This is the winning entry from Young Post’s 2017 Winter Short Story Competition. Our lucky winner, Divina Samtani, will receive a Nintendo Switch. Look out for Young Post’s next short story competition this summer!
It started as a game. It was the second night that shouting had awoken him. Jack had been fast asleep, wrapped in his dinosaur duvet, when the sound of muffled yells drew him from his dreams. The loud sounds confused him, and all he wanted was to go back to sleep. Though the words were unintelligible to him, the furious tone had him quaking. They filled his ears; Jack squeezed his eyes shut to block everything out, but it didn’t work. It hadn’t worked the night before either.
Puzzled, he looked to his right to see his older brother, Andrew, sitting upright in bed. Peeling off his blanket, Jack crept into Andrew’s bed, needing reassurance that everything was okay.
His brother looked down at him, a sad smile on his face, and his fists gripping the edges of his own duvet. Jack shifted closer. Giving one last look at the wooden door that separated them from the cacophony outside, Andrew tucked Jack in.
“I’m scared,” Jack whispered, as if saying it any louder would make it more real.
“I know,” Andrew said softly, “but I’m with you and there’s nothing to be scared of.”
Jack melted into his brother’s embrace, “But what are those loud noises I can hear?”
Andrew hesitated before replying. “There’s a monster in the house and Mum and Dad have to fight it.”
“Really? Why don’t we help them?” Jack’s doe eyes grew in an innocent curiosity. His fear was already starting to dwindle.
“Because,” Andrew affectionately flicked Jack’s nose, “Mum and Dad think we’re safer up here where the monster can’t hurt us.”
“Oh.” Jack listened again. “But I still can’t sleep”.
“Then I guess we’ll have to play a game,” said Andrew conspiratorially.
Jack’s eyebrows rose, and the ends of his lips curved into a toothy grin. “What game?”
“We’ll come up with the story about how to defeat the monster.”
“We can be the knights who defeat the scary monster, and the King and Queen will reward us with chocolate and sweets!” Jack eagerly exclaimed.
In the darkness of their room, and amid the shouting outside, the brothers wove a story of bravery, and courage, and lots of sweets.
“Then Sir Andrew uses his shield to blind the dragon, and Sir Jack jumps up and stabs it right in the tummy!” Andrew quickened his pace towards the end and dramatically flopped onto the pillow as a demonstration of the death of the dragon.
“And its tummy pours out all types of sweets and licorice and marshmallows, like a … like a …, ” Jack fumbled for the word.
“Like a pinata!” Andrew cried out.
The boys were giggling at the fictitious story when the sound of something shattering stilled them. It was a piercing reminder that the battle was still being fought downstairs. Huddling closer together, Andrew solemnly concluded, “The Knights were awarded the highest title in all the land, and a feast was held in their honour, with a chocolate fountain and the fluffiest marshmallows ever seen.”
Jack sleepily yawned and smiled at the image his brother had described. Soon, they fell asleep, the yelling still not over outside the serenity of their room.
In the mornings, the monster was gone, as if it had never even visited. Perhaps sunlight chased it away, making it afraid to reveal itself. And yet, during the nights, the monster came back. Crawling into his brother’s bed, Jack started animatedly chattering about the second part of the Knights’ adventures. Andrew had just entered the room, gently closing the door behind him. The frothing accusations that could be heard through the walls were starting to shape into the monster, right on time.
Dark circles rimmed Andrew’s eyes. His hair dishevelled, and his shoulders hunched over, the older boy hobbled to his bed where Jack sat waiting.
“I think this time the knights should defeat the monster by pushing it into a volcano,” Jack suggested.
“Jack, I can’t play tonight.”
Jack looked at his brother, confused and disappointed. “But why?”
“I’m a bit tired, why don’t you take charge and tell me a story.” Andrew, wincing, leaned his head against the headboard, blue bruises on his neck, just visible, creeping up from under the T-shirt.
Jack stared at his brother quizzically, trying to decipher his changing mood. Unable to sense what was wrong , he shrugged and began his story of the Knights’ daring adventures, which involved climbing mountains, fighting trolls, and heroically defeating the monster, with many sweet rewards. Every time a particularly loud noise from downstairs made them jump, the brothers took comfort in the heroic deeds they performed in the game.
Andrew was starting to doze off, when footsteps thundered outside the door, which rattled on its rusty hinges. Sitting bolt upright, Andrew instinctively covered Jack with his body. The clamorous footfalls grew in volume as Jack shrank back, and the boys anticipated the monster’s arrival, terror paralysing them. The air grew thick, and the blanket suddenly too warm. Apart from the incoming footsteps, there were no other noises in the house. They held their breath. The locked door handle shook violently.
