Sharma Shields' short story collection,

Favorite Monster: Stories, won the 2011 Autumn House Fiction Prize and is a current finalist for the Late Night Library's Debut-litzer Award. Stories from the collection have appeared in various literary journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, and Fugue. Her recently completed novel, The Humanoids, is a family drama involving Sasquatch, a unicorn, and the three Fates, and is newly represented by Sobel Weber Associates, Inc.

Sharma lives in Spokane, Washington, with her husband and their two young children.

The Handsome Guest

posted Sep 17, 2013

Eli Roebuck lived with his parents, Greg and Agnes, in a tiny cabin near Stateline. Greg put up a little rock border right where the line ran so that Eli could stand with one foot in Idaho and one foot in Washington and sense through the soles of his boots the difference between the two.

Washington sap smelled sweeter. The soil was softer and less rocky. Idaho earth baked and hardened and stank like eggs. Or so Eli imagined. In reality, the environment was seamless, dry white pine forest littered with decomposing needles and loose rock, and above, a hawk wheeling in the beryl sky. In the winter, snow fell and transformed the uneven terrain into a smooth white plain. Then it melted and the world returned to him as it had always been: faded brown and faded green, jagged and inviting.

Other children hated living here. They wanted to be in Lilac City or Seattle or even Boise, where there were large toy stores and more cars than animals in the streets. Eli liked it here. He liked his house, he liked the forest, and he liked his parents. He was a happy kid.

Eli's mother was not so happy. She was a slight young woman with a steely brow and a low, serious voice. She rarely smiled. Eli had once heard his father say to her, "I don't know what makes you happy, Agnes. I wish I knew. I wish you'd tell me." Eli wished she'd tell him, too, but she ignored most of what Eli's dad said.

Like Eli, she was happiest when outdoors. She disappeared for long walks in the forest, following the faint deer paths to areas where Eli was forbidden. If Eli ran after her and took up her hand, hoping to accompany her, she shook him gently away. She wanted to be alone, she said, to collect her thoughts. Eli pictured her kneeling on the forest floor, gathering her thoughts glowing amber orbs jealously to her breast. He was too in love with her to argue. He would give her anything she wanted, even her freedom. She left Eli alone for greater and greater periods of time, sometimes not coming home until just before dinner.

At those times, Eli paced the front yard, scared, weeping. He watched the forest until she limped into view. She always returned, tired but radiant, apologetic and affectionate. Noting the hour, she would take up Eli's hand and hurry inside to make supper. They worked side-by-side, singing songs and chatting amiably until Eli's dad called to them from the foyer. Then her mood darkened, an occurrence as unsurprising as the sunset.

Eli wondered: what did she do in the forest? What was it about the forest that cheered her so?

He awoke one morning and his mother washed his face and ears and combed his hair and put him in his Sunday best. She forbade him to go outside because, she explained, she wanted him to meet someone very dear to her. Eli's father had left for work hours ago, when it was still cool and dark. Already the day's heat was pushing into the house.

"Who is it?" Eli said. "Is it a friend of Dad's?"

Agnes leaned over her hand mirror, pinching her cheekbones. "It's a stranger, darling. You'll see. He's very interesting. The most interesting person I've ever met. You'll like him."

Eli helped Agnes with the broom and the dustpan, careful not to dirty his clothes. Something savory baked in the oven. The house grew hotter yet and groaned.

Finally the visitor arrived. Agnes raced to the door and then stood very still, her hands on the belly of her apron, taking a deep breath as though to calm herself. She swept the door open.

There stood her guest, "the most interesting man."

Eli tried not to stare. He did not see a man at all. What he saw was an enormous, powerful ape crushed into a filthy pinstripe suit. He remembered a book from school about exotic beasts, the giant apes who lived in "the savage countries of the world," and the guest resembled those creatures: deep hooded brow, small shining eyes, mouth like a long black gash. And the hair! The guest was so hairy that Eli was unsure of the color of his skin: beneath the thick brown fur, his flesh tough and charred, like strips of dried deer meat appeared to glow red in some places, purple in others.

Eli gaped. He was horrified and delighted.

