Chapter Two: Swings and Monsters
Est. Reading Time: 14 minutes
As Almondine approached a town she was delighted to find that a playground served as the first welcoming space. There were only a couple of children out playing, likely because while the afternoon was sunny, the wind was unseasonably cold.
Almondine couldn't wait to sit on a swing and push away from the ground, a pendulum flying toward and away from the sky in a rhythmic repetition. She took her backpack off and leaned it against the legs of the swing set. Then she sat on one of the curved black seats, warm from the sun, while the metal links of the chains she hung onto were cold. It was a bit like enjoying hot apple pie a la mode.
She pushed off and began gaining momentum. Flying forward, she kicked her feet up to the sky, enjoying the bright blue background behind her shoes. As she started swinging higher and high she gained the attention of little boy standing at the top of the slide across from her. Almondine smiled to herself and launched into a full loop around the swing set. The boy's mouth dropped open like a fish, and he slid down the slide. He ran over to the swings while Almondine slowed herself down.
"How did you do that?" he asked in a high voice, his hands on top of his head as he danced around in place.
"With a little willpower," she answered, then leaned forward and whispered, "And a little magic."
She smiled and idly swung back and forth using her toes as an anchor in the dirt.
The boy took the swing next to her and began to gently sway as well, though his feet did not quite reach the dirt, leaving him to the fate of physics with no anchor to the ground. His name was Leopold and while he thought about the amazing feat he had just witnessed, he mulled over asking the lady if she might use some magic to let him loop de loop. Leopold had to accept that just the idea of flying around like that himself was terrifying instead of exciting. He imagined he would throw up his grilled cheese and then cry, making life even more difficult than usual.
"You must be very brave to go so high," he said, looking over at Almondine who sat smiling up at the sun, her eyes closed.
Almondine opened her eyes and looked over at the boy. She stopped swinging.
"I suppose that's true. I've never really thought about it before." This was something for Almondine to file away.
"I'm not brave," the little boy muttered to himself and kicked a leg out.
"Are you sure?"
"Well, a lot of things frighten me."
"Lots of things that frighten me too," Almondine said, turning her swing sideways to face the boy, "I'm afraid of unexpected claps of thunder and running out of things to read. I'm also afraid of giraffes but I've never seen one in person, so when I do that could change. But I don't think being brave means never being afraid."
The boy seemed to think this over. Then he said, "I understand about being afraid of things you haven't seen before. That's one of things that keeps me from being brave. I have a monster in my closet."
"A real monster?" Almondine asked.
"Well I think so. My parents say that it's just my imagination, but I can't help but think it's not my fault they can't seem to see it."
"What's your name?"
"Leopold Levine. I'm seven and I like the solar system."
"Hello, Leopold, I'm Almondine, I'm not sure how old I am and I also like the solar system."
"You're not sure how old you are?" asked Leopold, confused over the idea of such a possibility.
"Nope," Almondine said with a grin.
Leopold studied her for a few minutes. She looked older than him but younger than his mother.
"I think you look...nineteen, are you nineteen?"
"I suppose I could be. I'll keep that in mind as a possibility, Leopold, thank you."
"You're welcome," Leopold answered and began to swing for a bit.
"Would you mind if I tried to do something about your monster situation?" Almondine asked.
"No. I mean, can you do anything about it?"
Almondine hopped off her swing and stood up in front of Leopold.
"Let's give it a try," she said, as she collected her backpack and swung it over her shoulders.
Leopold got down from the swing and paused for a moment. He knew he wasn't supposed to go anywhere with strangers, but did bringing a stranger to his own house count? He thought this seemed like something his parents couldn't be too mad about, and for the sake of finding a way to end his monster problem, a problem that no one else his age seemed to still have, he thought it was worth the risk. Perhaps he was a little brave after all.
"I'm often home by myself," Leopold said, sighing a little as he stepped through the front door of his house.
"I am too," Almondine said with no sigh at all. She was happy to find something in common with Leopold and having never known anything different until starting her adventure, she had always thought alone a wonderfully pleasant thing to be.
"My room is up here," Leopold said and led Almondine up a short set of beige carpeted stairs.
Leopold's room was neat despite the clutter that stuck out from the bed and the occasional over-packed shelf. The walls were dark blue and a large mobile of twirling planets was currently stationary in the corner. Almondine let out a small sigh of air and the planets began to turn in silent circles, marking their passage through the universe of a little boy's room.
