Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 60
Stories
Dry Run
by Kurt Pankau
The Stowaway
by Stephen L. Moss
Mercy at Eltshan-time
by Stewart C Baker
Primum Non Nocere
by Caleb Williams
IGMS Audio
Primum Non Nocere
Read by Stuart Jaffe
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
Charity
by Julie E. Czerneda
Bonus Material
To Guard Against the Dark
by Julie E. Czerneda

The Creation of Penelope Pine
    by Allison Mulder

The Creation of Penelope Pine
Artwork by Tomislav Tikulin

When Penelope first answered the knock at the front door--expecting Dad--the monster didn't bother acting human, let alone maternal.

It rhino-charged into her front hallway, slathering and bellowing, an amalgamation of every frightful thing Dad had ever woven into his bedtime tales of terror. Gnashing, dripping fangs, and lashing scorpion tail, and hands that were huge, stubby fusions of paws and lobster claws.

Pen fell back scrambling on the hall floor, and she knew if she kept staring at the monster, she would wet herself. So instead, she stared over its bulk to all she'd ever known of her mother: the picture on the wall, framed and lovely like not much else in the house aside from a few of Dad's writing awards. The woman at the beach, head ducked, hair gleaming, a burnt-gold curtain between the camera and the sun. As she crab-scuttled away from the door and the monster, Pen's eyes didn't leave the framed woman's tanned shoulders or the mole on her arm.

"Mom--" she sobbed. A reflex.

The monster stilled. Tipped its head to one side. Looked briefly at the picture before leaning close to Pen's face. "Yes?"

The smooth, feminine voice was like something off a radio commercial for wholesome breakfast cereal or prompt pediatric care. From the monster's mouth, sliding between fangs, that voice made Pen's gut bottom out. The voice and its eyes, the intelligence there. It heard Pen and chose to misunderstand her.

For what possible reason?

Pen screamed for the first time--knowing no one would hear her across the empty, swept-grass hills surrounding the house. She rolled to hands and knees. She crawled down the hall fast enough to sear her legs with rug-burn, and the monster tutted disapprovingly.

"Sweetheart, you learned to walk a long time ago. You need to walk on two--" The monster seemed to realize that it was, itself, walking on all fours. It rose heavily onto its haunches, front paws tucked close to its torso like a squirrel's. "Walk upright like a person, please."

And at that point Pen fainted.

She woke much later, tucked into her bed.

The monster's humming drifted in from the hallway, along with the clatter and clang of pots and bowls being thrown around in the kitchen, and the acrid smell of something burning.

"Lunch will be a little late," the monster called. "Sandwiches okay?"

Pen didn't move.

Her dresser covered all but a thin slice of her window, and moving it would attract the monster's attention. Her room was too far from either door. Even if she got outside, help was too far away to sprint to, and the monster was bound to catch her.

Pen clenched her covers, heart racing, and when her door creaked open, she jerked the sheets over her head.

No way this works in real life. Face flushed, she waited for claws to rend the fabric and pierce her skin.

Instead, the bed creaked as the monster settled onto its edge, the weight of it pressing against Pen's side.

"Oh, honey, are you feeling sick?"

A plate clinked against Pen's bedside table.

"I'll just leave your sandwich here. Feel better."

And the monster left Pen's room.

With a shuddering breath, Pen threw off her covers and stared at the lopsided PB&J.

It looked and smelled normal. The corner tasted fine, no hint of poison or sludge or a curse tucked between the bread.

"I'll come get your plate in a minute," the monster called.

Pen dove back into bed and downed the sandwich in four bites, finishing just as the monster's looming presence returned to her doorway.

Staring at her floor, Pen handed the creature her empty plate.

"Thanks," she said, the words sticky with peanut butter she was too scared to taste. "Mom."

The monster fumbled with the dish, claws clicking and scraping.

"You're welcome, sweetie."

It left, humming more lightly than before.

