The first time it happens is my birthday.
Close my eyes to splash my face, water washin’ away the mud cake dirt crusted at the edges of my lips. It’d been a brilliant day, the heckin’ best in fact! Nothin’ like gaming online with mates n eatin’ yourself silly. Skullin’ enough cheapo fizzy drink to be just on the edge of sickness.
Which is why when I’m hit by this pungent smell comin’ from the drain, I feel a bit of vom tickle at my tonsils. Open my eyes …
to see two big eyes starin’ back at me!
They’re oval n shinin’ with colour like the tiny glitter balls of hundreds n thousands. Oval eyes starin’ at me from inside the plughole. Oval eyes surrounded by green stinkin’ sludge, squelchin’ like putty in our drain.
I feel wave of nausea hit my throat n I hurl.
Chuck up cake n orange soft drink right onto those glowin’ eyeballs. They blink against the splash of the remnants of my half-digested birthday feast. Then I swear I hear a tiny squeal, soft as a sigh, before there’s a slick sorta slither n the smell is gone, replaced by the cloyin’ scent of vomit.
Later, tucked in bed n sweatin’ against my sheets, Dad says it was likely just overeating. I nod n agree coz I sure as hell don’t wanna tell him about those eyes.
I’m known for my overactive imagination, which is why I’m good at runnin’ games for my friends. But the demons n dragons n cool things I dream up in our role-playing games don’t compare to the squelch n smell n rainbow bloody eyes like I saw tonight.
I ain’t never see nothin’ like that before.
‘Maybe we should put some drain cleaner down there,’ Dad suggests, pattin’ my knee n forcin’ a tight smile of his lips.
‘Yeah good idea,’ I say, coz while I hate steppin’ on bugs or swattin’ a fly at the best of times. My fear (my sweaty armpits, my tacky dry mouth, my heart thwackin’ away in my chest) just says: Kill it! Get it gone! Now!
I shiver n belch n this makes both me n Dad chuckle.
‘Sleep kiddo, you’ve had a big day.’
I smile when he calls me ‘kiddo’ coz it’s the word we settled on together that doesn’t flag gender. Started rethinkin’ a lot of gender stuff I was told as a kid when one of my friends realised she was a girl. Started wearin’ stockings n eyeshadow n it made me wonder what gender I really was.
Maybe, I thought, maybe there were more cool gender possibilities out there than I realised.
Smash Cut to me tellin’ Dad, n us decidin’ on ‘kiddo’ as a loving gender-neutral word.
That was a year ago n I gotta say, I still haven’t decided much about the whole gender thing but I’m not super bothered. It’s a nice journey to be on: one where I wear what I want at home n watch nice cartoons like Steven Universe where the characters have heaps less hang ups about gender than lots of us folks these days.
I’m still in high school. I got lots of time to figure this stuff out.
As I close my eyes n think about all the schoolwork I have to do tomorrow (a really bad sleep strategy, would not recommend hey), I keep gettin’ flashes of those damn eyes glistenin’ against the drain hole. Every single time I snap my own eyes awake n gasp like a fish outta water.
Needless to say I don’t sleep much. Can’t stop thinkin’ about that drain monster. Can’t stop thinkin’ about those eyes.
Next day Dad gets in there with the draino, stinkin’ up the bathroom with fumes that smell like the pool at school. I gotta say that’s one of the few things I miss about goin’ to school – diving into somethin’ so gloriously cool after a swelterin’ hot day n basking in the feeling of being loved n held by water.
As Dad hands me the plunger, I hear my phone ping! I glance over to see the message preview n sigh.
Dad raises his eyebrows as I position the suction cup over the sink, try not to look inside coz I’m freaked out about what I might see. Don’t ever ever ever wanna see those eyes again.
‘They at it again?’ asks Dad.
‘Pretty glad you have to do home school right now,’ he says over the groans n rattles of the pipes. ‘Protective isolation sucks but I hate to think of you back at that school with those bullies, not to mention everything else.’
I stop for a minute, feelin’ the tingles in my forearm n a tiny bit of sweat formin’ on the back of my neck.
