Victoria Constance Alexander is ten years old and feeling very grown up as she sits at the head of the dining room table – Daddy’s seat, but it’s a special occasion – and opens the long, skinny box from Mommy. Bits of shiny pink paper fly everywhere even as Aunt Nessa saves the bow for Vicki’s crown, but Vicki is too busy picking at the flap of tape holding the lid on the box, so very careful not to chip her first manicure. At last, she gets the box open, and squeals in delight.
“There’s plenty of room for more charms,” Mommy says as she helps Vicki put the bracelet on. “But Daddy and I started you off with these because we knew how much you’d like them.”
Vicki looks at her charm bracelet and traces the fairy, the wolf howling at the moon, and the spangled star. “It’s perfect,” she whispers.
This is the best birthday ever.
That night, Aunt Nessa tucks Vicki in. Vicki thinks it’s silly, because she’s in her double digits now and doesn’t need to be treated like a baby. But it’s nice to read a chapter of Charlotte’s Web with Aunt Nessa and make plans for going to the park in the morning. Aunt Nessa does the best voices, and she gives the best forehead kisses—Daddy gives the best butterfly kisses, and no one can beat Mommy’s Eskimo kisses, but Aunt Nessa’s forehead kisses are awesome.
Still, Vicki has Aunt Nessa leave the lamp on across the room before she closes the door. There are unicorns cut out from the lamp shade, and Vicki falls asleep imaging that they’re dancing across the walls, frolicking in the light of the full moon rising just outside her window.
She’s never sure what wakes her, even years later. Maybe it was a cry, or something breaking, or the sound of something sharp and feral tearing through something else soft and damp. All Vicki knows is one minute she’s asleep, and the next she’s staring up at the dark ceiling of her bedroom. Someone’s turned off the lamp, just like always, but her door is closed. Mommy and Daddy do that sometimes when they have company late at night, but still, something doesn’t feel right. If there’s company, why is the house so terribly quiet?
There’s a strange, metal taste to the air, and it’s almost familiar, but Vicki can’t quite place it. Goose bumps shiver up her arms, and Vicki wants nothing more than to crawl into Mommy and Daddy’s bed like she used to. She knows that’s for babies, but she doesn’t care, not right now. She’s just a little girl, and that’s what mommies and daddies and Aunt Nessas are for.
Slowly, she slips out of bed, the charm bracelet jingling softly as she clutches her stuffed beagle to her chest. The hardwood floor is cool under her bare feet, and Vicki’s made it halfway across the room before she hears someone in the hallway. It doesn’t sound like Mommy or Daddy, or even Aunt Nessa; thu-thump, thu-thump the footsteps go, thudding along. Deep, raspy breaths, like there’s some kind of animal out there, and it’s stopped just outside of her door. There are snuffling and whuffling noises, like Mrs. Jones’s Saint Bernard Maxie, when he knows you have a treat in your pocket, and Vicki freezes.
She’s going to scream. Any second now, she’s going to wake up in her bed and screaming for Daddy, and everyone will come rushing in, smiling and soothing and making it all better. Only Vicki can’t get enough air to scream. She can’t move. She can barely breathe.
The monster goes silent, and somehow that’s worse. Nothing could be worse, she’s sure of it right up until the doorknob starts to turn, and Vicki finds enough air to scream.
“Daddy!” She screams and screams and screams, but she doesn’t wake up. There are shouts downstairs, and pounding footsteps, something crashing, and then the door bursts open to reveal a bunch of strangers carrying weapons. “Daddy!”
But Daddy doesn’t come. Instead, Mr. Argent from down the road comes in the room and drops to his knees, grabbing her by the shoulders, shaking her just enough so she can focus, can stop screaming, can actually recognize her neighbor even though he doesn’t belong here.
“Victoria,” he says, and there’s a smear of something dark red on his face, his hands are covered in it too, and now her whole bedroom smells like pennies. “Victoria, do you know who I am?”
She sniffles and wipes her nose on the back of her hand, the bracelet jingling again. “Where’s my daddy?”
Mr. Argent looks so very sad that she doesn’t even struggle when he picks her up and holds her close. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart, but we didn’t get here in time to save him. They’re dead. All of them.”
She understands the words, but they don’t make sense. Not yet. “Daddy? Mommy? Aunt Nessa?”
"I'm sorry," he says again, gravely, and Vicki wails her response into his already-damp chest. She cries about crowns made of bows and trips to the park, Eskimo-butterfly-forehead kisses, and chapters of her favorite books. And she hiccups her terror because she has never been so alone in all her life and she doesn’t know what that means, or if there’s anyone in the world who could ever love her as much as her family.
“It was a monster, wasn’t it?” she asks at last, because she knows what she heard, and only a monster could do something like this.
“Yes. And it got away, but we’ll get it. I promise.” He pauses, and shifts a little. “I have a son your age, you know. His name is Chris.”
Vicki looks up at him, and realizes he’s carrying her down the stairs, through the front room. Everything here is splashed in the same color of red that's smeared all over Mr. Argent, and the pennies smell is covered by something that reminds Vicki of the time she tried to use the toilet when she knew it was clogged. The smell is so strong it sticks to the back of her throat, and she will never, not for a second, forget it for the rest of her life.
“Would you like to meet him, Victoria?” Mr. Argent asks. “If you like, you can come live with us. I’m sure Chris will like you very much.”
And Vicki clings to Mr. Argent as tightly as she shudders in a deep breath once they’re outside. The air here is fresher, but Mr. Argent still smells like pennies. “You’re going to get the monster?”
“Oh yes,” he says. “It’s what we do. I’ll even show you how, if you come stay with us.”
That’s good enough for her. As Mr. Argent’s friends set fire to her house, Vicki nods and wraps her arms around his neck, the bracelet jingling softly. “Will I have to call you Daddy?”
“No, sweetheart. You can call me Gerard.” He kisses the crown of her head, and it’s almost good enough. “Let’s go home.”