My cheeks felt warm buried in the crook of my elbow. The rest of me sprawled across my desk. Even in the clatter of the classroom, I felt more comfortable than I could ever be in my bed. A vibrant voice and a tap to my shoulder dragged me from my drowsiness.
“Hi.” A hand waved in front of my face. “I’m Chrissy! I just moved here.”
I kept my head right where it was. “Mm.”
“Oh, you bite your nails? I used to, too. Let me know if you want some tips to stop.”
I quickly closed my fist, feeling the fleshy tips of my fingers against my palm.
Until then, this girl’s desk had been empty, and the corner of our classroom was all mine. I got careless. I usually hid my nails from everyone. They were just too off-putting. Bit to the crescent of their beds, they were jagged and scabbed.
A moment of silence passed, and I thought she would finally give up like everyone else.
“Mercedes is a pretty name.” Chrissy offered.
I peeked up at her through the nest of my black hair. Her smile was so carefree it made my stomach hurt. She was very pretty, even with braces and a round face. Her soft brown waves felt like an insult to a mess like me. For the first time in what felt like forever, my face flushed as I felt the desire to correct her.
“Call me Mercy. The way you pronounce it sounds like the car. I’m not a car.”
Chrissy chuckled lightly and nodded.
From that day on, Chrissy bothered me every day. It was the world’s greatest mystery why this new, pretty girl would ever speak to me. She wanted to know my favorite TV shows and books, and what my parents did for a living, and where I lived. She even asked about my day. I finally asked her if she was a cop and all she did was give me a honeyed chuckle.
Even though I’ve lived in the same town forever, I might as well have been a stranger. The reason for this stares at me in the mirror every day. I look like I’ve never slept through a night in my life. Purple and puffy bags sag from my eyes while the sunken skin of my face threatens to slip from my cheekbones. My usually deep brown skin had paled in the last six months, and it’s getting hard to recognize myself. People think I look scary, and I get it.
I had always been picked on, anything about me was fair game. My ragged home, or my looks, and after the last few months, my tendency to sleep through my classes gave people something new to make fun of me for.
Today, my teachers called my mom to the school and asked if everything was alright at home. My grades are plummeting and now I can’t stay awake for long during the day. They asked me what could possibly be keeping a seventh grader up through the night. I hate how they label me like I’m a kid. I’m thirteen, not a child.
It’s kinda ironic though, seeing that a monster under my bed was the thing keeping me up. How was I supposed to tell them that? Not even my mother cares, so why would they?
Mom works nights at the ER. After the meeting, she seems more upset that she had to come to school while she was supposed to be sleeping. She repeats the same thing she’s told me for half a year.
“You cook up all these fantasies in your head, and look! Now those delusions are poisoning everything else! I told you if you can’t fall asleep pray to la Virgen.” She sighs and looks at her feet. “Mija, I can’t help but think, whatever demons are haunting you must be after you for a reason.”
I learned a long time ago to look like I’m thinking and nod during my mother’s rants about sins and God.
“You’re right, Mamá. I’ll see you at home.”
She walks off mumbling some prayers or curses, I don’t know which, she’s never bothered to teach me any Spanish. Once I watch her drive away, I promptly return to class and doze off.
Chrissy’s voice wakes me up later that day, but it isn’t bubbly like usual. It’s acidic and mean as she spit some clever insults at some kids who tease her for sitting next to me. I pretend to sleep while she defends herself.
“I can’t choose where to sit.” She says it with indifference.
It figures. A girl like Chrissy is trying to make the best of her situation, that’s all.
I pretend to wake up then, and everyone pretends they weren’t just buzzing around.
After class ends, Chrissy turns to me, “Do you want to hang out after school?” A gentle smile teases her lips.
I’ve never wanted a friend, and I certainly don’t want Chrissy.
“No. Stop asking.”