‘Yeah,’ I say, tryin’ not to look Dad in the eyes. ‘I miss my friends but this is waaaay more safe hey.’
Dad gives me a quick squeeze on the shoulder before leavin’ me to it … n when I’m finally alone in that stinky bathroom I swear I can hear a wail, a churnin’ cry that sounds like sobbing.
It echoes through the bathroom n I stop, listen real hard n then I hear it: a wailing cry in the distance, each one singin’ in a round, just like in music class.
Never heard em callin’ out in the daytime before but there’s always a first time for everything I guess. Maybe they’re as distressed about everything goin’ on as we are. Heck, I hope they ain’t sick now too.
I stretch out my hands for a second, crack my neck back n forth, n then keep hittin’ that plunger.
At dinner we eat some tinned spag bol from our weekly ration box n some of the leftover packet mix cake.
‘Reckon we should freeze the rest?’ asks Dad but I’m not really listenin’ coz I answer his question with another one: ‘Reckon the draino’ll work?’
Dad looks at me with a slight head tilt n shrugs his shoulders. ‘Sure thing, kiddo,’ he says. He gets up from the shaky table n starts puttin’ away the cake into tuppaware.
‘That’s what it does,’ he says, motioning to me with a flick of his head. I hop up n open the freezer for him. As he lifts the container inside I feel the air shift, cold hittin’ my face n bristlin’ my hair.
That night as I’m cleanin’ my teeth I get another bloody text message. This time it’s my mate tellin’ me the school bully is talkin’ shit about me on Facebook. Don’t care. Ain’t nothin’ they could say that hasn’t already been said, that hasn’t already hurt me.
I text my friend to tell them it’s okay, just leave it, better not to ‘stir the pot’ as Dad says. They message me almost immediately with a ton of heart emojis.
I smile to myself, lips quirkin’ up as I swish mouthwash against my gums n teeth n spit into the basin. Friends are good n great n ain’t no bully gonna take that away from me.
As the mouthwash fizzes, there’s a simmerin’ sound from the drain, like garbles n swallowin’.
A shiver melts across my shoulders n down my back.
What the hell is in there?
I grab my phone n strike up the torch app, shine the light downwards n put my eye closer to drain.
‘Hello?’ I whisper. After about ten seconds of nothin’ but the soft russlin’ of the twiggy trees outside, I feel like a real loser. I’m about to turn the light off when I hear it – an echoing moan n wet ca-thunk comin’ from inside the pipes.
My phone clatters to the floor n I yelp, almost slip on the bath mat as I lurch backwards, smackin’ my back against the bathroom door.
An’ I swear, I know this is bloody mad but hear me out: I swear I hear words comin’ from inside that drain. Whispered n fermented words that sound like help me.
The second time it happens, I’m sleepin’.
Snuggled up n having what I think is a really good snooze, when suddenly I’m plunged cold into a nightmare.
Standin’ in the bedroom doorway is a giant shadow. They move n shift n I see they’re made of globules of thick green gunk piled high on top of one another.
The drain monster.
They start slidin’ n floatin’ in watery layers towards me.
My breath catches in my throat like right before you need to cough but it stays there, itchy n breathless. I try to yell, try to call out to Dad for help but just thinkin’ about talkin’ makes my throat scratch more.
An’ all the while this thing is still advancin’ like dark swellin’ midnight waves at the beach, just rollin’ n rollin’ towards me n there’s nothing I can do about it.
I’m gonna drown.
They crash n swell against my mattress, rattlin’ the bedframe. But I can’t close em no matter how hard I try, like my eyelids are propped open with toothpicks.
I’m forced to keep my eyes open – have to look at the monster n only the monster.
An’ that’s when I notice the burns – reddened masses of rust-coloured puss across what I think is their torso. They’ve been hurt.
I take a big gulp of breath n look up into their face. Their oval eyes, the exact same ones I saw in that drain, are larger now but duller, like all the sheen n polish has been wiped off em.
The monster stops moving n watches me watching them.
‘Did we hurt you?’ I manage to choke out, my voice clickin’ n raspin’.
