“Ready, students. Turn your pages up.”
Benjamin flipped the sheet of paper from face down on his desk and lifted his pencil as he looked at the first question on the test. Which is the object closest to Earth? His choices: Jupiter, the moon, the sun, and Neptune. “The moon,” he whispered as he circled the answer. He gazed up to see Mr. Maldonado who looked back at him from under a wrinkled brow.
Benjamin lowered his eyes again and read the next question, this time being careful not to answer out loud. The earth’s crust and upper mantle are called: Mesosphere? Lithosphere? Atmosphere?
He concentrated hard and ignored the noises all around him—the shuffling of pages and scraping of feet against the floor. Then, just as he was marking the answer to the question—the athenosphere—he felt the first tiny nip at his scalp. His arm shot up to rub the place where he felt the little sting. Mr. Maldonado stared down at the desk and didn’t seem to notice Benjamin’s discomfort.
Without determining the source of the bite, Benjamin went on, reading question after question, confident that he knew the correct answers to each one. Then he got to the last multiple choice question. It was then that he felt another nip underneath his thick dark hair and stopped just short of saying ‘ouch.’ He dropped his number 2 pencil and it rolled around on the desktop but fortunately did not drop to the floor.
Benjamin slid the tip of his finger through the ample strands of his hair and down to his scalp. He didn’t find a round pearly object or a miniscule exoskeleton with rough crinkly arms protruding from it. Instead he felt another bite. On his finger. He let out a soft squeal.
“Benjamin!” Mr. Maldonado said firmly and Benjamin noticed the eyes of the other students on him.
“Sorry, Mr. Maldonado,” Benjamin said in a low voice. He went up to Mr. Maldonado and leaned over. “I think I have a bug on my head.”
Mr. Maldonado narrowed his eyes and shifted in his seat. “Well, try not to think about it, and when you finish your test, you can go to the bathroom and take care of it.”
“Yes, sir.” He sat back down, carefully read the two essay questions, and wrote out his responses, all while something slowly walked across his head. And, it seemed, periodically growled.
Once he’d finished the test and dropped it on the desk in front of Mr. Maldonado. As everyone glanced up at him, he made his way to the door and closed it softly behind him, a hall pass tucked in his pocket. He stepped inside the restroom just before taking his thumb and fingernail to pluck out whatever it was that had tormented him for the last hour.
He squinted and watched a tiny something squirming as he set it down on the edge of the sink—a hairy creature baring its tiny teeth. This was no insect. “Grrrrrr.” The growl repeated as a little echo in the empty bathroom. Before it could get away, he quickly picked it up and slipped it into his pocket just as a herd of boys burst into the bathroom. He walked past them without saying anything.
The grrs continued the whole ride home on the bus.
“Are you hungry, Benjamin!” one girl yelled loudly and laughed.
“No.” He looked down at the bus floor.
“Your stomach is sure making a lot of noise.”
“Uh huh.” Benjamin thought about how he could probably silence the little monster if he just squashed him in his pocket. But he didn’t want to do that. Having his own monster, even if he was afraid to show it to anyone, was too awesome.
“Hey, Benjamin! How was school?!” Once Benjamin came through the door, his father didn’t leave the kitchen or even wait for an answer before asking, “Do you want a snack before dinner?”
“Not right now, Dad.” Benjamin hurried upstairs, figuring that the fruit and nuts his father gave him every day could wait. Once he reached his room, he batted away the sagging balloon left over from a birthday party the weekend before and went inside. There, Benjamin pulled the tiny monster out of his pocket and placed it into an empty jar beside his bed, what had once been temporary homes to fireflies. He didn’t put the lid on the jar but did pick it up to inspect the monster more carefully. It growled and grimaced at him and bared its very small but very sharp teeth. Its fur was green on his head and brown on his body and its eyes looked both frightening and frightened, especially as it tried unsuccessfully to climb the side of the jar.