And Pen knew what she had to do.

The monster had stopped growling the moment it decided Pen was its daughter. It wanted Pen to call it Mother, so she would, even though she knew neither of them believed it. If playing along meant safety, then Pen would become a perfect pretender.

Not forever. Just until help arrived.

Flawless, frantic pretending, for as long as it took until Dad got home to save her.

Once upon a dark and stormy night, Carl C. Pine moved to prime monster stomping grounds in the middle of nowhere and started to take his writing seriously.

That's what Carl put on all the book jackets, on his website bio, and at the end of every interview posted online.

Don't go looking for him, the tiny paragraph teased. Or you may not like what you find.

The paragraph never mentioned his daughter.

For five days, Pen did as the monster said and waited for an explanation. Some story that would make everything make sense. Failing that, Pen waited for Dad.

The monster tried to take care of her, though usually Pen could've done better alone.

It woke her in the mornings. Late, only after the sun stopped beaming directly through the kitchen windows (Pen didn't dare get out of bed any earlier).

It picked out her clothes. Too light, for this time of year, though they would've been perfect if Pen were covered in the monster's long, curling fur.

It made her PB&J sandwiches. Lunch, and dinner, and sometimes jelly toast for breakfast if it remembered to offer.

Pen and the monster balanced this pretend act for five whole days before the jam jar slipped from the monster's strange, clumsy paws.

When the glass shattered dully against the linoleum floor, it sounded like the cracking of a façade.

Pen tensed to bolt--elbows braced against the kitchen table, butt off chair--in case the monster dropped its act just as abruptly. Her muscles screamed as the creature stared at the fallen jar for three seconds, four, five.

The balance teetered, all because the monster itself wasn't better at acting like a mother.

If the monster raged, if it remembered Pen was only helpless prey, if it rounded on her with claws, tail, fangs, temper . . .

"Oh," the monster said instead. "Clumsy me."

It bowed over and gathered up the broken glass in one huge, malformed hand. With the other, it scooped up jam and smeared it across the bread slices on the counter. The monster finished Pen's sandwich with a satisfied pat and set it front of her.

"Thanks," Pen said. Mouth dry. Heart still racing. "Mom."

She tried not to think of bugs, of dirt, of the red-brown flakes shed by the monster's stained, spurred heels.

The monster hummed a tune as it turned to the dishes, flicking its tail to keep time.

"Finish your sandwich fast, Penelope Pine," it said, drying silverware with quick, hasty jerks of a rag. A fork tine snagged on the worn-thin fabric, ripped off an edge in a long, limp strip. The creature moved on to the spoons. "You still have homework to do."

Nodding, Pen took a slow, careful bite. She chewed without letting her teeth meet, gently mashing the seedy strawberry, smooth peanut butter, and soft whole-wheat bread.

There was broken glass in the jam.

The sharp-edged crumbs of jar rested on Pen's tongue like threats, and she held them there, delicate as bird eggs.

It's gravel, not glass, Pen told herself. Not really sharp. I can swallow the pieces whole. They won't cut me.

It was not the hardest thing she'd had to pretend since the monster began calling itself Pen's mother.

But Pen couldn't even swallow tiny pills unless she mixed them with pudding, and she gagged before the glass--no, gravel--even reached the back of her throat. She didn't puke, not really, but she tasted it--acidic bile along with the half-chewed PB&J plopping from her mouth to the table. And she tasted it, too, traces of blood from somewhere.

"Penelope Pine." The creature turned from the counter, disapproving. Its black eyes closed gently, long dark lashes fanning across its hollowed, vaguely equine cheeks.

"There was glass." Pen felt the tiny cut now--or was there more than one? Tears pricked her eyes. "I tried, but I couldn't swallow it. Not with the glass."

Her slip-up this time. Pen braced for the fury of a beast freed from whatever fantasy had held it in check.

