At night, the monsters come.
Niko lies awake and watches them circle, long spider legs black-on-black, fangs somehow gleaming without a hint of light. He pulls Daria closer, buries his face in her wispy blonde hair and breathes in, breathes out. They keep their distance while he holds her, but when he closes his eyes, he can hear their whispers.
Keep her now, friend. Some day soon, you’ll beg us to take her.
* * *
In the daylight, the monsters keep to the dark places. Niko could almost forget them some days, could almost convince himself they’ve gone, if not for the flickering shadow at the edge of vision, the brief brush of chitin against the back of his neck.
On the first day of autumn, Niko wakes bleary-eyed, showers and dresses and brings Daria her breakfast of toast and tea and a shot glass full of pills. He finds her sitting up in bed, phone in hand, a half-smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. He sets the breakfast tray down on her nightstand.
Daria shakes her head.
“My sister. She sent me a link to an article about ginseng tea. Some guy in California is claiming it can totally detoxify your system if you don’t eat anything else for a week.”
Niko’s head tilts slightly, and folds his arms across his chest.
“Uh-huh. And that cures…”
“Pretty much everything, apparently. Funny none of my doctors have mentioned this, right?”
“Yeah,” Niko says. “Funny. Want me to pick up some ginseng on the way home this afternoon?”
Daria laughs, places the first two pills in her mouth, and washes them down.
* * *
Niko starts awake, eyes wide and frantic. He’d been dreaming of the monsters, their long legs enfolding her, their velvet-soft claws caressing her face. He looks up. Projections for fourth quarter sales are plotted in bright red and yellow bars on the screen at the front of the conference room. Niko licks his lips and swallows. His throat is raw. There are a dozen other people crowded around the long, glass-topped table. They’ve all turned to stare at him.
“Sorry,” he says. “I must have…”
The man standing at the screen raises a hand to stop him.
“It’s okay, Niko. Go home.”
Niko shakes his head. The others are looking away now, back at the screen, or down at their hands on the tabletop.
“I’m fine,” he says. “Please…”
“No,” the man says. “You’re not functioning, Niko. Go home. We’ll still be here when you’re ready to come back.”
* * *
“I’ve been thinking,” Daria says that night. She gives the steamed broccoli and brown rice on her plate a half-hearted poke, closes her eyes and breathes deep.
“What?” Niko asks, but his heart is pounding, and he already knows what she’s going to say.
“What if…” She opens her eyes. A single tear rolls down along the side of her nose, but her voice is steady. “What if we just… stop?”
He stares at her. She stares back, unblinking.
“Stop?” Niko asks finally, stupidly.
“Yeah,” Daria says. “Stop. Stop the pills. Stop the doctors. Just… stop.”
In the dark space behind her, the monsters gather.
* * *
That night, Niko holds Daria as the monsters circle.
Stop, they whisper. Stop, Niko. She just wants to stop. She wants everything to stop.
Niko squeezes his eyes shut and pulls her closer.
She doesn’t want you anymore, Niko. She wants us now.
Niko breathes in, breathes out. And then, for the first time, he whispers back.
Please. Please. I can’t…
He opens his eyes. The monsters are close now, closer than they’ve ever dared come before.
I can’t let her go, Niko whispers. Take me instead. Leave her. Take me.
The monsters pause in their circling.
He closes his eyes as the soft tip of a claw brushes his cheek, lingers there for a moment, then slowly traces the line of his jaw.
Niko. You think we get to choose?
The touch withdraws. When he opens his eyes again, the monsters are gone.
* * *
The next morning, Niko brings Daria her breakfast. Toast and tea.
* * *
For a while, Daria is better. Her hair thickens. She eats more, and mostly keeps it down. She takes up walking—short distances at first, but then longer stretches alone in the woods. Niko comes home in the evening to find her flushed and happy, curled on the couch with a book and a blanket and a steaming cup of ginseng tea. A month passes, then two.
For a while, Niko forgets about the monsters.
For a while, he forgets to hold on to her.
* * *
On Christmas morning, Niko wakes alone. Soft moaning pulls him out of bed, draws him into the bathroom. Daria’s there, curled on the floor, one hand on her belly, one hand on her head. Niko gathers her up, lifts her, carries her back to the bed. He can feel her heart fluttering against his chest.
Please, she whispers. Niko, please.
He runs to the kitchen, tears into the cabinet where they keep the pills, paws through the bottles until he finds the one he needs. The label says one for pain, and no more than four per day. Niko shakes two pills into his palm, hesitates, then shakes out a third. He takes them back to the bedroom, helps Daria swallow them, holds her until she sleeps.
* * *
Niko’s eyes snap open in the coal-black dark. Daria stirs against him, moans, presses at his arm where it rests across her chest.
He can’t see the monsters, but he feels their hot breath on his cheek.
Niko. You can’t hold her forever.
Daria moans again, tries to roll away from him.
Niko, please. Let go.
Daria gasps and shudders.
It’s not the monsters whispering now.
Her hand grips his arm.
The monsters stand silent.
He breathes in.
Niko closes his eyes.
He lets her go.
© 2017 Edward Ashton