A warning: This is one of the darker stories Inscription has published, including both swearing and violence that may be more suitable for older teens. Be warned also for abuse, transphobia, and mentions of drug abuse.
Once upon a time there was a girl named Red, but since this isn’t a fairytale, that’s a stupid way to begin.
Start here: You’re sitting with your girlfriend Ashley after dance practice and she says,
“They won’t let me join the girls’ dance team.”
You punch the grass. The hill isn’t bothered; its grass is more dead-brown than green, anyhow. “That’s bullshit.”
She shrugs and stares at her feet, toes digging into the ground. Her mascara is beginning to run, so you put an arm around her and pull her tight.
“It’s bullshit,” you say again, no less angry. You’ve seen her dance. She’s good. She should be on the team.
Dancing is how you met. It was the first party you went to in this town, because your aunt’s house was too suffocating in the quiet and you needed music blaring, a rhythmic beat in your chest. You needed to feel something. Ashley danced like a wild thing in the thumping strobe lights. You watched, entranced, and when she saw you, she beckoned. But you just shook your head. Maybe it was the longing in your eyes or your pixie cut or the party-vibe, but she swung her way over to you and asked if you wanted a drink. Watching Ashley dance was like finding an oxygen mask as the room filled with smoke.
(You haven’t danced with anyone since your monster went away.)
“Hey Ashton!” someone, a guy, shouts from the bottom of the hill. One of the mass of the interchangeable bullypack. He starts making lewd gestures at you both, laughing.
Ashley presses her face harder into your shoulder. You flip the idiot the finger.
Ashley takes deep breaths and squeezes your hand between hers. “I just have to wait ’til I can afford surgery and–” Her voice cracks.
You hug your girlfriend tighter. She should still be able to join the girls’ dance troupe. You have no one guilty nearby to punch out, so you hit the ground again.
I love you, Ash, is what you want to say, for support, because it’s true–but you can’t. Words have never been your domain. They belong to him.
You never told your mom you loved her, either. You don’t believe in happy endings anymore.
This isn’t a fairytale.
Once upon a time, when you were a kid, you fell into an old abandoned well in the woods. You should’ve broken your arm or your neck, but you didn’t. You landed on a monster instead.
“What are you doing here?” said a deep voice.
You looked up–and up and up–at the monster.
The monster was as big as your house (almost), covered in fluffy purple fur because purple was your favorite color. The monster had great big eyes and soft round ears like a teddy bear. When the monster smiled, you saw very, very big teeth.
“I ran away,” you told the monster. It was one of the Bad Days. Daddy was shouting at Mommy. It hurt your ears.
“Why?” asked Monster.
“I’m scared.” You pressed your face into Monster’s poofy fur. “Don’t wanna go back.”
Monster hugged you while you cried. You knew the shouting was your fault. You’d asked if you could take ballet lessons. Mommy said yes; Daddy said no.
“I’ll protect you,” Monster said.
“On Bad Days too?”
“Always,” said Monster. “That’s what monsters are for.”
You took Monster home and let Monster live under your bed so you wouldn’t be afraid of the dark.
This was when you thought fairytales were real. Then maybe you’d be a princess in shining armor riding a palomino horse to save your stuffed animals from the evil king.
And besides, even when Bad Days happened, fairytales got happy endings.
It was a Bad Day. Mommy was crying and saying “Stop, stop, please stop!” but Daddy kept hitting her.
So you got really mad. You ran up and kicked Daddy in the leg. Your shoes had hard toes because Monster was teaching you how to dance after bedtime. “Leave her alone!”
Daddy’s face went as red as your favorite hoodie. “You little bitch.”
You ran to your room and dove under the bed. “Help, Monster!”
Monster’s warm, furry arm wrapped around you. “You’re safe, Red.”
Then Daddy’s face appeared all scrunched up mad. “I’m gonna teach you a lesson in respect, you little brat.”
“Go away or Monster will bite you,” you told him.
Daddy thrust both hands under the bed to grab you. You squirmed back into Monster’s protective fur.
Monster’s mouth opened wide and bit off both Daddy’s hands.