"Oh? I thought I picked it all out." The creature looked at the jam-covered jar shards heaped on the counter. Its voice turned fond. "Help your mother next time."

Whatever delusion the monster held, it was stronger than Pen thought.

Learning the monster wasn't so tightly coiled--so eager to pounce on Pen's slightest error, so ravenous and ready to devour her--made Pen feel like someone on TV who thought they were drowning, then realized the water was only a foot deep.

Except this water still had teeth.

Pen slumped in her chair, five days of adrenalin leaking from muscle and bone, replaced by weary resignation.

"May I be excused?" she whispered.

"If you're going to do your homework."

Pen nodded numbly, and the creature fluttered a paw toward the stairs.

Pen took them two at a time, as exhausted as she was relieved. Her fatigue grew as she scanned today's sheet of nonsense homework. The questions the monster assigned every day mimicked reality like a toddler playing "Teacher," but were still just nonsense like, "True or false: My tail is venomous." Somehow Pen always got the answers right, even when the questions made no sense, but that didn't erase the unease of not knowing any of the material.

Pen bent over her desk, wishing for the homework Dad already assigned her before he left. But Dad assigned problems by page numbers, and shelved all the textbooks in his office beside foreign translations and the cheapest piled-up paperbacks of his horror novels. And Pen didn't feel safe enough to sneak into his office.

Just because the monster hadn't hurt her yet didn't mean it never would. Better to do as it said, call it Mother, swallow glass if she had to.

The taste of blood lingered on her tongue.

She hoped Dad would get home soon.

Five nights since the monster's arrival, the driveway outside Pen's window was still missing Dad's mud-speckled green pick-up. The ruts he'd left peeling out on the gravel road were still there. Undisturbed by any mythical mailmen, or milkmen, or whatever other men the TV claimed were supposed to carry needed things to homes like Pen's, traversing the fields of tall grass that rippled right up against the house. Dad usually brought all the needed things, stocking the pantry and fridge enough to last for weeks. He was the only one who traveled on the gravel. Pen had never gone with him.

Far, far off, Pen sometimes glimpsed the roof of a neighbor's house above the grass waving in the autumn wind.

But, "Stay put," Dad always said.

Until he got back, Pen's only option was to keep the monster happy.

The creature, Pen amended, chewing on the eraser end of her pencil. Not the monster.

A monster was hostile, but a creature was just a creation, and it really did look like one of Dad's stories made real. Maybe that was exactly what it was. It didn't seem that dangerous, when Pen wasn't imagining how dangerous it might be, and maybe calling it a kinder thing would help Pen stay calm--help her play along.

So. The creature wasn't that scary. Just bad at housekeeping. And it had promised not to try using the stove again, at least.

Pen tore an extra sheet of paper from her notebook and wrote out all the things Dad needed to explain, if he ever finished running his errand. On paper, the mysteries took on a firmer shape. Another assignment, for herself or Dad or the creature, or anyone else with answers.

A sampling:

What were these errands in the first place, if they weren't just bringing needed things? Why call them errands if he knew they'd take days or weeks? Why not call it a research trip, a vacation, a flight headlong into the night the moment he finished putting Pen to bed? How was Pen supposed to tell what was a trip to the post office and what was a week-long absence or longer?

Mother or monster or both or neither, and why had it come so suddenly? Why had it bothered knocking, and when Dad left why hadn't he reminded Pen to look through the peephole before letting anyone in? Why did no one but Dad ever come to the house? And why couldn't Pen at least go to public school?

Why did the creature look like the bedtime tales of terror? The same lobster-claw paws, the same sallow equine head, the same scorpion tail that--alright--wasn't venomous according to Pen's homework, but did tend to get in the way when the monster moved between kitchen table and counter?

Pen folded these questions into a square, pocketed them, then returned to the monster's homework. Questions like "How long are my claws, in inches (round to the nearest tenth)" and "If tail:not venomous :: teeth:___, fill in the blank." As usual, one odd question out was tucked at the very bottom of the page, with no room to write an answer. Like it was hiding.

