On Kay’s sixth birthday, his parents took him to the Monster Shop to buy him a monster, because they’d promised him one and all the other kids had theirs.
The Monster Shop was just behind the Vampire Guild, and as they walked past it, a vampire came shambling up to them.
“Bleed you,” it offered, “for free.”
“No, thanks,” Kay’s dad said shortly, and tightened his grip on Kay’s hand.
“Just a little blood,” the vampire suggested. Its teeth were long and stained with clots. “It’ll do you good.”
“My husband said we aren’t interested,” Kay’s mother snapped, and tightened her grip on his other hand. “Please leave us alone.”
“Or we’ll call the Stakeholders,” Kay’s dad threatened.
“All right, all right.” Blinking nervously, the vampire stepped back. “I was just trying to help.” Kay looked back at it once. It was looking after them forlornly, and he felt very sorry for it.
“Why didn’t we give it a little blood, mum?” he asked. “It would have made it happy.”
“You should never talk to a vampire,” Kay’s mum replied, staring down at him. “Never, ever, forget that.”
Kay noticed that she hadn’t answered his question at all, but he knew from the tone of her voice that to ask again would mean trouble. And he did so want a monster of his very own.
Then they were outside the Monster Shop and he had other things to think about.
The Monster Shop was surrounded by drifting mists, which glowed one moment red, another green, and the next yellow or purple, so that one never really knew what it looked like. All Kay could see were the drifting letters of the name, which came out and in of the mist in thick, curling letters. He was very proud that he could read it.
“Now, Kay,” his mum told him for at least the seventh time, “remember this. You can look around, but we’re going to decide the monster you’ll get. If we say no, it means no. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Kay said reluctantly. He could hear intriguing noises from inside the Shop, whistles and hoots and strange warbles. “What if I don’t like it?”
“Well, that’s too bad then,” his dad said. “In that case I think you’ll just have to manage without a monster.”
“That’s not fair,” Kay replied. “Everyone else has a monster.”
“Well, you aren’t everyone else, my lad,” his father told him. “You’re you. And we didn’t have monsters, growing up, your mother and I.”
They passed between huge carved pillars which constantly twisted and writhed, and through metal studded doors which swung open at their approach with a flourish of trumpets.
“So cheesy,” Kay’s mum muttered, loud enough for him to hear.
“It’s for the kids,” his dad replied. They entered and Kay’s mouth dropped open.
“Wow,” he said.
Monsters were everywhere. They crawled and hopped and slithered and flew. Tiny ones scuttled and scurried, big heavy ones stomped and slithered, a particularly huge one in a corner didn’t move at all except for breathing holes opening and closing. They were blue and grey and orange and yellow and colours in between. One, which looked like a star with many long twisty legs, came rolling round and round and round like a wheel and nudged up against Kay’s legs.
“Wow,” he repeated, looking down at the monster. It was lavender in colour and had brown eyes at the end of each leg, which looked up into his face solemnly. “Mum, dad, look at this one!”
“I am not for sale,” the monster said. It blinked all its eyes at once. “In fact, this is only the display section. The merchandise is through the far door.”
“You talk?” Kay’s dad asked blankly.
“Yes, of course,” the monster said. Its legs twisted and writhed and rubbed together, and Kay realised that it was using them to make its voice. “I am, actually, one of the staff. An assistant manager, to be precise.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Kay’s mum replied quickly. “We didn’t realise.”
“No, no.” The monster waved a tentacle. “Why should you apologise? There is no human staff here. We’re all monsters.” It bowed on its legs. “And what are your requirements?”
Kay’s mum and dad glanced at each other. “We wanted, uh,” Kay’s dad began with uncharacteristic hesitation, “for our son –“
“Say no more.” The star monster looked Kay over again with its many brown eyes. “We have a department specialising in children’s monsters. If you’ll follow me –“
They followed it through the far door and into another huge room with stairs going up and down and strips of the floor moving sideways. It all looked very confusing and very fun to Kay, who didn’t understand why his parents were acting so nervous. The star monster guided them to a staircase which began moving as soon as they got on it. It rose and fell and twisted round other staircases, and Kay enjoyed every moment.
At last they came out on to another floor. It was so huge that it seemed to go on forever. Kay saw rows and rows of monsters, all sitting behind glass walls, which dwindled into the distance. There were another mum and dad and boy in the distance, walking towards them. Then he blinked and realised that the mum and dad and little boy were his parents and he, and that the room wasn’t quite as big as it looked. It was just that the walls were all made of mirrors.
The star monster looked at Kay again, by the simple expedient of bending a few of its tentacles over backwards as it led the way. “How old is the young gentleman?” it asked. “About six, I presume. Ah, yes, I think you should look at this one.”
The monster it pointed to seemed like a mass of iridescent bubbles which reached almost to the ceiling. It glistened and twitched and swayed gently about, and made faintly musical noises. Kay loathed it on sight.
