Just behind the fairground was a path that was almost impossible to find, unless you knew it was there. It wound and twisted its way through the rabbit warrens and past Warden’s Pond before finally reaching the dark forest, where it narrowed suddenly, as if afraid of what might be inside.
The little girl had almost made it to the very end of the path, stopping to pluck at flowers or to admire the ephemeral butterflies that clung to the trees, when the monster jumped out at her.
The monster reared up to its full considerable height, slime dripping down both of its bulbous noses, and roared at the little girl. It was a good roar, one that scattered birds from their nests and caused leaves to tumble down from high above. The monster was very proud of it.
“Well, well, well,” it said, in a satisfied way. “What do we have here?”
The little girl had stopped, and was regarding the monster with a distinctly unimpressed expression on her porcelain features. She looked its scaly hide up and down, taking in the gleaming fangs and slobbering lips, its warty skin and curly yellow toenails, and continued to stare until the monster started to feel rather uncomfortable.
“I don’t know,” she said, finally. “What?” Her tone suggested that she didn’t expect to find the answer very impressive at all.
The monster quivered the hairs on the back of its ears, and bent down slowly. “What we have here,” it said smugly, letting just the correct amount of menace into its tone, “is a little girl who has been caught by a big scary monster.”
The girl considered this for a moment. “No, I don’t think that’s true at all. Not on any account.”
The monster blinked. This took quite a long time, as it had a lot of eyes and it was rather difficult to keep track of them all. It had been a long time since it had last eaten any children, but in the fog of its memories the monster definitely remembered screaming and running. Not… arguments.
“I mean,” the little girl continued, “you haven’t actually caught me. We’re standing next to each other, but I can still move around as much as I should like.”
“That’s true,” the monster conceded, “but I certainly COULD catch you. I could stretch out one of my long, leathery arms, throw you over my shoulder and take you home to gobble up.”
“You’re still telling fibs,” the girl said, putting her hands on her hips. “I could go and eat three whole bowls of strawberries, but I haven’t done it yet, so I shouldn’t tell people that I have. It’s lies. And you’re not very big, either.”
“I’m bigger than you,” the monster pointed out, standing up to its fullest height and stamping its foot, causing a booming echo to ripple through the forest.
“That’s because I’m a little girl. There are lots of things bigger than you are. Squids. The elephants at the zoo. Whales, too, though I’ve only seen those in books. And I’m not scared of you, anyway.”
The monster sagged a little under the relentless logic. “No, you’re not, are you?” it said, rather hopelessly. “I’ve been in this forest for so long, trying all sorts of different ways to be terrifying, and you’re not even the slightest bit afraid of me, are you?”
“What if I made slime shoot out of my ears?” The monster asked, brightening slightly. “That’d be pretty scary, wouldn’t it?”
The little girl made a face. “That’s not scary, that’s just disgusting. I bet you’re a boy monster. Boys always like doing that sort of thing.”
The monster huffed and grumbled, squatting down on the path so that it could dip its tail in a nearby pool. “Well then, why don’t you tell me why you’re not scared, since you’re such a clever-clogs?”
“I don’t know what a clever-clogs is,” the little girl said, “but maybe it’s because I’m not real.”
The monster was very upset by this remark, swishing its tail so fiercely that quite a lot of water and pondweed sploshed onto the path. “I most certainly am real!” it roared. “Just because your parents told you that monsters don’t exist doesn’t mean—”
“Don’t be so silly,” said the little girl crossly. “Of course you’re real, or the path wouldn’t be all soggy now. Besides, you didn’t listen properly. I said that it’s probably because I’m not real.” And here she stepped forward, opening her arm to show off the synthetic webbing and delicate circuitry inside.
The monster stared with all of its eyes for a very long time. “Make-believe children!” it managed, finally, harrumphing. “Well I think that’s a pretty nasty trick to play on someone. You won’t do at all; I shall have to wait for a real little girl for my dinner. Tell me, how does one tell the difference?”
The little girl looked puzzled. “I’m not sure. I don’t think I’ve ever met any real children. I’m not sure there any left.”
The monster reacted as if it had been struck. “You mustn’t say things like that!” it bellowed. “Of course there are real children! There are always children! Where would they have gone?”
The little girl shrugged. “I don’t know,” she replied. “I dare say there would be books about it, but I’ve never read any. I suppose the grown-ups know.” She paused. “Why are you crying?”
The monster was indeed crying, thick rivers of tears trickling down its face. “I… I don’t know what to do!” it sobbed. “I mean, of course I’d noticed there weren’t as many children, but I told myself they’d come back sooner or later! Children always go wandering in the forest… what will I do if there’s none left?” The monster suddenly seemed very much smaller to the little girl as it grabbed a handful of leaves and noisily blew first one nose, then the other.
All at once she felt a little sorry for it. “There’s no need to cry,” she said reasonably. “I’m sure adults would be just as scared if you jumped out at them, and I bet they’d be even tastier than children.”
“Adults and I can’t see each other,” the monster snuffled. “If they were here, they’d just walk right through me without noticing. They’re inter… intra…”
“Intangible?” the little girl suggested, although she didn’t seem so little any more as she took a step towards the grizzling monster. “Are you all right? You seem to be getting smaller.”
“I don’t know!” the monster wailed, its voice sounding noticeably thinner than before. “I don’t know anything anymore! I’m so hungry! What else can I do?!”
The little girl knelt down, being careful not to get her dress dirty. “I suppose that there are lots of things that don’t need to exist without children,” she said thoughtfully. “Schools, prams, nappies… there’s no reason for them nowadays. Monsters must be a bit like that.” Her brow furrowed. “I think it’s called an existential crisis.”
“This is all your fault,” the monster moaned. “I wish you’d never come into the forest.”
The little girl moved forward, bending a daisy back to see the monster more clearly as it dwindled and faded. “You don’t have to worry,” she said consolingly. “I’ll live for thousands of years, and I’ll remember you. You’ll be a story. A happy one, I think. Someone always slays the monster in the end.”
Quite what the monster thought of this arrangement the little girl would never know, for it had faded beyond sight and she was now alone in the forest. She briefly considered heading further down the path and looking for more monsters, but rather suspected that she wouldn’t find any. It was an oddly solemn moment, as if she’d born witness to the conclusion of something ancient and momentous.
Plucking her last daisy from the ground and twiddling it thoughtfully between her thumb and forefinger, the little girl turned on her heel and headed back down the path towards the fair. She doubted she’d go wandering in the forest again.
Somehow, there no longer seemed to be any point.