If a mother were looking for laundry detergent, where would she find it and how would she use it?

Pen flipped the page over and wrote on the back.

The laundry detergent is in the bottom of the laundry room closet. But a mother would ask her daughter to do the laundry. Pen had done laundry on her own for ages now, and she remembered enough early errors not to trust the creature with her shirts and underwear.

Carl C. Pine had never made up bedtime tales of terror just for Pen. Not really. She was at a weird age--either too old or too young for the stories, depending on the night. The tales were really meant for the leather-bound brainstorming notebook he kept balanced on his knee. A can of fresh pens lived on Pen's bedside table, and she always laughed at that but Carl really just needed extra pens around. He hated when the ink dried up mid-line, mid-letter, mid-muse.

He always tested his pens in the margins of the brainstorming book, doodling quick versions of looming, toothy beasts, and when the pen felt right, then he'd start.

"We live in the middle of nowhere," he'd say, "because of the vicious monster living out in the dark."

He used his public-reading voice--good practice, more natural than when he used the timer in his office trying to nail the hour-minute-second of it all. And Pen wouldn't know the difference, that this wasn't strictly a bedtime story voice. She'd never been to one of his signings.

"The monster outside is covered in fur," Carl said. "But not fluffy like a dog or a shaggy camel. It's thick, greasy fur like a biker's beard, and it's so warm that in winter, it steams."

Pen giggled.

He never managed to scare Pen with the beginnings of the bedtime tales of terror. He had to warm up first, feel things out, flex the fear part of his brain.

Carl made some notes, then kept going.

"Its face is like a horse, or--" Another note, underlined twice. "--a seahorse, but with ears like humans', bristling with hair."

Still no reaction from Pen. Just goo-goo smiles and stuffed-animal squeezing. She never really got the creeps until Carl's monsters started doing things.

"It totters," he said one night. "It sways back and forth, the bulk of it teetering like an unsturdy mountain, and the floorboards creak beneath it, like they might give way."

And there we go: Pen clenched her covers, like Carl knew she would because just that morning she'd been playing with the creaky floorboards in their living room, squeaking and squealing with the boards as she jumped, the whole time Carl had set aside to focus on editing (or napping, as the mood struck him). Floorboards meant the monster was in a house, a house like Pen's, and it was coming for her across the creaky wood . . .

Carl made notes.

Some tales terrified Pen. Others just made her laugh, and that was always frustrating. But even on those nights, Carl always ended his story the same way.

"The monster outside is angry," he said. "It's after us. It wants to hurt us, but it won't come here." He stroked Pen's hair. "It won't get in, it won't get you, because you're my precious little girl, and you're smart and kind and good and well-behaved, and that monster can only wish it could get to us."

Carl was in a hurry the night before his latest errand--the night before the monster came for Pen. He didn't have time for brainstorming, not with his flight leaving in just a few hours. He half-assed the tale of terror, just reading some crap he'd written down on other nights, checking his watch often.

Time loomed. Pressed? Whatever, it pissed him off.

"Hey, I need to get going," Carl broke off suddenly, rising from his chair. "You're smart, you're precious, you're self-sufficient. Etc. I really need to go run an errand, but I'll be back. See you soon."

And he left.

The creature did not tell bedtime tales of terror.

It tucked Pen in tightly, sealing in all the blanket edges like it was wrapping up a plate of leftovers. It sang, sometimes, which was kind of nice. It had a nice voice, at least. It didn't bring a notebook or write any notes.

Pen usually endured the process with her eyes closed, because actually, the creature wasn't that scary if you weren't looking at it. If it was in another room, or if its voice was all Pen heard.

"I'll just check your homework before I go," the creature said, like every night. Then, a few minutes later: "All right answers again. Well done, my clever girl." The creature glowed with pride, which lasted even through the confusion as it read the answer on the back of the homework assignment.