Remembering his manners, he stepped to the side and said, politely, "Please, sir, come in."

The guest's tiny eyes raked over Eli. He nodded distractedly and lumbered into the room, swinging his enormous powerful arms. Well, Eli thought, he walks like a man, even if he doesn't exactly look like one. Then Eli noticed the guest's wide, shoeless feet, two hairy sleds that moved noiselessly over the old wooden floorboards as though through a soft snow.

"Would you like some tea?" his mother asked as they moved into the living room. "It's scalding hot, just the way you like it."

The guest spoke. The noise startled Eli, a short sentence of senseless bleats and hoots. Eli grinned up at his mom. To his surprise, Agnes only nodded, as if she understood. She handed over the teacup and the guest handled it clumsily before dropping it, with a roar of annoyance, onto the floor. Eli hurried to clean up the mess, himself. He didn't even wince when a piece of glass stuck him in the index finger. His mom offered her guest the teapot, instead, and the guest drank greedily from its spout. Eli watched in sick fascination.

"What's your name?" Eli asked, gazing up at the hairy beast as he gulped and slobbered.

"Eli," his mother said. "It's rude to stare. This is Mr. Krantz. He's a dear friend. What do you think of the house, Mr. Krantz?"

Mr. Krantz was about to toss the empty teapot on the floor but Eli always a quick boy reached up on tiptoe to take it from him.

"Here, Mr. Krantz," he said kindly. "Let me help you."

Mr. Krantz released the pot almost gently. He patted Eli on the head and the impact made Eli's teeth clatter.

"I'm happy you've met my son," Eli's mom said to Mr. Krantz. "I can tell Eli likes you. He admires strong men."

Eli was surprised by the comment. He'd never stated such a thing aloud, but it was true, there was much to admire about Mr. Krantz. For one: his enormity. He was easily the largest person Eli had ever seen, seven feet tall, maybe, and three or four times weightier than his own dad. Secondly: his hairiness. He was as fuzzy and sleek as a grizzly bear. Lastly: his unpredictability.

Eli found unpredictability the most alluring trait of all. Now, for instance, Mr. Krantz was fondling a houseplant. If Eli so much as sneezed in a houseplant's direction, his mother balked, but she watched Mr. Krantz patiently as he broke a leaf and then held it up to his nose, sniffing it.

Mr. Krantz held the ruined leaf out toward Eli, as though offering a gift.

Eli pretended to find it fascinating. "Hydrangea," he said slowly, touching the leaf's edge. He smiled at Mr. Krantz encouragingly.

Mr. Krantz put the leaf in his mouth.

"Poor thing!" Eli's mom exclaimed. "You're famished! I made biscuits. The ones I've brought you before, Mr. Krantz. Drenched in butter."

She hurried to the kitchen, humming. Eli smiled. Here was another reason to like Mr. Krantz. He clearly made his mother very happy.

Mr. Krantz abandoned the plant and moved to the piano, where he rested one of his long bowed hands on the keys and then leapt in surprise at the tinny noise they issued. Startled, then curious, he leaned over the keyboard and poked at it softly with one rough yellow talon. Plonk. Plonk. Plonk. Realization drained over his face slowly. He bared his teeth in delight and hopped up and down for a moment, looking over at Eli as though for encouragement (which the boy gave by means of a friendly nod), and then he began to bang away at the keyboard enthusiastically, hooting in time with the music. Eli jumped up and down, too, clapping his hands. What a funny sort of man was Mr. Krantz! So funny, in fact, that as he waggled and spun to the music, the button of his ill-fitting pants burst open. Underneath, he wore nothing at all. No under-drawers! For one awkward moment, Eli glimpsed the lopsided bulging serpent of Mr. Krantz's penis. That, too, was impressive. It dwarfed even his father's member, which Eli had always before assumed, with a sort of horrified reverence, was The Longest Penis in the World. Well, apparently not! Mr. Krantz put Eli's dad to shame in that category, too, and in the category of "having fun."

This was something he had heard his mother say a funny thing coming from her, as she, herself, was always so stern and serious "Oh, your father," she'd said to Eli. "He doesn't know how to have fun."

