Mr. Chew isn’t real.
He’s a monster from an old nursery rhyme; a myth passed from the big kids to the little ones.
Mr. Chew all dressed in black
His jaw unhinges with a crack
An older girl at the playground scared me with the rhyme when I was younger, so bad I’d cried. The other kids laughed.
My brother Jason is eight now, so I passed the rhyme down to him like any good big sister would. Maybe I wanted to give him a scare, too. But I’m the one who’s scared.
Mr. Chew wears a too-small black suit, with cuffs that stop mid-forearm and leave his spindly hands dangling. Liver spots dot every patch of pale, exposed skin on his oversized bald head, long neck, and bare feet. But it’s his eyes that betray he’s a monster–bulbous, white orbs with blood-red irises pitted by black pupils and no eyelids that I can see. He doesn’t blink, only stares.
Watches you with blood-filled eyes
Grabs with fingers sharp as knives
I sang Jason the rhyme a week ago, and I’ve seen Mr. Chew every day since. He comes closer each day. At first, he was just a hulking figure standing at the end of the block. Today he’s posted on the sidewalk in front of our house. I walk past him to wait for the bus and feel a rush of hot air, smell a hint of rotting fruit.
“You’re not real,” I say, still watching him.
“Who?” asks the skinny, shaggy-haired boy just ahead of me on the sidewalk, waiting with the others for the middle school bus. He’s a year younger than me and new, or else he wouldn’t be talking to me.
“Him.” I point at Mr. Chew.
“There’s no one there.” The boy cocks his head to the side.
Heat climbs up my neck. “I know.”
Late at night, the man will creep
Eats the bad ones while they sleep
“Crazy Cammie.” Drew, the coolest of the cool girls, sing-songs my nickname and bumps me from behind, earning giggles from her friends. She eyes my threadbare grey t-shirt and stained, ill-fitting jeans. “Crazy Crusty Cammie.” She pushes me, knocking me into the boy.
“Watch it,” he says, grasping my arm.
At the press of his fingers on my skin, my pulse swells to fill my ears like a crashing wave, and I shove him to the ground.
His face reddens as he scrambles back to his feet. He won’t look at me.
I should apologize, but my teeth are clenched too tight, my throat closed off against an anger I can’t let escape.
Drew snickers and my fists itch to find her face, but I jam my hands in my pockets instead. Remember what the counselor said. I control my temper; it doesn’t control me.
The bus pulls up, and I’m the first to climb the steps, slumping into a seat at the very back. As we pull away from the curb, I watch Mr. Chew.
There is no chance to run away
Mr. Chew will make you pay
His eyes swivel in their sockets and the black pupils settle on me, bore into me.
See you soon, his eyes seem to say.
I get off the bus after school and stand frozen on the sidewalk.
Mr. Chew has moved again.
He waits on the front porch, his bare toes poking over the edge. My heart thumps hard enough to crack my chest wide, but I force myself to walk up the stairs. I’ll get the belt if I try to climb in through a window. Closer to him than I’ve ever been, I see that the black pupils at the center of the red irises aren’t pupils at all, but holes that want to suck you in. As I ease past him, his sweet stench wafts by and those black pits follow me. He doesn’t move, doesn’t even seem to breathe.
The worn porch boards creak, alerting Mama Theresa to my presence, and the door swings open. I rush inside and close the door behind me, though I know very well that doors can’t keep monsters out.
A lipstick-stained cigarette clasped between her lips, she dumps baby Trev into my arms.
His full diaper smooshes against me, sending a whiff of crap to sting my nose. “He needs changed,” I say.
She removes the cigarette from her mouth and swipes it past my bare arm, laughing when I flinch.
I should know better than to think she’d burn me where someone might see.
She heads back toward the living room, her ass swishing back and forth beneath purple velvet sweats.
Trev gives a whiny cry, and I smooth back his fine hair. “Shh, shh. It’s okay.” He’s only been here a month, hasn’t learned yet not to cry.