Chrissy purses her lips and starts to push all her cuticles back. She does this every time I reject her. She pushes and picks at them every time before she raises her hand in class too.
I had already noticed that Chrissy has long, beautiful nails. They’re so long that even the white tips show. While I watch her, an idea washes over me at once. I truly hate myself for it.
I think about it all the walk home, how to lure Chrissy to my house and into my bed, and if I could even go through with it. But I have to. I was getting desperate.
After school, I usually stay at the park down the street to read and do homework. Chrissy floods my thoughts all evening. I usually stay out of my house for as long as I can, but I always get home by dark. Whenever Jason gets home, that means it’s time for bed. Jason is my father, but really, he’s more my mother’s boyfriend. He comes and goes for months or years on end, leaving the smell of oil and cigarettes in his wake. I don’t know if he knows he’s my father or even if my mom knows for sure. He’s been here for the last few months but thankfully gets home so late I barely see him. If Chrissy and I weren’t loud, he would never know she was over.
I get home at eight. I open the door to my bedroom and my jaw drops. Apparently, my mom went home after the school meeting and found as many crucifixes as she could find and hung them all over my walls. I already have a tiny room, barely big enough for a twin bed and desk. My room feels smaller under the gaze of each Christ. I wonder if the crucifixes are to drive the evil away or to cage my own.
I collapse on my creaky bed under all His stares, and I try my hardest to sleep like I have every night before. I used to read a lot of raunchy romance novels to try to fall asleep, but my mom found out what I had been renting from the library, so that ended. Instead of reading, I fall into my own mind now. When my eyes close my imagination ignites and I’m anywhere else but here.
For hours, I have trysts with famous actors, sexy monsters, or characters in past books. My fantasies melt away when it starts. The darkness of my room grows thick and heavy. It’s like I can feel it forcing me deeper into the bed. It gets colder. There’s a presence that makes me feel so naked and vulnerable.
A low hiss calls to me from under my bed. The floorboards begin to creak under shifting weight. I take a deep breath. The stench of smoke and iron burns in my nose. I try not to scream. Screaming and thrashing only upsets it. It’ll take more then.
I dangle my hand off the side of the bed like bait, and wait. The heat of its breath kisses my skin. Its chapped and cracked lips drag across the tips of my fingers. It takes its time. My finger slide in its mouth, giving attention to each one. It stops sucking when my fingers feel like they’re on fire. It peels the skin off the sides of my nails, chews the scabs, and licks at the blood like an appetizer. After a little while, it finally reaches the bed of my nail. Its sharp teeth nibble, bite, and saw away at the nubs of my nails. The sound of my nails crunching against its teeth echoes off the walls of my room. Does Jesus see this too, Mamá?
It moves from hand to hand, and when it gets bored, it moves to my toes.
I shimmy my body closer to the foot of the bed. After months of this, I prepare myself like I’m some kind of demented feast. My hands lifelessly hang off both sides of the bed, and my feet cross, waiting for their turn. I bet I look like the sacrifices that litter my walls. Does that make me holy? I’d feel better about that if I was at least skinny ripped like Him.
Removing my nails from their beds was excruciating, and its presence suffocates me. I only stopped wetting the bed a couple months ago. I’ve gone numb now. After so many nights of this, I understand how quickly, how easily, someone can resent their own body, their own senses. Every night I close in on myself, locking my soul somewhere deep inside me where the monster can’t touch. Once I do that, it’s like all of this is happening to someone else, some stranger, and not me. When the monster has its fill, it slithers back under my bed. I usually remain lifeless for however long it takes to return to myself.
It’s haunted me in my dreams for years. It was always getting closer to catching me until it sat right in front of me one night, eating away. It was about six months ago when it grew from my mind into reality. I’ve only seen its face once.