An ear-splitting shriek stopped the monster in its tracks, and the sound of their saviour distracting the monster left the brothers relieved, but still terrified. The monster left. Andrew’s tense muscles loosened as he exhaled a shaky breath. Jack remained still, shame clouding his six years of limited knowledge. Wasn’t he supposed to be a hero? Wasn’t he supposed to defeat the monster? Then why had he cowered away?
A month later, the close calls with the monster became more frequent, and their games more immersive. One day, they came face to face with it, and the game could do nothing to distract them. It had been one of the nights where Andrew was too tired to lead; Jack leapt at the chance to take over. “This time the heroes are going to slay the monster with a magical sword!”
Andrew feebly chuckled, “Where do they get the magical sword from?” His eyes sunk into the hollows of his face, his cheekbones gaunt and prominent. The bruises had spread across his body, like a disease.
“From Merlin, obviously!” Jack replied heartily. He jumped on the bed, the blanket creating ripples, and the bed shook from the impact.
“How do the knights find Merlin?”
Jack thought for a second, then said, “The knights had to cross a big ocean and fight a huge squid that tried to stop them, but they were able to kill it before it sunk their pirate ship.”
“They’re pirates now?” Andrew sat up, ignoring the way his bruises writhed on his skin.
“Only when they’re at sea,” Jack impatiently explained. “They found lots of pirate gold in last week’s game, duh.”
“Of course, how could I forget ...” Andrew was cut off by the slamming of their door. A hulking man burst into their room, while a shrieking woman grabbed his arm, desperately trying to drag him back to the battlefield, and away from the brothers. But it was no use; the towering man wouldn’t budge. He stormed into the room, an empty glass bottle in his hand.
Andrew sprang up, shielding his brother from the monstrous sight. Jack peeked over his brother’s shoulder, his need to face the monster that had been plaguing their nights for so long overpowering his bone-deep terror.
All Jack knew was that he wanted the scary monster to leave, so he could go back to playing the game. Then he saw the face of his father, a face contorted with rage. Jack couldn’t recognise him as the caring figure who would sling him onto his shoulders, and chase him around the garden. Jack trembled, his bottom lip quivering uncontrollably.
This couldn’t be his father, no, no, no, this wasn’t right, Jack thought, the monster was supposed to be a big dragon, or a mean troll, not a man who wore the face of his father. He couldn’t understand any of it.
His mother continued to aggressively tug at the man’s arm, grief and guilt wracking her features, as tears flooded like a torrential thunderstorm. The mother’s threats, screams, and pleading had no effect on the beast. Meanwhile, Andrew glared contemptuously at the monster before him. The monster reciprocated. Andrew was waiting for the strike, for what was another one added to his collection?
In this moment, Jack remembered the game he played with Andrew, the stories of the knights, and found the courage to creep underneath his brother to face the infamous monster. Andrew’s eyes widened, his throat forcing out a guttural “No!”
Their mother tried to yank back the monster one last time, trying to stop the terrifying scenario that was unfolding right before her eyes. Her youngest, beautiful son, about to be marked in the cruellest of ways. Time stood still in this heart-wrenching moment, as the monster’s mouth curved upwards in a sneer. With its eyes narrowed and hand raised, the anticipated blow was milliseconds from occurring.
Jack didn’t understand what was about to happen. He needed a sword, but he didn’t have one. What could he fight the monster with? Then, suddenly, Jack’s cheek stung just like it had when he fell on his knees when learning how to cycle, except it hurt more. The bruise was a bright red spot that didn’t belong on his pristine, unmarked body. It stood out terribly, like the bright red bow on Jack’s white teddy bear.
Jack could feel prickly tears well up, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it, for Andrew swiftly pushed him to the side and confronted the monster. Andrew planted both feet on the ground, his muscles strained, and he shoved the monster backward, again, and again. It swayed on its feet unsteadily, no longer so intimidating.
The boys’ mother stole the opportunity to haul the volatile monster out of the room, and without looking back, shut the door behind her. Andrew leapt to his brother’s side. Jack was curled up on the ground, his palm cupping his blazing cheek. Andrew carried his brother to his bed, laid him gently in the blankets, and told him a tale of the knights, especially of the brave Sir Jack, all the while icing his cheek.
The next night, under the cover of the pitch black sky, the mother herded the boys out of the house, while the monster slept. Andrew had told Jack that it was the last part of the game, to flee the monster’s cave. Down the stairs, through the living room which hid witnessed the signs of the many nights of fighting, and out the door they tiptoed. Into the car they went, their sparsely packed bags in the boot. The unavoidable roar of the engine alerted the monster, as the blinding bedroom lights suddenly came to life.
Speeding away from the house, they escaped. The marks, like the bruises on Andrew’s neck and Jack’s cheek, would heal over time. And so the last stage of their game was complete.