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[This is a short story in response to a friend’s challenge. Not my usual style but it poured out in one go, so…]

Barb & the Beast

The roar started as a vague grumble, seeping under tables and chairs before creeping higher in a sound cloud of threatening menace and pain.

“Treasurer’s Report.” Among the cluster of committee members’ video chat windows, Tim’s little image on the screen before me glowed around the edges as his flat, tinny voice stopped for a bit of self-important throat clearing. It wasn’t my computer’s speakers; he sounded that way in person too. “As you recall from our last minutes…”

I flicked a finger, turning off my camera and muting my microphone. The grumble escalated, as I knew it would, into a rumbling roar, coalescing into a monster made of thorns, held together and half-hidden within a pulsing cloud. The hazy cloud was only a pale blue so far, so I knew there was still time. Grimly I pulled my battered armor around me. It protected me, at least for a while. But in addition to her power and fury, Beast had the tide’s inexorable ebb and flow. She would, over time, find a way to seep through my armor and find my weakest, most exposed vulnerabilities.

Still time, I told myself. If I let Beast get to her full strength, if I allowed her to feed, she’d crush me, claws and jaws ripping at the unprotected belly I tried to shield.

“…fundraising, grants, and other viable sources,” Tim’s voice was an electronic drone, wavering in and out.

There still had to be time.

Without looking at Beast directly — if I made eye contact, I really would be lost — I took the blanket from the back of my chair and hurled it over her. Hidden from my eyes, Beast subsided, slowly sinking beneath the comfort of my mother’s old quilt. I heard her rumbling, gathering strength. But I still had a precious few moments to throw the cage over her, shutting Beast inside. Like my armor, the much-patched cage had seen better days. But it would do the job. For now.

“…of all our accounts.” Tim waited for Sally to acknowledge his report, clearing his throat again.

“Thank you, Tim. Is there any other new business?” Sally never seemed to get the hang of where to position her camera. Today, she must have been sitting in front of her window, because her pleasant face was completely shadowed. “No? Then we all know what we need to work on.” From somewhere behind Sally, I heard a familiar rumbling. She raised her voice. “Are you all free to meet same time next month? Thank you. And…”

I cut her off as I closed the conferencing app. Beast was really getting too big for me to control. Sure, everyone was left with at least one Beast after the first wave of the pandemic, each different, recognizable not by their similarities but by their similar presence. I’ve never really gone for that kind of pet. It was more my husband’s thing, but he had worked for years to tame his old Beast, and amazingly seemed to have him under control.

That didn’t impress my daughter, who said she got Beast from me, so she was giving her back. I didn’t like it, but I dutifully shoved the little monster into its battered cage and pretty much forgot about it. Okay, that’s a lie. Every now and then I’d find myself poking Beast when nobody was looking. And despite my best resolutions, I fed her. Beast grew larger, and more creative. The smallest weakness in her cage would send her surging out, each time bigger and stronger — and so very much louder — than ever before.

We were all finally emerging from our pandemic isolation, our empty calendars filling with terrifying speed. After the past few years, we each had our own Beasts. But most of the people around me seemed to have them under perfect control. I think I even saw Tim and his wife stroll past my house one evening, holding the leashes of perfectly behaved Beasts who were actually wearing sparkly little bows.

I never knew when my own Beast would pounce on me, her roar muting all other sounds. Sometimes I could lure or trick or — if all else failed — force her back into the cage. More often at night, her pulsing, raucous weight flattened me, claws and teeth looking for new flesh to rip.

My screen lit up with the notification of an incoming video call. When Jennie appeared in her little square, she was sipping what looked like an unusually large glass of wine. “Tough day in the trenches?” I asked.

She raised her glass. “I thought it would all be better once I got back in the classroom. Kindergarten is no place for online teaching. But…” She paused to take sip. Then a few more. “These kids are showing up with tiny little Beasts. I try to get them to leave them in their cubbies, but they just keep poking each other’s Beast.” She shuddered, and refilled her glass.