Tonight, the creature laughed, an abrupt, horsey laugh.

She tottered. The floorboards creaked beneath her.

"All right," she said, wiping tears from her dark, glittering eyes. "The laundry can be one of your chores, officially."

Pen hesitated. "Maybe . . . I could do the cooking, too."

The laughter ebbed, and the creature nodded gently. "Well, you can try that tomorrow. Sure. But I'll need to supervise. Did you just roll your eyes at me, young lady?"

And Pen realized she had.

Apparently a lot could be said for just deciding not to be scared anymore.

"Well." The creature perched on the end of Pen's bed, her scorpion tail curled across the covers. "I know I didn't teach you that eye roll. Where did you pick that up?"

It was warm under the covers. Tight. But somehow, it still felt safer than walking around in the tank tops and shorts that the creature laid out. Pen decided it was time for a test. If the creature wanted to be her mom, then what would she think of Pen's real parent?

"Dad rolls his eyes," she said.

The monster flinched. A full-body, animal flinch, like it had been kicked.

"I need to do the laundry," it said, even though they'd just decided to leave that to Pen.

It left.

But since it hadn't clawed or slashed or devoured any part of Pen, it seemed more or less safe to ask the creature questions. Or imply them, anyway. Even if it wouldn't answer.

Pen was more or less used to unanswered questions.

She wriggled her arms free from the blankets and unsheathed a pen from the can on her bedside table. She added some questions to the list she'd folded into her fist when the creature came in.

Why was the house so far away from everything--why really? Because the monster from the dark didn't seem mad, or vicious. Pen hadn't trusted that answer even before, when she thought the creature was made-up. Now, she was the one getting mad.

Why did Dad insist on homeschooling Pen when he knew he'd be gone so often? When he knew being alone made Pen feel like she was disappearing. A servant entombed with their dead pharaoh, like in one of the first novels Dad ever wrote, wasting away bit by bit.

Why did Dad leave so often, for so long, and why did he say errands when Pen had guessed years ago that it was to chase leads for his next story. Why not just tell her that?

And why didn't he tell her a long time ago that the monster from the dark was a real, living thing?

Carl C. Pine's biggest secret--the one all his worst critics seemed to have sniffed out just fine on their own--was that he wasn't very original.

He was really good at researching and hunting monsters, though.

Not to slay them, not to save anybody, not to exorcise anything or any of that crap. Carl just observed.

He didn't even trap the monsters, except in fiction, in horror novels scarier than anything he came up with on his own. There was some messed up stuff out there, and Carl was pretty proud of how much of it he'd gotten on paper.

His royalties were decent. Eaten up by travel fees and keeping the house in the middle of nowhere stocked up--even a drive to the grocery store down that long, empty gravel sucked more gas than Carl would've liked.

But he couldn't leave Pen just anywhere, and his royalties were, okay, more than decent.

So whatever.

There was always another urban legend to chase. Carl hadn't even looked outside America yet.

So whatever.

And he really could make things up on his own, if he had to. He was a writer, really.

The things he made up just wouldn't be as scary as the real thing.

On the sixth day since the monster came, Pen fought with it. It wouldn't let Pen cook, even though she'd cooked for herself for ages and could make things using every single ingredient in the pantry. It wouldn't even let Pen pick up a spatula and the monster just ruined things. It emptied cans onto the countertop--too close to the broken jam jar it still hadn't swept into the trash--and it found the meat in the freezer but it cut the frozen chicken breasts with its teeth and since Pen had just determined with last night's homework that the monster's teeth were venomous, it meant just everything was ruined. Every little thing.

Pen told it so.

"Go wait in the living room," the creature said, shaking. "I won't--"

"You will," Pen said. "You can't cook. You can't even hold a spatula yourself."