"The stars on your ceiling are beautiful," she told Leopold, looking up at the painted dots and swirls.
”Thanks, they make me feel better about the night."
"I understand, I sleep under fireflies," Almondine said and then plunked her backpack down on the floor. She stood in front of the only other door in the room besides the one she had just walked through.
Leopold sat on his bed, his legs tucked under him, leaning forward to watch Almondine.
"I don't know if you'll be able to find the monster since it's daytime. I don't think monsters come out in the daytime," Leopold said, half hoping this was true because that meant there were certain hours in every day in which he could be completely safe. But if it wasn't true, and Almondine could find a way to get rid of the monster during the day, then Leopold wouldn’t have to hide a stranger in his bedroom so Almondine could deal with the monster in the night.
"Let's find out," Almondine said.
She opened the door. The closet was deep enough that from the doorway she could not touch the clothes hanging on the back wall. Bins of toys were stacked haphazardly along the left wall, and shoes and bags created a little island in the middle. The corners were dark, and the space below the bottom rack of hanging clothes looked linty and mysterious.
Almondine sat down on the floor. She tried to look as kind and friendly as one possibly could when sitting inside a closet.
"Excuse me, if there is anyone occupying this closet, could you please come out?"
Leopold leaned forward a little further from his perch on the bed, searching for a response.
There was only silence.
"I promise, I'm not going to hurt you, I would simply like to ask you a few questions," said Almondine while Leopold frowned behind her.
There was the slightest shuffling sound and Leopold shot back while Almondine leaned forward.
She saw the tiniest glint of an eye and a tuft of deep black fur behind a pair of brown winter boots.
"It's alright," she said. And then uncertain of what language closet monsters might speak she made the same reassurance in French and Spanish.
The closet monster stepped into the light and Almondine smiled and clutched her hands to her chest.
The creature was the size of cantaloupe, and like a cantaloupe it was round, but unlike a cantaloupe, covered in lots of dark sleek black fur. Small yellow-green eyes were visible in the fur and a rather toothy mouth sat beneath them. Almondine couldn't see any feet, only thin arms that reached all the way down to the ground. Almondine reached out a hand to offer in a handshake but the monster shot back into the dark corner.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you, I was just trying to offer you the polite greeting of my people. You stick out your hand, and the other person does too, and when they clasp hands and move them up and down it's a way of saying it's nice to meet each other."
The monster slid back out into the light and stared at her. Almondine smiled but remained motionless, hoping to keep from scaring it again.
The monster slid closer and very slowly stuck out a long arm that ended in a small paw-like hand. Almondine mimicked the slow speed as she moved her own hand back out and then lightly took the monster's hand-paw. They shook and Almondine imagined this must be what it would feel like to hold a squirrel's paw, except without the claws.
"I'm Almondine, it's nice to meet you," she said as she released their paw-hand.
"I'm E, it's nice to meet you," replied a quiet baritone voice.
"And that's my friend, Leopold, over there, you may have already seen him before," she said as she gestured to the tight ball of wide-eyed child sitting on the bed behind her.
"Hello," E said slowly.
"I think that Leopold and I just wanted a better understanding of who you are and why you are living in his closet. See whether you meant to our not, your nocturnal movements have been a source of...concern for Leopold.
E said nothing for a moment, a repetitive ripple in his fur an indication of his breathing.
"It is difficult being a closet monster," E finally began. "Closets are our natural habitats, we would not thrive well elsewhere in the world, but we still need nourishment like any other living thing. That means that we naturally gravitate to the closet that is most likely to have the most steady source of food. This closet, like most children's closets, has the provided the easiest access to food. There are often half-eaten granola bars in pockets, and cookie bits in the bottom of bags. Children's closets are also the most likely to be bountiful in the Great Season of Candy in the fall and winter. It's often large enough that sampling from the collection goes unnoticed by the one who hid it. Such things are harder to find in other closets."
Almondine nodded along seriously as E explained his needs.
"That makes sense," she said, then turned to Leopold for confirmation that he too understood E's plight. Leopold was still sitting perfectly still, knees in front of his face save for his wide eyes just visible between his hair and kneecaps.
"Perhaps I have an idea that will suit everyone," Almondine said, turning back to E, "What if Leopold promised to leave food for you in a closet downstairs?"
"There's a closet downstairs, yes?" she asked Leopold.