“Guaranteed completely safe and harmless, and it’s decorative and low-maintenance,” the star monster said.
“Oh, how pretty!” his mum said, clutching her hands together under her chin. “What does it eat?”
“How much is it?” Kay’s dad added quickly, before the start monster could reply.
The star monster poked at a screen on the glass. It turned white and numbers floated across it. The star monster peered at them and mentioned a figure. Kay’s parents both turned as white as the screen, and Kay breathed a sigh of relief.
“I could show you something a little, um, more economical,” the star monster suggested.
“Oh yes,” Kay’s parents said together. “Something much more economical.”
The star monster seemed to be thinking. “All right,” it said. “I believe I have the very thing.” It rolled off purposefully, and they had to walk so fast to keep up that Kay hardly had the time to look at all the strange and fascinating monsters on either side.
“Here we are.” The star monster pointed at a creature which looked something like a translucent purplish slug. It extruded gelatinous eyes and moved them back and forth. “It’s not only harmless and educational, it’s completely impregnable to all damage. You can stab it and burn it, and nothing will happen.” It began listing other things about the monster, but Kay wasn’t listening.
His attention was drawn to the monster in the next enclosure. At first it seemed just as though a heap of old ropes and canvas was lying there, a mess of flap and tangle. But as he came closer part of the flap rose, and a pair of eyes appeared.
They were interesting eyes, large, round and brown, and they looked at him with the same sense of wonder as he was looking at them. One of the flaps rose and fell, and he heard a faint squeaking noise.
“What’s that?” he asked. This was something he had been specifically ordered not to do. But the monster was so interesting that he couldn’t resist. “What’s that in this box?”
“Oh, that?” the star monster barely bothered to look. “That’s nothing much. We aren’t really expecting to sell it. It isn’t really good for anything.”
“So why have you kept it for sale?” Kay’s mother asked, and he realised, again with relief, that something must have gone wrong with the deal for the purple gelid monster. Probably it was the price. With his parents it usually was the price. “If you aren’t expecting to sell it, why keep it at all?”
If it was possible for the star monster to blush, it would have at that moment. Its tentacles drooped in embarrassment. “We don’t know really what to do with it,” it said. “Nobody wants to buy it.”
“Why not?” Kay’s father asked. “Is it dangerous?”
“Not dangerous, no,” the star monster replied. “No, no, not dangerous at all.”
“Where did you get it?”
The star monster’s tentacle eyes glanced at each other. Since they all glanced at each other, the star monster lost its balance and fell over. “Um,” it said, picking itself off the floor, “I’m sure I can find the information for you, if you’re interested, sir. It’s been here ever since I began working in this store, and that’s been a good many years now.”
“And nobody’s tried to buy it in all this time?”
“No,” the star monster admitted. “We just have no idea what good it is for anything. And as you can see, it isn’t pretty. Now if you’ll look here at this other monster –“
“Dad?” Kay said, breaking another command. “I want this one.”
His father hadn’t even heard, fortunately. He was looking at the thing in the case. “How do you feed it?” he asked.
The star monster didn’t look too happy at having its attention drawn back to the tangle of flaps and tentacles. “It draws in nutrients from the air,” it said. “It really doesn’t need any food at all.”
“No food?” Kay’s father scratched his chin, a thoughtful expression in his eyes. “No food bills?”
“It has never had to be fed in all these years.” The star monster sounded surprised. “Do you actually mean you are thinking of buying it?”
“That depends,” Kay’s father said. “How much?”
The star monster blinked several times. “I believe we can give you a special discount, sir.” It touched the screen and scrolled through the figures. “In fact, I believe you are in luck. It’s yours for only...” it poked at the screen and read out a number. “It’s the cheapest item in the entire store.”
There was a brief pause. “Going by your other prices, I’m not surprised,” Kay’s father said. “But we’ll take it.”
“Dad!” Kay said, happily. “It’s just what I wanted.”
“Shush, Kay,” his mother said. “Your father is talking.”
Kay stopped listening to his father talking about warranties and vaccinations and went to look at the monster. It had raised itself a little on its tentacles and was peering at him with its brown eyes. It raised and lowered its flaps, and he heard the faint squeaking noise again.
“I think you’re trying to talk to me, is that it?” Kay asked. “Are you talking to me?”
The monster squeaked a little louder.
“Do you want us to take you away from here?” Kay asked the monster. “Is that what you’re saying?”
The squeaking got louder and he saw the tentacles twitch, as though beseeching.
“Yes, we’re going to buy you and take you away,” Kay said. “You’re going to live with me and be mine!”
The monster crawled a little closer on its tentacles and all its flaps undulated together. The squeaking was very loud by now but nobody except Kay seemed to hear it.