Benjamin thought that it might be hungry, so he placed the jar back on the end table and went down to the kitchen. The smell of onions and garlic greeted him before he arrived in the room, and when he stepped inside, he saw his father looking over a cookbook while red drops of tomato sauce popped out of the pot cooking on the stove. “Hey, son. Are you okay?”
“Just a little hungry. I have a lot of homework, so I thought I’d have a snack before getting started.”
“Sure, sure. And how did the test go.”
“I think it went okay. I looked up a couple of the answers I wasn’t sure about and they seemed to be the right ones.”
“Good job. Well, here are some carrot sticks.” He handed Benjamin a glass of bright orange carrots.
“Thanks. Can I also have a peanut butter sandwich? I didn’t feel like eating my lunch because I was too concerned about the test, so I left the rest of my sandwich in my locker.”
“I don’t want you to miss supper because you’re full…” His father’s face then broke out into a broad grin. “But I guess a half a sandwich would be okay.”
Benjamin took his snacks and climbed the stairs again taking the steps two at a time. Once in his room, he immediately went over to the jar and saw that the tiny monster was wrestling a fly. “Hey!” he shouted and shook the jar just enough that the fly buzzed away. “I brought you something to eat, little monster.” He dropped the smallest crumb into the jar and the monster reached down and picked it up, sniffed it, then put it in his mouth.
“Staannn!” he growled. “Staannn!”
“Is that your name? Is your name Stan?”
The monster let out another string of growls, this time sounding less like he was saying, “Stan.” Even so, Benjamin decided that that was a fine name and decided that’s what he would call the monster.
The monster continued to make noises and kept trying to turn the jar over to escape, all of which kept Benjamin from concentrating on his homework. He reluctantly put the lid with holes cut into it onto the jar when he went down to dinner, but he couldn’t concentrate on eating either, as he thought that he heard Stan making clattering noises between minute roars.
After dinner was over and he’d helped clean up, Benjamin told both his father and his mother good night and returned to his bedroom. “That’s enough!” he told Stan. “You’ll have to be quiet.” He picked up the jar and carried it with him into the bathroom. There he took Stan out of the jar and set it on the counter. “You can jump into the sink and go down the drain to the outside,” he told it. But the monster, barely bigger than his toothbrush, just stood there. With his finger, Benjamin nudged it toward the edge, convinced it could swim down the pipes. But the monster only got more irritated and tried to bite his finger once again.
Benjamin washed his face and brushed his teeth and moved the monster back into the jar before taking it into his room, knocking against the balloon again on the other side of the door. Then he had an idea. He removed the lid and tied the jar to the flaccid balloon which he then shoved out the window and into the night. “Goodbye, Stan,” Benjamin said. He watched the wind lift the balloon upward above the canopy of trees and grew smaller and smaller as it rose into the air. At first he felt relieved and then he felt a little sad.
The next day, Benjamin went to school, thinking all day long about Stan and the balloon and wondering if it reached an interesting place that Stan might like to visit. He worried a little that the balloon might have crashed and hurt him, or even worse.
At the end of the day, he went to science class where Mr. Maldonado already had his test graded. “Very good,” he told Benjamin, handing him the paper with a big red ‘A’ at the top. With so much of his thoughts focused on the monster since the day before, Benjamin had forgotten about the test, . He looked at the paper very hard.
Just as Mr. Maldonado started writing on the board, Benjamin’s attention was directed instead to the ceiling when he thought he’d heard something grumbling overhead.
Then, from somewhere up above the ceiling came a very loud shout. “Staannn!” It was as if the monster wanted him to hear. “Stannnnnn!” Benjamin heard a second time, a shout in a long roar as if whoever yelled it descended toward the ground outside the school.
Benjamin looked around but no one else seemed to notice. All but a few eyes fixed on what Mr. Maldonado wrote on the board. He shifted in his seat, confident that whatever had made the noise had gone.
Just before class ended, Benjamin felt something again on his head and he stopped himself from shouting out loud. As the bell rang, he couldn’t help but run his fingers through his hair–and found that something wound his tiny arms around one of them as if to give it a hug.