((Warning – sort of a long one. I meant it to be funnier.))
Mabel Sacks a Monster
The first time we met Mabel, she was wearing a dress made of flowers. It drew our eyes from the front porch, as we stared between the petals and stems for a sight of raw flesh. “Hullo!” she said, peering out her bifocals. “How are you dears? Have a toffee, I’m your neighbor now.” Though the roses on her dress weren’t real, we were overwhelmed by the smell of flowers coming from her.
Our mother ran out instantly, a dish cloth in one hand. “You must be Mrs. Pearson.”
“Please call me Mabel.” She pointed to the half-ton in her driveway. “That’s my son Albert there.” We waved. “He’ll be helping me with my stuff. I don’t expect that it’ll take long to move in.” She walked to her new home with one hand on a knee, as though she were about to snap a football.
Our father didn’t meet Mabel until three days later, when she was invited over for dinner. Mabel wore flowers that evening and had even bundled up her hair to look like bleached-out petals. It occurred to us that lamb chops had never tasted more vegetarian than during that dinner. Dad, smiling, developed a wrinkle in his cheeks when he began to chew. It took him a few moments to look satisfied that it was real meat in his mouth. We later caught him eyeing his cigar box, with that look that he always got when he wanted to test something out, in this case: Dad’s cigars vs. Mabel’s flowers. Fight to the finish. The end of all battles.
“So Mabel,” said mom, “where did you live before this?”
“I’m from Wisconsin originally, dear. I was working in a factory there until I wasn’t allowed by law. Before that, I lived in Texas.” She grinned at us. “Aren’t they sweet. How old are they?”
Mom told her. “And what brings you here?”
“Bears, moose, that sort of thing. I like to study animals,” she smiled, “especially big ones.”
“Ah,” said Dad, who, unlike our mother, looked amused by the answer, “a naturalist.”
“Ah,” replied Mabel, putting a hand back on her knee, “of a sort. I’ve heard stories about large animals hereabouts, monsters really. Have you come across any?”
Dad smiled, but Mom picked that moment to get dessert from the kitchen. We ate slices of cake as Mabel told us about Wisconsin, the cold weather, the Great Lakes, and her surgery six years ago to remove a cyst.
By the time Mabel was ready to leave, dad was offering to walk her home. She declined and hobbled off into the night. She remained with us for several minutes before she was truly gone.
Dad pulled out a cigar. “Did you notice that she doesn’t wear a wedding ring?” Our mom sat next to him on the couch, reading the newspaper, and said nothing.
We were at the window, watching Mabel first turn on and then off every light in the house. She repeated this process three times before the lights finally went out and the house was dark.
Mabel dined on her porch often, because, as she put it, she didn’t spend enough time outdoors. Mabel didn’t believe in telephones, but she was fascinated by fax machines. She sent messages to her friends back in Wisconsin by faxing their children at work. A wall of curly black-and-white photographs of friends-left-behind was soon started in her spare bedroom. When Mabel needed to go downtown, she walked in and took the bus back. When she needed to buy groceries, she had dinner at our house for a few straight days and waited for someone to offer her a drive to the supermarket. But the most exceptional thing about Mabel was something we learned on a Wednesday.
The bus had just stopped three houses down from ours, and we were on the front lawn. Mabel approached with a video cassette in one hand, waving it at us. “Come on, this one promises to be very special,” she said.
Within minutes, we were sitting in Mabel’s living room. “Cookies,” blared Mabel from the kitchen, “pause pause while I get cookies!”
We huddled together on the little couch while Mabel sat in her arm chair. The movie was, as Mabel would tell us afterwards, one of the classics of the genre, and a real treat because it involved a sea monster. Mabel told us that sea monsters were the most dangerous of creatures because you couldn’t run away from one; a boat was only so big and had only so many hiding places, plus sea monsters seemed to be able to breathe both above and below the waves, a versatility their victims didn’t usually have.
We watched as the passengers of a cruise ship were snatched into the depths until only an elite few remained. One-by-one, starting with those least useful or most evil, the characters were eliminated by this thing that stalked the corridors of the ship and left a trail of slime on the decks. We watched as tentacles oozed and blood ran green, and a great beak opened with a quiver. When it came down to just the hero and the heroine, we shuddered to hear that they would have to confront the creature if they were to survive.