Eli had nodded along with her. A stick in the mud. Right you are. Sure.

Privately, Eli disagreed. It was true: his father was a hardworking man, holding down three jobs at a time. He worked on the weekends for the telephone companies, stringing up telephone wires. He worked as a ranch hand, too, down at old Toad Anderson's farm. And after long days of hammering barbed wire and repairing irrigation ditches, he walked to town most nights to bartend at a stink-water called the Tin Hut. His plan was to own the bar outright one day, and so he worked and scrimped and saved.

"One day it will be a fancy place," he told his son. "Exclusive. You'll have to wear silk pants to get in there, I tell you what."

But when Greg wasn't working, he was home. And those times, to Eli, were the best times. Despite his mom's accusations, Eli loved his dad. They played cards together, rummy and blackjack and King's Corner (which remained Eli's favorite, despite his dad's insistence that it was a child's game), and they went on walks, his dad pointing out wildlife and good trees for climbing. Sometimes he came home with a tractor from the ranch or a lawnmower, and he would let Eli drive or push them. If he came home with a horse, he would let Eli ride until he could hardly walk. When Dad was home, Mom was absent. She was on one of her epic strolls, or she remained in the kitchen, baking or cooking soups. "Come play," Eli would beg, and she would always decline the invitation.

One day his father brought home a new phonograph and Eli watched in amused disbelief as his parents threaded their limbs together and waltzed haphazardly across the living room floor, bumping into the table and chairs and sofa, laughing and singing. But that was a year or more ago. There had been no contact between his parents since, aside from the sad side comments they made about one another to Eli. Things like, He's no fun and She wants fancy things. You're wrong, Eli wanted to say, but didn't. He's fun! She doesn't care for fancy things at all! Eli wished they would say nice things about one another. He wished, right now, that they would speak to one another with the same easy tone his mother used with Mr. Krantz.

Mr. Krantz had noticed his burst fly and fumbled with the button hopelessly. He gave Eli an embarrassed shrug. Eli put up one finger and then went racing into his parents' bedroom. He plucked from the bureau the longest belt he could find and returned to Mr. Krantz, triumphantly presenting his gift.

Mr. Krantz smiled at Eli with his long ape mouth. He held the belt to his chest for a moment and then wrapped it tautly about his waist. He had to force a new hole through the leather to fasten it, but it worked well enough, and Eli felt proud of himself. He was an excellent host. Mr. Krantz spun in a circle for Eli and grinned. Eli applauded.

It was funny to see his dad's slick, oiled belt encircling the filthy fabric of Mr. Krantz's suit. It looked as though Mr. Krantz had rolled in the mud on his way to their house. Where, Eli wondered, did Mr. Krantz buy his clothes? He looked silly in clothes. Mr. Krantz kept plucking at the sleeves and elbows and legs as if he was extremely uncomfortable. And those feet! Wide and flat, Eli's gaze kept falling to them. He wished he could touch them. They would be hot against his fingers, furry and powerful and new.

Eli's mom returned then to the living room, holding the good silver tray parallel to the points of her breasts. On it rested a pile of lovely golden biscuits. Eli's mouth watered. In their hurry to prepare for Mr. Krantz, they had forgotten about Eli's breakfast. He went to grab a biscuit but his mother shifted the tray away from him.

"These are for Mr. Krantz," she said sharply.

"I only want one," Eli insisted, and then flushed, embarrassed by his own rudeness.

Mr. Krantz stopped his piano playing and his funny little dance and approached the tray. He drooled unselfconsciously onto his dirty lapel.

"These are for Mr. Krantz," she said again, firmly. She placed the tray down on the coffee table with an inviting smile at her guest, taking an athletic step backward, perhaps expecting what Mr. Krantz would do next.

