Conor lies awake on the settee trying to push away thoughts of how his mother is still feeling ill even though it has been three days since the treatment, when she would normally start feeling better. He drifts off and is awakened when the nightmare happens again: the ground shakes and he holds the hands tight, but Conor nonetheless loses his grip. Seeing it is 12:07, Conor waits. At 12:09 he goes to the window and the monster asks Conor what took him so long: it has been waiting to tell the first story. Conor speaks to the monster with sarcasm and hostility until he eventually admits that when he saw the monster during his argument with his grandma Conor thought that the monster might be there to help topple Conor’s enemies. Conor looks at his window, where his grandmother sleeps. The monster offers to tell the story of the end of a wicked queen who the monster made sure was never seen again.
The monster begins the first tale by saying that where Conor lives was once a green place, before the roads and trains and cars. Trees covered every hill, shading every house made of stone and earth. In the small but happy kingdom, the queen gave birth to four sons while the king rode into battles against giants, dragons, black wolves, and armies led by great wizards. The four princes died in battle, leaving the king’s only heir, an infant grandson. After the queen and the infant's mother died of grief, the king was left alone with the heir. The king married a princess from a neighboring kingdom. The heir grew to the age of sixteen, two years away from being able to rule. Then the king fell ill and rumors circulated about his wife having poisoned him.
The monster says the king died when the heir was seventeen, and so the heir’s step-grandmother took the throne. Despite the aspersions the public cast on her, she had a good reign, following the king’s manner of ruling. The prince fell in love with a smart and beautiful farmer’s daughter. The queen wished to continue ruling, however, and so she thought it better if the heir married her instead. Vowing to return on his eighteenth birthday to free the people from the queen’s tyranny, the heir fled on horseback with the farmer’s daughter, stopping under a yew tree to make love and sleep. The heir woke to realize his lover was dead and that a bloody knife lay beside him; he believed the queen framed him for the murder. Hearing the villagers approaching, the heir spoke to the great yew tree. Recognizing that an injustice has taken place, the monster walked with the heir toward the villagers, who believed the heir when he said he’d been framed by the queen. The mob stormed the castle, making the walls tumble, and tied her to a stake to burn the queen alive.
Conor looks at his grandmother’s window and says the queen deserved it, but that he doesn’t want to burn his grandmother alive. The monster says after the villagers lit the flames the heir reached in and rescued the queen. He took her far away, to a village by the sea where she could live in peace. Conor is angry that he saved a murderer. The monster says it was only the prince who said the queen killed the farmer’s daughter. The monster uses its hands to conjure the scene of what happened that night. Conor protests as he watches the prince remove the knife from his horse’s saddlebag and walk over to his sleeping lover. The monster says the heir explained that he killed the woman because he needed the help of the villagers to overthrow the queen; in this way, his lover died for the good of the kingdom. The monster saw that the real injustice was done not by the queen but against her.
The monster concludes that while the queen was indeed a witch and could have caused evil, she was not guilty of murder. The monster says it is not about who is good and who bad, and that most people are somewhere in between. Conor says he feels cheated. He asks how the story is meant to save him from his grandmother. The monster says it is not her he needs saving from. Conor wakes to discover that a foot-tall sapling is growing from a knot in the floorboard. He gets a kitchen knife and spends half an hour sawing it out of the floor.
Lily says she forgives Conor the following day on the walk to school. Conor responds in anger. Lily says her mother said she needs to make allowances for Conor’s behavior because of what he’s going through, which makes him angrier; he walks fast to leave her behind. The narrator comments that a year earlier Lily told a few friends about Conor’s mother without Conor’s permission. The news traveled quickly and Conor noticed that everyone, including teachers, looked at him differently, treating him like he was the one who was ill. Harry punches Conor in the stomach as he enters the schoolyard. Sully and Anton tease and grab Conor. Harry says he is the only one allowed to touch Conor. Conor meets Harry’s eyes as Harry is about to punch him in the face.