“All right,” Kay told it. “Just wait a minute, can’t you.” He glanced at his parents, who were reading some papers the star monster had given them. The star monster didn’t look very happy.
“I’m sure you’ll get full satisfaction,” it was saying, “but I could show you a lot of monsters which are much better. Full pedigrees, too.”
“Not in our price range,” Kay’s father said. He signed the papers and handed them back to the star monster. “Is that all?”
“Yes. Would you like us to deliver your purchase or will you take it with you? We’ll provide a travelling case, free of charge, of course.”
Kay’s parents both turned to glance at him. “We’ll take it with us,” his mother said.
“A drop of blood,” a voice whined. “Just a drop.”
It was the vampire, of course. Kay’s parents turned in unison to glare at it.
“I thought I told you.” Kay’s father said, “go away.”
“Leave us alone,” his mum added.
“A drop each, that’s all I ask.” The vampire cringed as it spoke. “It will do you good – gives immunity. Just a drop, please. I won’t even charge you for it.”
Kay, who had begged and pleaded to be able to carry the monster’s travelling case, was so filled with happiness that he felt sorrier than ever for the vampire. “You can have my blood if you like,” he offered.
“Kay!” his mother said, shocked. “You are not to talk to that creature!”
“But mum –“
“No buts, young man!” His mother dragged him by the hand, her feet going click-click on the pavement. “One more word and we’ll take that monster right back to the shop and get a refund!”
“As for you,” Kay’s father told the vampire, “one more word from you, just one, and I’m calling the Stakeholders. See if I don’t.”
Kay had no idea what that meant, but from the vampire’s expression thought it was probably as bad as the prospect of losing his monster. The poor creature was shrinking back into the shadows, a frightened expression on its face.
“Dratted things,” Kay’s father muttered. “I heard there are people who want to give them human status. I ask you, what is the world coming to?”
“It’s the devil,” Kay’s mum said. “Vampire-lovers are afflicted by the devil.” She shook Kay by the shoulder. “And never you forget it.”
Kay didn’t say anything.
Later that evening, Kay lay in bed listening to his parents argue in the next room.
Strictly speaking, he shouldn’t have been able to listen to them argue. They didn’t shout and yell at each other or break things. But when they fought, they did so in forced whispers which carried clearly through the chinks in a bedroom door and into a boy’s ears as he lay cuddling his monster.
“We can’t afford it,” his father was saying. “Not after we bought that...thing...for the boy.”
“It was the cheapest in there.” His mother sounded exasperated. “You’d have had to pay a lot more for any of the others. And it is his birthday.”
“I should never have let you talk me into buying it,” his father grumbled. “And now you want me to spend more? No way.”
“What do you want with the money you’re saving, anyway?” his mum snapped. “It’s not as though you’re using it for anything that I can see.”
“Never you mind. It’s my money, I can do with it as I want.”
“No, it is not your money. You have a responsibility to your wife and son, and if you think –“
Kay tried to shut his ears and turned to hug the monster, which caressed his face and arms with its tentacles. It was warm and dry, not at all gelid like the purple slug thing, and its touch was reassuring and comforting. And it was speaking to him. He listened to its squeaking.”
“That’s nice,” he whispered when it had finished talking. “And you actually came from there?”
The monster squeaked a little more.
“I suppose,” Kay said, “that you hate them all, for keeping you in a case like that.”
The monster squeaked back, sounding surprised.
“Well, I’m glad you were waiting for someone like me,” Kay said. “I’m sure we’ll be very happy together, for ever and ever and...”
He was interrupted by a snarl from the next room. “Very well, then,” his father snapped. “Tomorrow that damned monster goes back to the shop for a refund. All right?”
“And what about Kay?”
“What about him? You’re the one who wants the money! And for what? A vacation.”
“All right,” Kay’s mother replied, also not bothering to lower her voice. “So it goes back. If that’s how low you want to get, fine with me!”
Kay turned to the monster. “They’re planning to send you back!” he said, shocked. “They’re planning to split us apart!” He began to cry. “I’m not going to let them take you away!”
The monster squeaked and rustled.
“But what can I do?” Kay asked. “They’re big and grown up. They can do anything they want.”
The monster reached out a tentacle and touched him gently between the eyes. It squeaked.
A little later, Kay began to smile.
The Vampire Guild’s door was huge and old, and coloured like dried blood. The doorvampire, who had been engrossed in a copy of Guts’N’Gory, looked up.
“Who are you?” it asked. “And what do you want?”
The little vampire smiled nervously. It had fresh blood on its lips and its transformation wasn’t yet complete. The tentacles and flaps still bulged beneath the shoulders of its pyjama top. “I want to come in,” it said. “I want to join the Guild, that’s what I want to do.”
The doorvampire leaned back and stared at it. “And what do your parents say about that? Got their permission?”
“My who?” said the little vampire, and the tentacles shook as if in silent laughter.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014