It’s animal and human and monster all at once. Its eyes are big like a fish with pupils that roam the whites of its eyes with no direction. Its teeth feel human, but its face is wrinkly and the skin sags off its face. When it saw me looking, its eyes trained on me and stole the breath from my lungs and the joy from my heart. That’s all I care to remember, and that one glimpse was enough to earn a different type of pain, one of fists, and claws, and more teeth.
The monster finally scuttles back under my bed. I bring my hands to my chest and feel the sticky wetness on each tip. My nails could never be like Chrissy’s. I don’t have much left to give. My nails stopped growing back on my smallest fingers and the rest grow so painfully slow. Sometimes I substitute my nails for extra blood, or clumps of hair from my shower drain, but nothing satisfies it more than my fingers and toes.
Whenever my mom is gone, I dig through the trash in our shared bathroom. I rummage through tissues and discarded pads for nail clippings. My mom made sure to warn me against the evils of tampons and the importance of my virtue when I first bled a couple months ago. Honestly, being a woman has been a bummer so far.
In my free time, I can be found dumpster diving behind the local nail salon for any clippings I can find. It was pretty awkward when one of the ladies found me and started yelling at me in Vietnamese one day. I didn’t know what she was saying but I could guess. It was probably the same things I told myself. I’m not stupid, I can see how disgusting my rummaging is. I remember hurling some choice rude words at that lady and booking it for home.
The monster’s visits have been more frequent because of the skimpy meals the bits of my nails offer. If I offer Chrissy, that might drive it away for a little bit which gives me more time to scavenge and more time for my own nails to grow. The stash I currently have is running dangerously low, and I don’t want to find out what else the monster likes to eat. I need to get her here as soon as possible.
Chrissy always surprises me. After the whole day of being nice and as bubbly as I could possibly be, she agreed to hang out.
So, this was it. I had finally acted normal enough to get a friend to sleep over. Now that she’s standing in my room, I don’t know if I can go through with it though.
I have to. I have no other option. My nails are nothing more than stubs, much more flesh than nail. I have no more to give, and what would happen then?
We dress for bed while talking about whatever meaningless seventh grade drama, and even exchange some genuine laughs. I tried to resist her, but I can’t help the feeling that Chrissy is growing on me. She’s funny, wickedly clever, and hasn’t uttered a single condescending word about me or my home. We pile into my skinny bed with our butts touching, not exactly comfortable, but necessary.
Chrissy yawns and I can hear the heart pendant she keeps around her neck sliding back and forth on its chain as she paws at it. She reminds me of the stray cat that cries at our backdoor every night.
“I’m feeling pretty tired. I don’t think I can stay up and talk anymore, sorry, Mercy.”
I hope she’s a heavy sleeper, but I know it doesn’t matter much. Only an hour ago I plied Chrissy with pan dulce and manzanilla tea. I even slipped in my mother’s melatonin capsules. It was the only thing I could do for her.
“That’s alright. Goodnight.” I whisper to the shadows of my room.
I keep my fingers tight to my chest and feel my heart bumping against my ribs. It felt like I was waiting forever, but then I finally heard it. The low hiss from under the bed heralds the creaking of the floorboards. It would be coming out now.
Chrissy’s hands hang off the side of bed with such little room for the both of us. I feel Chrissy’s body tense against the mattress. She’s whimpering and trembling. I can hear the wet sounds of it licking and sucking at her flesh. The sound of muted crunching feels like it’s tapping me on my shoulder. It sends chills down my arms. Every one of Chrissy’s shallow breaths cut me. I know exactly what it would be doing now.
The monster would grab her wrist to stop her shaking and bite every one of her nails until they were so short it couldn’t bite off anymore. Chrissy won’t be able to run, or yell, or cry. Fear will lull her just enough to not make a commotion. She’ll feel everything but feel outside her body at the same time.
I can feel the bed shaking under Chrissy’s trembling. The wet sounds of it eating away at her pulse through me. Tears finally slip from my eyes and puddle at my pillow. I screw my eyes shut and take in a sharp breath.