Miss Kwan shouts at the boys to come inside. Harry says they were discussing the life-writing assignment and lost track of time, grabbing Conor’s shoulder as though they are friends. After they walk back in, Miss Kwan pulls Conor aside and asks if Conor is alright with those boys. She says she knows how Harry works: a bully with top marks is a bully still. Conor cringes as she puts on a sympathetic voice and says she can’t imagine what he’s going through. He can’t bear to hear the care in her voice. That day after school, Conor’s grandmother says Conor’s mother has to go back to the hospital and that Conor has to pack a bag because he’s going to stay with her for a few days. She says the pain medicine isn’t working. She says Conor’s father is flying in from the States on Sunday. Conor reflects on how he hasn’t seen his father since the Christmas before last.
Conor’s mother calls his name from upstairs. She is under the duvet in his bed, not her own. She assures him that she’s going to be okay, and that it will be like the last time she had to go into hospital. She says that the treatment isn’t working, but that only means the doctors have to adjust it. She looks out the window and asks him to keep an eye on the yew tree while she’s away. She wants to make sure the tree is still there when she’s back. Conor nods. The tree stays a tree as Conor and his mother look at it.
The monster doesn’t come for the five days Conor stays at his grandmother’s house. Conor figures her backyard is too crammed full of objects for the tree to want to visit. The narrator comments that Grandma has driven Conor forty-five minutes to school and back every day while working as a real estate agent and cleaning the house constantly. They would visit Conor’s mother at the hospital for an hour or so and come home to do homework and eat takeaway. On Sunday Grandma leaves Conor alone in the house, as Conor’s father is coming to visit. While waiting, Conor reads while thinking about the house full of antiques. He lifts the carpet and runs his hand over a knot in the polished wood floor. He whispers, “Are you in there?” and then jumps startled at the doorbell. Conor opens the door. His father’s voice has begun to bend since his time in America. Conor smiles wider than he has in the past year.
Having established the motif of the monster arriving at 12:07, Ness injects some humor into the story by undermining both the reader and Conor’s expectation by having the monster ask at 12:09 what took Conor so long. In this instance of situational irony, both the monster and Conor have been waiting to meet each other so that the monster can tell the first tale, which turns out to be an allegory for moral ambiguity.
In the first tale, the monster leads Conor to believe the heir has been wronged by the queen by telling the story from the heir’s biased and untruthful perspective. The monster again subverts Conor’s and the reader’s expectations by explaining how he saved the purportedly wicked queen from the villagers’ wrath. When Conor protests at this twist in the tale—having identified with the heir and associated his grandmother with the queen—the monster reveals the truth: the heir murdered his own lover and blamed the queen in order to rally support among villagers and overthrow her.
When Conor fails to understand the point of a story in which there is no clear good guy or bad guy but rather people who mutually wrong each other and suffer no consequences, the monster explains that the point of the story was that it is true. The monster impresses upon Conor the idea that a truthful story often does not feature clear winners and losers or heroes and villains. The monster wants Conor to understand that most people exist in an ambiguous place between good and bad; the significance of this lesson will resonate in the novel’s final chapter when Conor finally accepts the contradictory nature of his feelings and stops thinking of himself as bad for not being purely optimistic about his mother’s recovery.
The theme of isolation arises when Conor returns to school. To remain isolated in his repressed grief, Conor angrily rejects Lily’s attempt to repair their relationship by forgiving him for letting Miss Kwan punish her when she stood up for Conor. Similarly, Miss Kwan tries to discuss the pain of watching his mother’s health decline, but Conor cringes at her attempt to relate to him and he insists he is fine.
Ultimately, Conor’s reticence is necessary if he is to remain in denial about the truth of his mother’s terminal diagnosis. To talk frankly about what he is really feeling with Lily, Miss Kwan, or anyone would require that Conor be honest with himself about his doubt about his mother’s condition ever improving; he must remain isolated to uphold the pretense that he believes her treatments are working. In this way, Ness subtly links several of the novel’s major themes, illustrating through Conor’s behavior how anger and isolation are fundamental to denial, and denial prevents Conor from accepting the truth and the healing that would result from acceptance.