We screamed when Mabel leapt from her chair, hand on knee, and lurched around the room, brushing against the walls and our couch until she returned to her chair panting. She’d picked the point in the movie where the hero and heroine were above-deck, trying to find a life raft, neither realizing that there weren’t any extra ones, that they hadn’t truly finished off the monster, and that the bomb they had set in the engine room could not be defused.
“Well,” she said, after it was over, “why were you so worried for them? Heroes always live.”
Other than the occasional fright at the thought of wicked things lurking on our roof or the idea that something might be gestating in the basement, we were unscathed by the movie itself. A few nights later, as our mom was putting us to bed, we asked her about Mabel’s bare walls and why she liked to go by ‘Miss. Pearson’ rather than ‘Mrs. Pearson’.
“Mabel’s old, she has reasons for doing things like she does.”
“Monsters!” we cried.
There were many kinds. Mabel’s world included spaceships, museums, sewers, research stations, universities, jungles, summer camps, churches. Monsters walked them all, invisible at first. Unimagined. Then someone would become aware that things were not right, that maybe ‘Clark’ wasn’t just out for a very long walk or ‘Janet’ hadn’t simply driven into town for some cigarettes. Some of the characters chose to remain ignorant of the danger, and these were consumed or mauled or evaporated first. The remaining few wisely realized that they’d better do something before it was too late. So they invariably barricaded themselves into a stronghold to fend off the threat. But the threat always, always, proved to be stronger than it seemed; lives were lost along the way. Only the most radical, dangerous solution was any good in the end, and the survivors had to pull together for it to work. And as Mabel said, the heroes always survived. But that didn’t stop us from being scared every single time, wondering if this would be the picture where reality would be upended, and the monster would come out on top.
“Take that!” shouted Mabel, as she brandished a still-wet umbrella at the closing theme of a picture. We breathed in relief at the ending, while our dad, joining us on a whim, looked pale beside us. We were in Mabel’s living room, with a sliver of light coming in through the curtains.
Mabel groaned and put a hand on her knee, but kept brandishing the umbrella.
The first Christmas of us living next door to Mabel was an event, as our mom’s family was coming over for a reunion. People showed up with a collection of pots and humps of tin foil, and wrapping paper rolls half-hidden in gift bags. Candlelight made everyone look prettier. Mabel was in the middle of it, singing Christmas carols. Grandpa was our best singer, but he didn’t remember any of the words. We marveled at how well Mabel recalled everything, even though our dad assured us that she was at least five years older than grandpa. Mabel simply walked up to grandpa, put her arm around his back, adjusted her bifocals, and swayed with him to the tune. Grandpa didn’t seem to mind.
The singing lasted into the evening. We played with our cousins, darting from one end of the house to the other in a frenzied game of hide-and-seek. With our monster knowledge and training, we found the most unexpected places to hide, and often leapt from our spots to scare the seeker. When our cousins informed us that this was contrary to the rules of the game, we gurgled at them, like ogres reaching up from the bottom of the marsh.
“So dear,” said Aunt Alba, who was having a conversation with Mabel, “do you have any family left in Texas?”
“Oh yes, three sisters,” said Mabel, which was news to us. “All quite alive,” she said, winking.
“But you’re not visiting them for Christmas, and they’re not visiting you?”
“Well, dear, Texas is a long way away,” pointed out Mabel.
“Ah, yes. Where in Texas do your sisters live?”
Our mom was watching the conversation from the Christmas tree. She started to make her way across the room.
“Dearies!” Mabel shouted at us suddenly. “No shinnie in the nutshed!” We giggled, because it was the expression Mabel used to warn people on the television screen that they were about to endanger themselves by opening the wrong door.
“I’m sorry, where did you say your sisters lived?” asked Aunt Alba again.
Mabel sighed. “We don’t talk.” And then, “I’m not sure.”
“Alba,” said my mother, “there’s a bottle of white wine on the kitchen counter. Could you get it for me?”
