When I think of the word “monster” I think of my daughter.
It was an involuntary reflex, an automatic thought as my academic husband would have called it, the association between “daughter” and “monster” carved into the recesses of my brain, my neurons easily connecting the two concepts together.
I know it is not the correct way to feel about one’s own child, and for many years I punished myself for it. Over and over I admonished myself for feeling the way I did. It was abhorrent, going against every natural human instinct to love and care for one’s flesh and blood.
For a mother it was especially unforgivable.
To be fair, to this day, I am convinced my daughter is a monster.
I knew from the moment I held her in my arms, the way her pale blue eyes absorbed all the light in the room, reflecting nothing back, like a demon. I felt no surge of love when they gave her to me wrapped in pale pink fabric, after hours of exhausting labor. The only thing I felt when her skin touched mine was pure disgust, the nausea causing my eyes to water.
My husband Erick mistook the tears in my eyes to be from joy.
“She is beautiful isn’t she?” He had smiled so brightly then, as he took my child from me and held her in his arms, like he had just been given the most precious gift. “Arla. I want to name her Arla.”
“I’m… not feeling well.” I had managed to choke out. Even then I knew, I knew what I was feeling was abnormal… deplorable. Erick would not have forgiven me. It was not a forgivable thing.
“Of course, of course, honey.” Erick barely took his eyes off her. He was charmed already, my husband, the first of many that my daughter would have under her spell. Everybody it seemed, except for me.
Arla was sixteen when the deaths started.
There were dead animals before that, of course, pets mysteriously disappearing or getting ill. I could never prove it, there were always perfectly reasonable explanations, with Arla’s beaming innocent face dispelling any suspicions. It was also possible, of course, that I was simply insane, and that I had spent the last sixteen years harboring a sick delusion about my daughter, like the deplorable broken human being that I am.
Trust me, that thought never strayed far from the back of my mind, a whisper of doubt in every interaction, every innocent comment, every seemingly innocuous event that could have a thousand meanings and repercussions.
Arla was never overtly malicious to me, but here and there, she would do something so unexpectedly hurtful, and she would look fascinated, absolutely riveted, at her power to wound me. It was like she was surprised at her own strength, at her ability to affect other people. I often got this feeling around Arla, that everyone in the world existed only to entertain her.
Nobody else seemed to share these feelings about my daughter, of course.
That was okay, I was rather adept at pretending now. I’ve had sixteen years of practice, after all. Two… maybe three more years and Arla would flee the nest and I would be able to finally breathe again. Two years. That was hardly any time at all.
I was perfectly ready to continue our farce of a happy family for another few years, burying all my dysfunctional feelings under practiced smiles and nice suburban rituals, but then that one cursed afternoon, while doing some half-hearted house cleaning... I found the lock box under Arla’s bed.
After that I could no longer keep pretending.
I stared at the contents of the box in front of me in quiet trepidation. Even then, even then, my brain looked for other explanations, for more innocent reasons, for what Arla had been keeping under her bed.
I stiffened. A chill ran down my spine. I shook it off as I turned my head to look at my daughter.
Arla stood by the kitchen counter with her dark copper hair in a messy bun, wearing a wrinkled t-shirt and shorts way too short for a sixteen year old. She was beautiful, people always said, ever since she was little. She was not merely pretty, no, that word denoted a level of wholesome innocence, soft symmetrical features that was pleasant to look at. No, Arla had that rare kind of bewitching beauty that stopped people in their tracks, to the point that it was unsettling.
At this moment, she looked like she had just woken up, the hint of sleep still in her eyes, and somehow that made her look more ethereal.
“Hey darling.” I said, my mouth dry.
Arla shot me an amused look. Her pale blue eyes glinted beneath impossibly long lashes, first resting on my face, then landing on the open box on the dining table in front of me. She remained silent.
“Arla… I found this under your bed.” I said lamely.
She looked back at me and the glance between us made the air in the room feel thin.
I swallowed. Not for the first time I wondered how completely abnormal it was, the way my daughter made me feel, as if I was as small as an ant, an insect she was thinking of crushing under her heel.