She stomped to the living room. Then, because the monster had told her to wait there, Pen went instead to Dad's office. She slammed textbooks down from his shelves and looked for symbols like : and :: because she didn't even know what those were and she doubted the monster did either, so--there. Analogies.

If tail was to not venomous, as teeth were to ____, and past homework said its tail wasn't venomous, then teeth . . . well, teeth wouldn't be venomous either, would they? So if Pen had gotten that answer wrong, then the monster had it doubly wrong.

So why had shining green venom hissed as it hit the frozen chicken, ice melting away, meat blackening at the substance's touch?

Pen sat with the book in her lap, anger fading in the face of confusion. She could hear something clattering in the kitchen, and a determined, off-key humming that seemed to come from the monster's gut, like how Dad grunted when moving his bookcases.

Pen hobbled down the hallway on her knees and one hand, her other arm hugging the textbook to her chest. She peeked around the doorway and watched for several minutes as the trembling creature hunched over a spatula on the floor. It tried and tried to grasp the tool in its claws, but it failed every time.

Just like Pen had said it would.

Light-headed, Pen searched the pockets of her shorts for paper and pen, which were there. They were everywhere in the house.

She wrote in the margins of her question list.

The creature's hands were human. Five fingers. The same shade as mine. Normal size. The perfect size for holding a spatula.

She peeked around the doorway again, and watched the creature's perfect, human hands close around the spatula's handle. A shuddery, relieved breath left the creature's mouth, past its venomous teeth.

Pen wrote more. In horrible, flying-off-the-page handwriting, like Dad whenever he got inspired after an errand.

The creature was harmless, really. Her head didn't look that much like a horse, or a seahorse. Her fur was light--Pen crossed out fur, replaced it with hair--Her hair was light, burnt-gold, shoulder-length, and she smelled like ink and old book pages, and she was the best cook a daughter could ask for. Pen thought a second. She liked cooking with her daughter.

When she was done, the creature still didn't look exactly human. Its lashes were too long (but that was nice) and its nose was shaped weird (but Pen didn't know how to describe a nose, and anyway, she'd seen worse).

When Pen stepped into the kitchen, the creature didn't say thank you. It didn't say anything at all. Just tipped its head to the side like it had when first deciding to pretend that Pen had called it Mom.

"Will lunch be ready soon?" Pen asked, face flushed, blood pumping fast and hot and proud.

"Of course." The creature looked around, like she was trying to figure out how she'd gotten on the floor. "It is lunchtime, silly. Come help me."

Carl C. Pine had learned the trick early--a trick anyone can use, and people always do, without realizing. They sit their kids down and say, "The monster you see in your closet, the one with snake skin and alligator fangs and laser vision burning you through the keyhole. That monster is actually a nice monster. That monster is your friend, so you don't have to be scared."

Or they just say, "That monster's not real."

"It's just the wind, the scratching of tree branches."

"You're only imagining it. It's not there."

And the monsters change with every word about them--every story--until they really are a friend, or just a sound, or until they vanish completely.

What the parents of Carl C. Pine said, exactly, was, "You tell that monster it's weak as hell, and you'll toss it out the window if it keeps keepin' you up at night."

Carl told the monster, and he tossed it out the window, and he wrote it down in one of the stupid diaries his grandma gave him every year, because it wasn't every day you managed to bully your monster away.

He brought the diary to show and tell. He read it out loud, but he never got to the end because half the other kids started crying during the scary part. The teacher liked it, though. She handed him a flier for a writing contest with a cash prize and everything. He won.

And that was the first time he won anything. So from then on, he started practicing.

When kids claimed a headless undead hiker walked the grove near school, he went looking. When the ghost rumors about the local retirement home finally hit his grade, he found excuses to go visit Grandma. When he got older, he followed bigger stories built up over years--decades--shifting and warping as people tried to outdo each other at scaring the shit out of people.