When Aunt Alba was gone, mom turned to Mabel and said something to her. Eventually, mom’s voice got louder, “But you have to stay for the presents.” Mabel grinned, first at mom, then at us. “Must be going. Got to see if anyone’s called me on that new answering machine. Christmas greetings and all.”
No amount of persuading could get her to stay, and so she walked off alone into the snow. We went to a window and watched her turn on and off all her house lights three times. She did this, as she’d told us, to inspect the premises for monsters, which had a nasty habit of never being found the first time you looked for them in a place.
We saved Mabel’s presents for last. Underneath the newspaper wrapping were cardboard containers that had been made from cereal boxes. Inside each, sitting on a cushion of confetti, was a toy dragon with two human legs sticking out of its mouth. There was a hint of red food dye smeared across the dragons’ teeth.
The people around us looked on for a few moments before the singing started up again.
When Mabel figured out computers, dad said she was the oldest person he had ever seen use one. But there she sat, in her upstairs room overlooking the forest, typing away as she researched the strangest parts of her world. Ghouls, zombies, vampires; aliens, sea creatures, mermen (never mermaids); mutants, cannibals, demons; all those things. We learned that Mabel had other talents as well.
“What is it?” we asked, in her back yard.
“Monster Beater,” she said, sitting in a swivel chair. Before her was a steel rod looped in shimmering rings of yellow, connected to an extension cord. She was facing the forest.
“Are there monsters here?”
“All over,” she assured us. We didn’t believe the Monster Beater would work, so she told us to wait and she would show us.
The Monster Beater hummed to life as Mabel pushed a button. It had all been ordered off the internet, a place that Mabel sent lots of her pension, and it had arrived in brown cardboard boxes, one piece at a time, from as far away as Manitoba. Dad had helped her build it, smiling most of the time, as mom sat at the garden table and read her book. She looked up now and then, at the tangle of wires and the mess of tools, and did not seem impressed with the final product. But we were. It glowed, it hummed, and it looked like a cannon.
When evening came, and our parents had left, Mabel put in her secret ingredient, as she called it. The liquid was clear, and stank. “What is it?” we asked.
“Medicine. Beasties can’t stand it.”
We told her our dad had stuff that smelled like that too, but she just said, “You watch now.”
“But how do you know where the monsters are?”
“The Monster Beater tracks their heartbeat. Monsters have a very slow pulse.”
The trees were hideous in the evening shade, the spaces between them dark and vicious. We held hands as Mabel made ready to do war. “Patience,” she whispered, concentrating. “I hear something.”
And so did we. It was big. It was purple. It had five arms, three eyes, and hair that had never been combed. It ate children like sandwiches, adults like chocolates. And it was coming towards us. There, through the tress, it stepped into view and growled; a quiet growl, hardly more than a hiss, but fearsome all the same. Mabel hit the button.
A burst of flame shot from the cannon into the trees; the cannon lurched back, and Mabel went flying through the air. She landed on the deck, her legs in the air. “Oh my,” she said, as we helped her up. “Do be dears and fetch some soda from the kitchen.”
She doused the fire with it, but we had more interesting things to investigate. There, in the shadows, was the bulk of something huge. It was still breathing, barely. We held hands, the three of us, watching as it slipped away. Mabel was grinning. She had killed a monster.
“Are you excited?” we asked, sitting at Mabel’s kitchen table as we ate her cupcakes.
“I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “But I won’t really be happy until I have grandchildren, you see.”
“Like us!” we cried.
Mabel smiled. “Like you. Just like you. Shall we go pick up the present?” Mabel’s use of buses had stopped when she found out that her son Albert was getting married. As soon as she heard the news, she went out and bought a used blue Ford.
“Why, at your age, Mabel,” dad had told her. “Driving? Whatever for? You could as soon take the train to the wedding, or we’d just drive you.”
Mabel patted her new car. She insisted that she’d gotten a good deal. “Oh no, oh no. Terrible things happen on trains, the emergency exits never work. For as long as I can remember, I’ve pictured myself driving myself to my son’s wedding. And in a blue Ford, no less.”
“Mabel!” dad had cried. “That’s ridiculous. When’s the last time you drove?”