I glanced at my own Beast, safely caged for the moment, and let myself whine. “If my parents ever had a Beast, I never saw or heard it.” The noises from the cage got louder, and I raised my voice. “So I have no idea what to do with this one.”

Jennie, a champion listener, just nodded. “They say every Beast has a reason for being there.”

“How could something so horrible be necessary?” I stared at her. “Beast is trying to suffocate me. What’s the reason for that?”

“Well, remember what happened to your garden four months ago? When all those rose hedges you planted went wild during the pandemic and blocked you into your house?”

“Of course I remember.” I shifted uncomfortably. “I couldn’t go out, and had to get all my supplies delivered through that little window in the bathroom.”

“You said you didn’t want anyone to know what happened to your garden.”

Back then it seemed like the end of the world. “I was supposed to be the big garden expert in our neighborhood. I even wrote a book about it.” I took a deep breath, but my voice still came out wobbly. “Then my own roses, my pride and joy, staged a revolt and held me prisoner.”

Jennie grinned. “And you’d probably still be ordering everything based on whether it was small enough to fit through that window if it wasn’t for…”

“Beast.” I remembered that day. Jennie was wrong. It wasn’t funny. It was the first time Beast had really gotten loose, tearing through the thorns and shredding the imprisoning hedges. Later, I couldn’t even understand what I was looking at. My beautiful garden was a scene of devastating destruction. All the work I’d done for decades was ruined. Beast had still been rampaging through the garden, her cloud turning from pale gray to pulsing red. She tore apart the remaining branches, impervious to their thorns.

“So you’re saying Beast did me a favor by destroying my garden?”

Jennie’s smile drooped. “Think about it. Beast didn’t destroy your garden. It was the garden that turned on itself and trapped you inside. Beast just freed you from that.”

“If that was Beast’s reason for being here, then why is she still attacking me every chance she gets?”

“What do you do when she attacks?”

I moaned. “Get the hell ripped out of me, throw something over her that calms her down, then shut her back into her cage.” I thought about it. “But then I go out and do… stuff.”

“Stuff? What are you, twelve?” Jennie snickered. “What kind of stuff?”

“You know, normal stuff. Things I did before the pandemic. I do some volunteering, work on some local projects, even plan some trips. I can’t have the same garden as before, but I’ve been thinking about planting some vegetables. Only the ones I like though.”

Jennie just nodded. “Have you told anyone else about your garden?”

“No, no, no…” I was actually backing away. “What will people think when I say my garden is destroyed? I can’t go there.”

“Remember last year? With Sally?” Jennie was just a tiny flat square on my video chat, but she packed a roomful of Pay-Attention-This-Is-Important into her tone.

“Um… You mean the lockdown?”

“No, and you know it.” Somehow her pointing finger seemed to come through the screen to skewer me. “What did you say when Sally told you her boss who never liked her was going to blame their team’s poor performance on her? That he was claiming she offered him sex in exchange for keeping her job? There were a lot of people who thought all that smoke must hide some kind of fire.”

Now it was my turn to shrug. “I told her straight off I didn’t believe a word of it and nobody who knew her would buy it either.”

“Damn straight. You know what that means?”

I groaned. “Homework?”

“Yup. When you’re ready, you’re going to tell a few people about your garden. And I’m going to make a bet with you. If their first and immediate reaction is to offer to help you clean up and plant a different garden, then I own all the I-told-you-so bragging rights for at least the next ten years. If that’s not how they react, then I’ll come straight over and babysit Beast for the next month.”

Jennie was right, but the next week was still scary. Beast roared and growled as I told the first friend. She was a bit quieter when I told the second one. I only shared with a few others, but by the end of the week, Beast was sitting beside me for each confession.

It’s been a few months since then. Sometimes Beast still puffs up red and furious. But she’s been getting smaller, quieter. We take walks on nice evenings, but I never try to put a sparkly bow on her. She watches when I work on the vegetable garden, but she stays alert. Ready.

At nights now, she just sits back under the quilt, sleeping mostly. Her job isn’t over. And we both know why.

More Beasts are coming.