He followed those stories to the ever-changing reality behind them. He found what scared people, and he wrote it down.

Monsters in the closet, glimpses in the forest, rustling bushes around campfires--he found a lot of material around campgrounds, enough to fill six separate anthologies. Carl hunted the monsters down, and he said they couldn't hurt him.

And the monsters couldn't.

When Dad came home, he was angry. Pen could tell by how he slammed the pick-up door after parking crooked, and by how he clenched his keys between his fingers like a weapon, and by how he shouted for Pen before he'd even unlocked the front door (the creature locked it diligently, every night, especially on nights as dark as this one).

Pen looked at the creature, and the creature blinked her long lashes back. They listened to the slam of the opening door, and Dad's stomping in the hallway as he came toward the kitchen.

"You're invisible," Pen whispered.

And the creature was.

"Pen, why didn't you open the damn door--" Dad stopped, taking in the kitchen. The pyramid of dented, emptied-out cans, lined up along the sink back like a shooting range. The dish-rag shreds pinched in the silverware drawer. The jam-glass shards on the counter, crawling with flies.

"I had some accidents," Pen said, "while you were gone."

Dad chucked his coat on the linoleum floor and kicked off his shoes without untying them.

Pen stood by the wall, hands folded behind her back. "Did you find a new urban legend to write about?"

"No." He dropped his bag and kicked it, scattering the contents--notebooks and sketchbooks and pencils and pens--all across the kitchen. One pencil bounced off the monster's invisible foot, but Dad didn't notice. "I didn't find a damn thing new."

He grabbed Pen's arm and dragged her to the living room. "Help me with something."

Fear bloomed in Pen's stomach, like a kick to the gut. "Dad."

"Just stand there."

He positioned her in front of the dark fireplace, then drew the curtains across all the moonlit windows, jiggling one knee like he did whenever he was hard at thought.

"I have some things I can try," he said. "I just need your help, like always."

"Always?" Pen repeated, discomfort creeping.

"Don't worry." He crouched beside her and put his hands on her shoulders. "I'll make sure you don't remember the brainstorming afterward. Like always."

"What are you talking about?" Pen asked, searching the room for any sign of the creature. She couldn't see it. Maybe it hadn't followed them.

"You're a monster," Dad said, and a dart of pain stuck in Pen's chest.

"What--"

"A monster with lengthy, lime-green tentacles and--and a head like a pigeon's. Or something."

If Pen had been in bed, if she'd been listening to the bedtime tales of terror, if Dad had been talking about the monster who lived out in the dark, she'd have laughed.

But in the dim living room, standing in front of the fireplace, with Dad talking directly to her . . .

Pen began to change.

And she was so afraid.

One day, Carl C. Pine found a monster's baby in a cave like a womb in the woods, where old stories had gotten out of hand, and a few people had recently gone missing, and some new stories were just starting to form around the disappearances. In a nest of impossible, oversized bones like the ones a kid would describe, the monster baby rolled around, amorphous and wriggling and distressed.

"Kind of cute," Carl said aloud. And then it was.

He took it home.

And when the mama monster tried to follow--when it found Carl's place and tried to attack--well. Carl knew how to keep it at bay. It was convenient, really, knowing where at least one monster hid without having to scour the country.

"It's angry, but it can't get in," he said.

And even though it tried every night--even though it kept trying despite Carl saying it would never get in--it never got as far as the front door.

Penelope writhed, her limbs stretched taffy-long. Her eyes bulged like balloons about to burst, her hair slithered, squicking across her disappearing shoulders. She was a snake girl, she was a medusa, she was not a snake at all, but a dragon with weeping, open sores, bleeding wounds left from battles it had fought. She was a hundred different versions of a hundred different monsters from the bedtime tales of terror, and they were all more paralyzing because they were all her. And because Dad was the one doing this to her.

He took notes in his brainstorming journal, a book light clipped onto the top.