“Dear,” said my mom, later, “she’ll be okay.”
“She sold half her belongings to buy that car. And she didn’t exactly start off with much!” our dad had protested.
“It’s her choice,” our mom had replied. “She wants it this way.”
“To the mall,” Mabel decreed, as we hopped into the back seat.
“Mabel, why don’t they make a monster movie in a mall?” we asked, as she led us through the crowd.
Mabel shuddered. “Ugh, they don’t need to.”
Mabel wouldn’t tell us what the gift was. It was wrapped more nicely than her Christmas presents to us had been, though.
“You sold your fax machine and your big clock to buy that?” we asked.
“I was going to sell those things anyway,” she said, drawing us to the ice cream parlour. We sat down on a bench to eat our cones.
“Mabel,” we asked, “what’s your future daughter-in-law look like?”
“What’s she do?”
“Don’t you know anything about her?” we asked.
“Not much,” she said, taking a bite. “She’s very smart, I know that. Her family lives in Rhode Island. Do you know where that is?” We didn’t, and she shrugged.
“Are they coming to visit you after the wedding? Can we can meet them?”
“Maybe,” said Mabel.
We finished our ice creams in silence, because sometimes Mabel liked to be quiet. It wasn’t very often, but it happened once in a while. We asked our parents about it, but they just said it was because she had things on her mind. When she took us home, we noticed that she looked at us the whole way as we walked to our door.
There are still scars on the rockface to the side of the on-ramp. Between the road and the rock is a patch of ditch grass, which collects pebbles and bits of gravel. The tire marks are overgrown, but we’ve found little scraps of the blue Ford along the trail. People tell us what happened on this long, gradual turn. But we weren’t there to see. We can only imagine.
Mabel got up early and showered. Then she put on the dress she’d ironed two nights ago. It didn’t have any flowers; it was all yellow.
She did her hair in the bedroom. She checked a few times to make sure the gift, with its bow, was still in the dresser drawer.
She took the gift and walked through the hallway of the house. The only picture anywhere was of her son. Plus a few grimy faxes of friends.
She ate something small. She packed some food for the drive.
Mabel checked her watch and went to the front door. She put on her shoes. She made sure she had her car keys.
She gripped her knee as it started to hurt. She closed her eyes and breathed until the ache went away.
The phone rang. Mabel shuffled back down the hall towards the kitchen. But she was too late. She waited until the message had been delivered, and then she cued the machine.
Mabel stood there, and maybe she thought about how far she would have to drive the blue Ford, whether her body could handle it, if it was even a good idea to try. Why, a woman of her age, driving seven hundred miles for a wedding, in a car the mechanic had told her would barely make the trip…
She listened to the message. It was her son. Some family problem, he said. An issue with Mabel’s sisters, and his fiance’s family was concerned about it coming up. After all, it was Rhode Island, he said; hardly the place for a family issue to be brought up.
He promised to visit instead, later, in the fall or winter, certainly after a grandkid came along. Certainly then. It would not be long. They had plans about starting a family right away. They weren’t young, after all, as she had been. They had to start soon, he assured her.
We understand that Mabel went to her car anyway. We might have stolen a glimpse of the blue Ford roaring into life, and pulling onto the road. We might have run outside to the edge of the lawn. We might even have waved.
We weren’t there to see, but we know what happened next. We realize that something large and green with great teeth came crashing out of the forest as Mabel got to the on-ramp. It was the father, ten times times taller and three times bigger across the chest, of some purple beast that Mabel had destroyed once. Mad for revenge, it ambushed her on that little stretch of road, claws stretched, teeth gnashing.
She saw it in her rearview mirror and tightened her grip on the steering wheel. She drove faster, weaving and dodging over the asphalt as the creature lunged for her. With her free hand, she waved her umbrella out the window, trying to jab it in the eye or to smack it in the knee. But the creature closed on Mabel anyway. In the end, we know that Mabel would rather have turned her blue Ford into the rockface by the side of the road than been consumed by the sharp teeth of that beast. We know this because Mabel always used to say that no matter how desperate the heroes, no matter how bad the situation, the monster is never allowed to win.