s so cute,” Mother coos.
If he brought something like this to school, his classmates would never stop harassing him. He doesn’t want adorable; he wants something that gives people chills when they look at it. Something that will make the girls do more than giggle when he passes them in the hallway.
“Feeds on brain cells. Communicates telepathically. Tells the truth.” The clerk delivers the key attributes without prompting, but there is a manic gleam in his eye that Cole catches and Mother misses.
“Brain waves? Is that safe?” Mother asks.
The clerk removes the obliterated pen cap. “Lose more cells to tv and video games than he’ll take. Treat ‘im right, they’ll live for decades.”
Try as he might, Cole can’t see anything interesting in the bug-eyed critter. As he turns, he hears a tiny voice in his ear: “This loser was just in the back whacking off to pictures on his phone. He wants you to hurry up so he can finish the job.”
Cole looks at Mother, but she isn’t blushing. The clerk pulls out his phone and swipes his thumb across its surface a few times. The creature who licked Cole’s palm, cocks its head, and blinks its watery eyes.
“I’ll tell you everything—the answers to tests, what girls really think of you—just get me the hell out of here. Whoever is left by the end of the day is being fed to that fella in the back.”
Black light bathes the rear of the store. Something reptilian waits in a terrarium that stretches floor to ceiling. Claws longer than Cole’s arm part shrubbery at the bottom of the habitat.
Cole trembles as he steps into the darkness, and his shoes glow an unnatural white. This is the magnificent beast he has been looking for. With this monster as his pet, no one at school will dare tease him for the scars on his arms or for wearing the same clothes more than once a week.
“That one doesn’t look very safe,” Mother hedges. “Maybe something smaller.”
Cole extends a hand. Even if he doesn’t buy this one, he must touch the terrarium. He bets no one else has had the stones to come this close to true evil. Even if he does not bring this one home, he will have one hell of a story to tell those pricks at school.
Before he can touch the glass, however, the bargain bin voice cries out, “I’ll tell you where your mother buried your father’s body!”
Unconsciously, Cole runs his fingers over the raised, circular scars on his arms as several memories untangle in his mind: the glowing cigarette, alcohol-fouled breath, crying, yelling, screaming. Silence.
Cole looks at his mother, who squeezes her bony, ringless fingers together. Worry coaxes all the wrinkles from her pale face, but a fierce-protectiveness smolders in her eyes. If this beast escapes its cage, her thin hands will become weapons, again.
“C’mon. Who are you kidding?” the voice whines. “You aren’t going home with that guy. We both know you can’t handle him. Even if you do, this jack-off is just going to feed me to somebody else. You pick me, we both win.”
Cole stares down Mother, but she stubbornly refuses to break eye contact. As much as he hates his classmates, he would never harm them. If she heard what they called him, how far would she go to protect him?
The mind reader continues, “Take me with you or I’ll tell the next person that touches me what your mother did.”
Cole imagines Mother in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs while his classmates snap pictures on their phones.
His hand presses against the cold glass. “I’ll take this one.”
Mother sighs but reaches into her purse.
“She worries you’re becoming too much like your father,” the voice squeaks. “One day, she’ll kill you, too.”
But try as he might, Cole can’t picture Mother’s hands around his neck. Ever.
“We’ll need to get some food,” Cole reminds her. “What about one of those critters from the bargain bin?”
Jeff Gard is an assistant professor of English at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa. When he isn’t writing or teaching, he enjoys board games, disc golf, binge-worthy television shows, and music. Friends describe his humor as “dark” or “twisted,” but he prefers to think of it as an acquired taste much like lutefisk or sauerkraut. His stories have appeared in The Arcanist, Daily Science Fiction, Dark Fire Fiction, and Flash Fiction Magazine.