Their eyes shift away – literally rotating to the other side of their head! – as they start the slow journey of oozin’ out of my room.
‘Hey!’ I rasp. ‘Hey!’
As they keep retreatin’ I see more of their raw open wounds in the crisp moonlight.
I wake up pantin’ for air. I lay in my own sweaty pjs, listenin’ to the beat of my heart in my ears.
‘I’m sorry,’ I mouth to myself.
I push back bed sheets n feel my fingernails swollen n stretched. I glance at em n notice under the moon of each nail is blood, red scratches flaked against my palms.
I flex each hand n feel em ache n sting. Can’t believe I scratched myself up with anxiety just coz of a silly nightmare! I’m not a bloody child anymore!
I fling my legs over the side of the bed n feel sticky wetness under my feet.
I hear a half-formed noise n I know it’s coming from my own mouth: a teensy audible whimper as I look down at my bedroom floor.
A hand-sized pool of slick stinking mess sits below, right beneath my toes.
My nightmare was real.
I unstick my foot from the sludge n wiggle my toes, stepping over n onto the carpet, legs trembling. I shuffle slowly down the hall, soft night air makin’ my back shiver n my hair stand up on my neck.
As I get closer to the half-open bathroom door, I see bright ambulance lights shinin’ through the window, bouncin’ on the tiles n reflectin’ off a large rippling form.
I take in a gulp of air.
The ambo wails n the curlews chorus outside.
I push with my toe n the door swings open with a shudder.
We talk for hours.
An’ by talk I mean I talk n they just kind of grunt in a squishy sorta way. Turns out they don’t actually talk n call for help like I thought. Super surprised that’s the only bit my overactive imagination dreamed up hey.
‘What do you do when someone spits toothpaste down there?’ I ask, sittin’ against the cold tiles with my back flat against the wall.
They shimmer n glow in the sink, runnin’ circles around the edge like a slinky ferret stuck in a loop.
‘Haha! You like it?!’ I whisper. In response their eyes squeeze more circular n less oval, as if to smile n say yes.
‘I’m sorry I threw up on you,’ I say with a gulpy intake of breath. ‘I’m sorry we hurt you with the drain cleaner.’
They shiver n I see their coat glisten against the moonlight, wet n full of memories. I realise that their ‘voice’ sounds kinda like the goopy wet noise of toothpaste bein’ squeezed from a tube. An’ sometimes, when the air from the open window wafts the right way, they kinda smell a bit minty too.
We sit in silence for a while n I wonder where they used to live n how come I’ve only just noticed them. Maybe they used to live in someone else’s drain before the big evacuation. Maybe even in a pool drain. Reckon that’d be an ideal place to live if I was made of green sludge.
‘Guess you have nowhere else to go, huh? Reckon this lockdown sucks for all of us, even monsters.’
They curl themselves back into the drain, coiling the last droplet of their form down the pipe with a rain-on-tin-roof kinda ping!
‘I’ll take better care of you this time,’ I whisper to the stinky drain, my forehead almost touchin’ the silver taps. ‘Promise.’
The next night, after Dad has gone to bed, I finally have the guts to text back my bully. I sit on the bathmat on the floor beside you, as you lift up n arch your shimmerin’ form out of the sink.
You watch me as I type, your flickerin’ rainbow eyes thrummin’ light against my phone screen.
‘I know what I’m doing,’ I whisper, almost coz I need to convince myself what I’m sayin’ is true.
I give you a reassurin’ smile n press send. ‘I don’t think they’re as much of a monster as they want me to believe.’
Instead of freakin’ out and constantly lookin’ at it, I switch my phone on silent n put it facedown on the bathroom floor. Spend the next half hour watchin’ you shift n glow green, moonlight dancin’ off your form like that’s exactly what moons were made for.
Rae White is a non-binary transgender writer, educator and zine maker. Their poetry collection Milk Teeth (UQP, 2018) won 2017 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for 2019 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. Rae recently completed a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship for their YA verse manuscript Welcome Home. Rae is the editor of #EnbyLife, a journal for non-binary and gender diverse creatives.