There was just something about her eyes. It was blue, so blue. A pale, unnatural color. Vampiric.
Suddenly, she shrugged, and the weird aura dissipated. "And?”
I turned back to the contents of the box. There were at least ten of them. Different colors and textures. Locks of hair each bundled together with a thin piece of pink ribbon. One particular lock of hair looked like it came from a friend of Arla's from middle school. The one with the thick dark curls. The one who went missing five summers ago.
I picked up another lock that was shorter than the rest. A flaxen bundle with a hint of gray. Like Erick's.
“Where did these come from, Arla?” I asked, tears stinging the back of my eyes. Was it possible? Despite everything I was still hoping I have simply gone insane, that maybe my mind just broke sixteen years ago, a sort of postpartum psychosis that never went away, that maybe, maybe my daughter was simply my daughter, an ordinary girl with an unfortunate mother. I tried, I really tried, to be loving to her throughout the years, even though I… was afraid of her.
Arla sighed and pulled a chair to sit down across from me. She suddenly looked older than her sixteen years. She held my gaze.
“I know you think I’m evil, mother.”
“Stop.” Arla held her hand up, interrupting my protestations. “I know, mother.”
I closed my eyes, and I realized I was crying, two trails of tears had made their way down my cheeks. Inexplicably, I was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of relief. I knew then that it was finally out there, in the ether, something close to the truth, the invisible walls between us finally broken. I could let them out now, these feelings I have been so ashamed of.
“I didn’t kill them.” Arla said, her voice gentle and even, as if she was talking to a child. “I know that’s hard for you to believe. You’ve always been the only person to see it, you know, the darkness in me, nobody else could.”
I took a breath.
“Look at me, mother.” Arla commanded with quiet urgency. “Really look.”
I opened my eyes and gasped, a scream caught in my throat.
Sitting in front of me was not my beautiful daughter, instead, it was a deep gray humanoid apparition, with black voids for eyes, wings like those of a vulture, and large angled horns… like a demon’s.
“Don’t be afraid.” The creature said. “I know how it looks, but I’m not evil, mother. I simply… am.” It motioned to the locks of hair in the box. “It was their time. I loved them, all of them, that’s why I kept these. But it was their time. Do you understand?”
“It will be your time too, mother, someday.” The apparition was gradually becoming hazy, morphing back into the familiar form of my daughter. The copper hair, the pale blue eyes, the unnaturally straight teeth. Suddenly I was looking at Arla again, and she was smiling. “But not yet, you see? But when the day comes, I want to be there, to guide you. Most people don’t see the real me, they only see this.” She motioned to herself, the perfection of it, the beauty and youth. “I’m sorry I can’t be as comforting for you... But you brought me into this world, so of course you could see what I really am.”
“And what’s that?” I managed to ask.
“Death.” Arla said simply. A sadness crossed her face. “Every so often, I take human form. I find it necessary, to continue to appreciate the lives that I take. Also... to love. Though I know I could never love the way humans do... Not really.” She held my gaze. "I envy you."
A breath of air felt stuck in my chest. “Arla…”
“It’s okay, mother.” She smiled, then reached across the table to touch my hand. I had to fight the urge to recoil. “You will never love me, I know. But believe it or not, I love you, in the way I know how, I really do, and that’s enough, okay?”
I released the breath that I was holding. Part of my brain wondered if I was actually having this conversation. Or if my delusion has reached its pinnacle. But one look at my daughter, the unsettling beautiful face, the feeling of her cold hand on mine, and I knew, I knew in my heart that it was true.
My daughter, the monster.
“It’s okay, mother.” The monster said again. A small nod, as if giving permission.
A weight I didn't know I had on my chest lifted. Somehow I was no longer afraid. Instead, I was... grateful.
I lifted my gaze to catch my daughter's eyes and gave her a half-hearted smile.
"Thank you, Arla." In one swift motion I swung the knife I was holding across the monster's slender neck, an explosion of red blurring the edges of my vision, and finally.... finally, for the first time in sixteen years, I could breathe.