Propping the baby on one hip, I enter the kitchen. The linoleum floor is almost as cracked as the front walk, a definite tripping hazard. And still, the foster care people think this is a good place for kids.
Jason stands on a wooden milk crate at the sink, doing dishes. He’s just tall enough, even with the boost. I haven’t gotten used to this yet, seeing him every day. After our parents died in the accident, he was taken in by a real nice foster family. He almost made it out. But they sent him back. Four years he was with them, and they returned him.
He won’t tell me why.
I place a peck on his cheek.
“Ewww.” Having recently learned about girl cooties, he rubs at his face with one hand, leaving a trail of soap suds.
I lean back against the counter. “How was school?”
“Stupid,” he says, avoiding my gaze.
“Did something happen? You can tell me. Maybe I can help.”
“I can take care of myself.” He scrubs at the frying pan with a Brillo pad, and I notice the scrapes marring his knuckles.
He’s turning out just like me. “Fighting isn’t the answer. You know that.”
I sigh. “I’ll dry after I get Trev cleaned up.” I bump Jason’s shoulder with my arm, my chest tight with the knowledge that I’m the reason he’s here. Sitting next to me in the backseat, he just wouldn’t stop bawling. So, I had grabbed his arm and twisted, like the kids at school did to me. A snakebite, they called it. Dad had only looked away from the road for a few seconds. By the time mom screamed, it was too late.
Maybe that’s why Mr. Chew is coming for me.
I make my way down the hall and into the room the three of us kids share, furnished with a mattress and playpen. Trev wiggles in my arms and his face scrunches, a sure sign he’s about to let loose.
“Shh, shh.” I close the door to drown out his cries, so Mama doesn’t hear.
Grabbing a towel from the laundry basket, I place it on the mattress and plop Trev down.
I tug down his shorts and the sight of the sickly yellow and purple bruises marring his chubby, little thighs turns my stomach. I try to take the brunt of Mama’s anger, but it’s not enough. She hurts the boys, and I can’t stop her.
Maybe dying won’t be so bad. A little pain and then nothing but relief.
Mr. Chew can’t be real, but he’s here, standing at the foot of the bed. Jason snores beside me, his tattered blanket wrapped around him, and Trev is passed out in his playpen.
A tremor starts in my bones, works its way outward until I’m shaking so hard I might shatter. I want to burrow under my own blanket, but there’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to run from the things I’ve done to deserve this.
At least I can protect the boys from him.
I force myself to creep across the room and step into the hallway. The house is dark, except for the sliver of light from the television that spills out in strobe-like flashes from beneath Mama’s bedroom door. The voices from one of her idiot reality shows screech through the wall.
Mr. Chew follows, walks a slow circle around me. The smell of him clings to me, decay with a hint of syrupy sweetness.
My legs are too wobbly, too weak, to try and run.
“It was just a snakebite, no one was supposed to die,” I say, before fear steals my voice. I should beg to be spared, say that I’m only a kid. I’m trying to be better. But maybe I’m really bad deep down inside, and maybe a little piece of me wants to die.
He stops and faces me, gnashing his teeth.
His jaw snaps open with a crack and I flinch. Too many teeth, too sharp to be human, line the gaping hole that has become the lower half of his face.
I press my hand to my mouth, swallow back a scream. No, no, no. I don’t want to die. Not like this.
“Mr. Chew,” Jason says.
I gasp and look over my shoulder to see him peeking from our bedroom doorway. “Go back to bed. Now. And close the door.”
“It’s okay, Cammie. I called him.”
“What are you talking about?” I ask in a harsh whisper.
Mr. Chew inclines his head toward Jason, then turns to Mama Theresa’s door, reaching one clawed hand out to grip the doorknob.
Jason creeps up next to me and takes my hand. He’s riveted, eyes gleaming with excitement. “He’s going to help us hurt them all.”