"No, none of this is right," he said, pushing his hair back from his face. "None of it's scary enough."

He took more notes, and kept going.

And Pen kept remembering more things he'd told her she would forget.

For the first few months, Carl didn't talk to the monster baby at all. He just observed, watching the blobby infant beast stumble into one form after another--mimicking the shape of his lamp, the literary award on the mantel, the stuffed animal his ex-girlfriend left behind in a closet when she got sick of him and moved out, years earlier.

He let the monster baby wander around his desk, groping at things, picking them up, putting them down, and one day on a whim he trained it to hand him pens when the muse deigned to favor him in the lulls between leads on new monsters.

"Pen," he said, making a grabby hand, and the monster baby blobbered over with a writing utensil, wiggling like it was wagging a tail.

"Pen."

"Pen."

"Pen."

"Yes?"

Carl looked up, startled. The tiny monster leaned against his hand, warm and soft like a human infant's skin. Somehow, it had made itself a mouth. It had the chirpy voice of a little girl.

"Pen," he said, experimenting.

The monster baby perked up, stretching with all the height it could muster.

"You been watching TV or something?" he asked, laughing nervously. He gathered the monster baby into his lap.

For a while, he figured Pen could be a cat, maybe. Or closer to a dog. He'd wanted a dog, when he was younger. But somehow, the dog kept looking more and more like a girl, and more and more like his ex--he caught it sitting in the hallway, stretching to look up at that picture he'd taken at a beach, and never gotten around to taking down when she left.

Well, fine. Carl could manage a daughter. Even if he would've preferred a dog.

For an instant, Pen was a monster with a human mouth. A ghost-girl with wet, mucky hair and bleeding eye sockets, but a mouth that could still form words.

"Mom," she said. "Stop hi--"

Then Pen was sentient sewer slop riddled with eyeballs, and the words were drowned by sick, green sludge.

But in the open doorway, the creature appeared, the invisibility dropping like a magician's curtain during the grand reveal. Her not-quite-human eyes were rooted on Dad, glazed sharp with fury, but she didn't move from the doorway. She clenched a folded-up notebook page, thumbs smearing the writing.

I wrote that the monster was harmless. Pen shrank in on herself, even as sludge solidified into glowing, cracked stones, then a column of fire--thorny vines--fire again. Nothing with a mouth, nothing Pen could use to make the words to change things.

She thought the words instead, because she was still herself even with Dad telling her different, even if she wasn't quite sure what that herself was now.

You're a hero, Pen thought, to herself and the creature. You can stop him. Please stop him. I know you can.

No matter how many bedtime tales of terror ended with the monsters helpless and weak.

No matter how many times Dad talked himself up, a monster-slayer, impervious, the master of nightmares and all things scary.

"You're in pain," Dad said suddenly, inspired. "You're just filled with this animal, excruciating pain."

And Pen was.

Was.

Was.

Was was was and she couldn't stop screaming through bird beak or lizard maw or the mouth of a girl again, stitched shut--

Pen's half-dozen eyes streamed with tears as what she'd thought was her father thumped his hand on his notebook, on the edge of an idea. "You're big, you're scary, you're a monster."

Pen saw the look in the creature's eyes as it silently stepped from the doorway. The exact moment the creature chose to misunderstand, just like it had when Pen spoke to the photograph. The creature stood taller than before with every passing moment, towering behind the writer, her fingers drawing out into claws.

Dad didn't notice, face buried in his brainstorming notebook. He thumped the page again, frustrated. "You're a monster . . . You're hungry!"

And the monster was.

"Mom?"

"Yes?"

"Mom?"

"Yes."

Pen forced the words through a mouth not fit for the task, tentacles flippling all around her. "What am I?"

The creature pulled Pen into her arms, wings and tentacles and exposed bones and all.

She whispered, "Whatever you want, Penelope Pine."

And Pen began to come back to herself, whatever that turned out to be.


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