Leopold nodded behind his legs and mumbled something.
"What was that?" Almondine asked.
"There are two closets, a linen closet next to the laundry room and the coat closet by the front door," he said quietly but clearly, raising his face above his knees.
"Two closets, perfect. E, do you have a preference? Leopold could leave food for you each day, someplace inconspicuous so you could find it but no anyone else, like his parents, and then he wouldn't have to be concerned about you moving about his closet."
"I think I would prefer the coat closet, there should be more room than the linen closet and it’s easier for me to blend in amongst coats and shoes, should someone open the door," E answered.
"May I make a request?" he continued, raising a paw as though waiting to be called on.
"Sure," Almondine said.
"I am a great fan of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, may I please have a one every few days? Anything else that you would normally eat is fine in between."
Almondine looked over at Leopold.
"Is that okay?"
"Yeah," he said, letting his legs fall down on the bed, "I really like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches too."
”As do I," Almondine added.
E seemed to nod at this shared interest.
"What if we went downstairs to the kitchen and shared some PB&Js right now?" Almondine asked, standing up.
Neither E nor Leopold said anything and for a moment no one moved. Then E began his rolling crawl toward to the bedroom door and Almondine followed. She glanced back at Leopold and saw that he was climbing of the bed in a slow and careful manner. They all trooped downstairs, Almondine careful to give E room lest she accidentally step on him, and Leopold keeping a few extra steps behind.
In the kitchen Almondine began opening cupboards until she found one with simple white plates. She pulled three down and brought them over to the kitchen island while Leopold brought white bread and raspberry jam out from the refrigerator. He crossed to the open pantry and stood on his tiptoes to reach a jar of peanut butter. He brought it over to the island and pulled two knives out from a drawer.
E waited below one of the stools at the island and Almondine asked if he wanted to sit with them. When he answered in the affirmative she borrowed a thick cookbook from a nearby shelf, set it on top of the stool and then reached down and picked E up around his furry black middle and set him on top of the book.
Leopold froze on the other side of the island, peanut bar jar in hand. Almondine smiled at him as she sat down on the stool next to E and asked Leopold for one of the knives and the bread bag. He slid them across the island to her, and she pulled out three slices. Two for her and one to fold into a half sandwich for E. She and Leopold traded jam and peanut butter back and forth across the island and soon there was only the quiet sound of a girl, a boy, and a closet monster eating peanut butter and jam sandwiches.
Almondine was thinking about how she like the blue tile used in the backsplash behind the oven. E was thinking that he really liked this particular raspberry jam and that he looked forward to enjoying it more often in the coat closet. And Leopold was thinking that it was very strange to be eating with the monster from his closet and wondering if this happened to other people.
"Well, that was delicious, thank you, Leopold," Almondine said after finishing her sandwich.
"Yes, thank you," said E with a bit of a bow.
"You're welcome," Leopold said looking back and forth between the two.
"I really should get going," Almondine said, hopping down from her stool, "E, may I bring you to the coat closet?"
"Yes, thank you," he repeated.
She picked him up and quickly Leopold scurried in front of her to show the way to the closet. He opened the door and stood to the side as Almondine brought E over to survey his new residence.
"This looks quite nice," E said and Almondine set him down just inside in the door.
"I can put the food on a little plate right here," Leopold said pointing to a space between a square umbrella holder and a shoe racks full of shoes that threw a shadow over the small open space.
E seemed to nod and Leopold shrugged at Almondine.
"Excellent," she declared.
"Have a wonderful rest of the day, E, it was very nice meeting you," she said.
"You too," he replied and then disappeared into a shadow in the back of the closet.
Leopold shut the door. Almondine smiled.
"I'm just going to go grab my bag from your room," she said.
Leopold waited downstairs just staring at the closet door, telling himself that the monster had seemed very nice and that he really shouldn't worry about his presence in this, or any closet.
Almondine reappeared, her backpack over her shoulders.
"It was nice to meet you, Leopold, I hope this works out well for you," she said.
"Thanks Almondine. Me too," he said, tucking his hands into his pockets.
He walked Almondine to the door and waved as she walked down the driveway. Now it was just him and E in the house.
Almondine walked down onto the street with a feeling of satisfaction. She hoped she had helped someone, two someones in fact, and had enjoyed a very satisfactory lunch while doing so. With a bounce in her step, she kept walking down the road.