I flip over in a flash and hug Chrissy from behind. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I whisper over and over again against her shoulder. Her shirt sticks to my cheek as my tears soak through it. “Just don’t look. It’ll be over soon.”
“M…Mercy…” Chrissy whispers between whimpers and groans, begging me for any kind of help.
I can’t take it anymore. I reach under my pillow for the tiny drawstring bag. I drop the bag of fingernails over the edge of my side of the bed, and everything stops.
My last stash of nails is enough to draw the monster back under the bed.
Chrissy’s breathing slows as she regains control of her own body. I sit up. I can’t look at her, so I keep my back turned. In my mind, I hurl every bad thought and curse word I know against myself. It’s a buzzing that I can’t stop. You’re the monster. I deserve this curse.
I snap back to reality.
“Look at me.” How can I? I’d tried to stain something so beautiful, so how can I face her?
“You make me go through that and you can’t even say anything?” Chrissy roughly grabs my shoulder and turns me around to meet her eyes.
Chrissy looks at me, her brows furrow and lips start to tremble. We sit like that for a second until she nods and pulls me to her chest. All the fear, regret, and despair I’ve carried feels a little lighter against Chrissy’s warmth.
“Is it…like this every night?” Chrissy whispers against my hair.
I nod and continue to weep, making horrible hiccupping and shuttering sounds.
She whispers, “I’ll fix this.”
I sit up to meet her face, but she keeps one hand on my back and one around my elbow like I might float away if she doesn’t hold on.
“I used to have a monster too.”
“Shh, I can’t tell you, or it might not work.”
“No, I can’t ask you for help! Look at what I did! Why would you help me?”
“Because we do what we have to.” She smiles and whispers, “I understand.”
She tells me she needs my help though. Jason hasn’t left for work yet so I sneek around the house and gather every incense, candle, and bible I can find. I bring them back to my room. She thanks me and tells me I have to leave. She’ll meet me at the park down the street in ten minutes once she finishes the ritual.
I had never seen her so serious. Her mysteriousness unsettled me, but anytime I would ask a question she would silence me with a smile, and I’d calm down again. Something deep inside me knows I can trust her. I have faith that anything she could do would be better than how I’m living now.
I sit on one of the swings and rock back and forth until I hear the crunching of wood chips under foot. I turn around and Chrissy is behind me, sliding the red and gold heart on her necklace back and forth.
“It’s done. It worked!”
She starts to push me on the swing, drawing me back and pushing me forward. She tells me a story about her own monster, how she had to move to get away from it, and that she’s so tired of hiding. Eventually our conversation becomes lighter again and she even makes me laugh. A siren interrupts us. We turned our heads to watch the firetruck fly down the street. Its winding lights draw me in, and it tells me to follow.
“We should head back.” I tell her.
We walk back to my house. I feel so drawn into Chrissy’s voice that I don’t notice the smoke. The smell of smoldering ash and flame tickle my nose. We round the corner and see my house engulfed in flames. Flames lick at the siding of my home. Smoke pours from the windows. I break out into a sprint and run for home.
A firefighter stops me before I can get to the lawn. I yell that I live there, and he gives me a pitying look and tells me to wait for my mom on the curb. They called, and she was already on her way. We watch the firefighters battle the flames along with a small crowd of my neighbors.
“Mercedes!” I hear my mother’s voice and look through the crowd. “Mercedes!” She pushes through the crowd of people and finally finds us, and breathlessly says, “Jason! He was inside, where is he?!”
My head whips around to ask Chrissy, but no words pass my lips when I look at her. She rubs the heart pendant of her necklace between her thumb and forefinger. Studying my face, she looks into my eyes and her gaze drifts to my hair. She flashes the kindest smile I’ve ever seen and tucks my hair behind my ear.
Jade Josie is from Cleveland, Ohio and is an undergraduate student at Ohio State University. Jade aspires to be an author but loves all things related to literature and prose.