He lunged, lupine, batting the tray's steaming baked goods with those monstrous yellow and purple hands of his, scattering many of the biscuits onto the floor but managing to shovel several of them into his mouth at once. How he ate! They must have been very hot, Eli guessed, listening remorsefully to Mr. Krantz's loud, staccato whimpering, but how tasty they must have been, too, for he also gave a long, happy moan, licking his lips with a long, menacing tongue. Eli watched a little sadly as Mr. Krantz devoured every morsel; the giant guest even crouched doglike on the floor and lapped up the fallen soldiers. Eli looked up at Agnes, sure that she would greatly disapprove of Mr. Krantz's barbaric behavior, but she only gazed at her guest affectionately, as one might gaze at a favorite pet, or, Eli realized, with a sudden maturity that had so far always eluded him, as one might gaze at an adored lover. This was not the look of a woman disgusted. No, she was transported, elevated. She was maniacally content.

"I have piano lesson in an hour," Eli said loudly. Agnes waved him aside. By then his dad would be home, she said, and he could walk Eli to his lesson.

Eli frowned. "But you always take me."

His voice was so whiny. The voice of a much smaller boy. He hated himself for it, and then he hated his mom for it, and then, very briefly, he hated Mr. Krantz.

But Mr. Krantz was back on his feet now, swiping at the fur on his chest and arms, releasing small crumbs so that they drifted snowlike onto the oriental carpet. Eli waited for him to drop back down into a crouch and lick up every last tiny remnant, but Mr. Krantz withheld himself, staring longingly at the crumbs but seeming to remember that he was a guest, or maybe simply feeling, however briefly, that his immense hunger had been satisfied. He looked up at Eli's face, his expression apologetic now. He gestured at the empty tray and frowned.

"It's okay, Mr. Krantz," Eli lied. "I'm not hungry, anyway."

Mr. Krantz ruffled Eli's hair and then lifted his gaze to the face of the woman watching him. Eli's mom had grown very still, standing before Mr. Krantz like a newly blossomed flower, her face open and shining. Seeing her, Mr. Krantz's eyes gleamed with a new hunger. Crazily so. Eli, uncomfortable, reached for his mother's skirt and tugged.

She remembered him then and dropped to his side. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed his face.

"Oh, my baby," she said to him. "Oh, how I'll miss you."

"Miss me?" Eli said. He frowned. "Piano lesson is only an hour. I'll be home for stew."

His mother blinked at him, heavily, as if she were fighting sleep, and then she drew him fast into her breast. She smelled of Palmolive and cake batter. Eli would never forget the warmth of her smell.

"I do love you," she told Eli then, fondly. "You must never doubt it, sweetheart."

Eli wavered, confused. She went to the door and plucked up a small rectangular suitcase. Eli had not noticed it sitting there before, but it must have been there the entire morning.

"Mr. Krantz," she said bravely, straightening and extending her hand. "I'm ready."

Mr. Krantz bounded forward and swallowed up her hand with his own. They went out the door together, the one lean and pale and barely breathing, the other hairy and dark and panting like a dog in heat. Like Mr. Krantz, Eli's mom was barefoot. Their feet pressed into the cool mud of the yard, winding toward the forest. Large prints, small prints; monstrous feet, dainty feet; heaviness, freedom.

His mother did not turn toward him again, but Mr. Krantz turned as he reached the small line of stones cleaving Washington State from Idaho. The guest sorrowed for him, Eli could see. It was Mr. Krantz's attempt at an apology.

It wasn't enough. Eli began to panic.

"Come back," Eli called after them. "You can't leave!"

Mr. Krantz put an enormous hand on the small of Agnes's back. Eli saw her lower her head. She was determined. They hastened into the woods together, extinguished by the trees.

Mr. Krantz, Eli realized, was a man, but also an animal. Like an animal, he took what he wanted, regardless of who suffered for it. He was just the same as a bear or a cougar or a monster.

But then who was Eli's mother? Who did she want to be? Woman? Mom? Animal? Wife? Maybe just nothing, Eli thought, and he wished he could make her nothing, too.

He considered following them. The sun slanted down and baked the footprints into place. Eli thought of his dad. He backed into the house, shutting the door. The room smelled warmly of biscuits and of simmering stew. Eli sat on the sofa and carefully folded his hands in his lap. He furrowed his tiny brow.

He would wait for his dad. He would go to his piano lesson.

Most importantly, he would think up a better story than the one he had just witnessed. After all, his dad was a practical man. He would not believe a word of it.