Rasping breaths seize my lungs. I watch as Mr. Chew twists the knob and Mama T’s door swings open with a creak. Flickering light bathes the Mr. Chew, bleaching his already pale skin, and he steps into the room. Jason tugs me forward until we can see inside, where Mama T lies naked, sprawled atop her blankets with an empty bottle of whiskey beside her. Drunken snores saw from her throat.
Mr. Chew slams the door, cutting off our view, and I sob in relief. I have to drag Jason away, back to our room, but even there, even with the blaring of her television, I can’t block out Mama’s screams.
Mr. Chew is real. Jason called, and he came.
Mama Theresa lies splayed across her bed, her mouth a grimace of pain, even in death. Her body is covered with bites, jagged wounds where the man chewed off softball-sized chunks of her flesh. Blood covers almost every inch of her skin, soaks the sheets, and drips onto the floor in great, red, shining pools. There must be buckets of it. The room stinks like the worst of Trev’s diapers mixed with copper and sweat.
Bile surges up my throat, and I turn away to puke on the floor.
She hurt me, hurt the boys, but she didn’t deserve that. No one deserves that.
I stumble down the hall and into the bedroom to scoop Trev from his playpen. “We’ll go to the neighbors, call the police. Say we found her like that.” I swallow hard, taste the vomit coating my tongue. “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to be okay.”
Jason sits on the edge of his mattress, tying his sneakers. “Don’t worry. No one can hurt us anymore. Or else Mr. Chew will get them.”
“You can’t call him again, Jason. Not ever.”
Jason grabs his backpack from the floor and slings it over his shoulder, like it’s morning and he’s off to school. “Mama Theresa tried to tell me what to do, too.”
My knees buckle, but I catch myself with my free hand, bracing it against the door frame.
Jason runs down the hall, his shoes squelching on the vomit-soaked shag carpet.
I stagger after him with Trev cradled in my arms. My vision jumps and blurs, but I manage to make it through the house and outside. I suck in a deep breath, but that horrid smell of pain and death sticks inside my nose.
Jason skips along the sidewalk, singing.
“Mr. Chew all dressed in black
His jaw unhinges with a crack
Watches you with blood-filled eyes
Grabs with fingers sharp as knives.”
The glow of the full moon does nothing to wipe away the image of that room, of what Mr. Chew, what Jason, did to Mama. I shuffle along, the concrete scraping my bare feet.
Jason continues, his voice cutting through the quiet calm of the night.
“Late at night the man will creep
Eats the bad ones while they sleep
Sing this song, again and again
Say his name, invite him in.”
Jason stops at the neighbor’s walk, looks back at me. “Hurry up, Cammie. We need help.” His lip quivers and he sniffles. “Someone hurt Mama Theresa. Please, help us. There’s so much blood.”
His face changes, shifts as the monster he’s become resurfaces, and he actually giggles.
Directly ahead of Jason on the sidewalk, Mr. Chew appears, the pale skin of his face and hands smeared red.
I lurch to a stop, clutching Trev to my chest. Spiders of panic crawl up my spine and across my scalp. “Go away. Leave us alone!”
The man is inches away from Jason, but my brother doesn’t react, doesn’t even seem to see the man.
“Who’re you talking to, Crazy Cammie?” Jason turns down the neighbor’s walk, humming that horrible rhyme.
Mr. Chew looks at me and raises his long, clawed, index finger to his mouth.
Gnashing his teeth, he watches Jason race up the steps of the front porch. Watches his next victim.
The final verse of the song lilts through my mind.
Careful, careful, what you dare
Not all survive his bloody stare
Tears blur my eyes, scorch my cheeks. “You can’t be real! You’re not real!”
Trev starts to wail as I fall to my knees on the sidewalk.
“I just wanted to scare him a little,” I say, my voice choked by sobs. Mom. Dad. Now Jason.
And it’s all my fault.
Mr. Chew drifts after my baby brother, leaving a trail of rotting fruit wafting in the night air.