Daddy screamed and rolled around on the floor, hugging his arms to his chest.
Monster smiled with red teeth, and you smiled back.
But it was just a chapter ending, and the fairytale went on. (You didn’t know how dark most fairytales were, back when you were small.)
Daddy leaned in the doorway of your bedroom later. When he stayed outside the room, his hands came back. If he came inside the room, they disappeared, because Monster had bitten them off. He stopped hitting Mommy when you told him you would let Monster eat him all up if he didn’t.
(He didn’t, not really–he just made sure you didn’t see.)
You sat cross-legged on the floor playing Go-Fish with your favorite plush rabbit, Mr. Bunny. Monster watched from under the bed.
“I’m going to kill it,” Daddy said in his Normal Voice. “Your monster. I’m going kill all of them. Just you wait.”
“Go Fish,” you said to Mr. Bunny, but your hand quivered as you picked a card.
When Daddy walked away, you crawled under the bed and tugged Monster’s ear. “I don’t want Daddy to kill you.”
Monster pulled you close with one arm. “He can’t harm us in this world, Red. Don’t worry.”
You sniffed, relieved. “Can we dance, Monster?”
Monster smiled. “Whenever you wish.”
You bounced up and down with excitement, and pulled Monster by the hand into the ballroom. Under the bed was like a tent, full of space for your stuffed animals and toys. It even had a dance floor where Monster gave you lessons.
Monster took your hands and began to hum, a lullaby that had become your favorite music. You hummed along with Monster, your feet tapping to the beat.
You pulled Monster along to the music, spinning and dipping and leaping. Your feet hardly touched the ground. It was like the time Daddy took you to the amusement park and you got to ride the grown up roller-coaster, only a million billion times better. The music soared through you and you felt like you could fly.
The dance floor blurred around you, became an open glade full of trees and a bright sunny sky. It smelled like lilacs and cotton candy. You loved when Monster made it look like outside. You danced wildly, swept away in the movement and the music.
Letting go of Monster, you twirled faster and faster across the grass. You sprinted onto a fallen birch log and jumped into the air. Monster caught you and lifted you up, higher and higher until you thought you could peel the sky open with your fingertips.
The dance ended.
Monster set you down, back in the ballroom under your bed. You laughed, out of breath, and hugged Monster tight. “I love dancing!”
“It is something no one can ever take from you, Red,” Monster said.
(Daddy’s words were long forgotten by the time you went to bed.)
You don’t see Ashley after track practice on Friday. She texted you she’d meet you on the hill. You’re taking her to dinner (even if it’s just McDonald’s because you can’t afford much more) to celebrate the year you’ve been dating.
But she’s not there. Storm clouds roll in, a cold October wind kicking the trees into a gold-brown frenzy.
Your phone dings. Voicemail, although you don’t see any missed calls. You drop your duffle bag with your change of clothes and dial your voice mailbox to listen.
It’s Ashley’s voice.
“Red, it’s me–oh God, I don’t know what’s going on. There’s this–it’s huge, Red, some giant animal but it’s nothing–Jesus, let go of me!” Ashley’s screaming. “Let go! Help! It’s going for the woods–”
And the message stops. Your voicemail asks you in a monotone if you’d like to save, repeat, or delete the message.
You shove your phone in your pocket and run.
Someone–something–has kidnapped your girlfriend, and you’ve got to get her back.
For a moment you wish Monster was here. Monster could’ve carried you faster than you can run. You can’t swallow down the dry, crunchy fear that you won’t be able to help.
(Monster isn’t here. Monster never will be here again.)
Up ahead, the forest looms. It’s just the rumbling clouds, the lack of daylight. The woods aren’t some creepy, mystical landscape. You could get lost, sure. But your phone has GPS–your aunt insisted on it so you could always find your way home.
Wind moans through the treetops, and it sounds like desperate voices. At the corner of your eye, you notice a ribbon of gray in the trees, but it’s not a cloud or a bird. It’s a hole, as if you’re staring at a movie screen and a patch of static ripples across the picture.
It hurts your eyes to stare at the hole. You look away, shaking, and as soon as you do, the memory blurs, fuzzily distorting until you aren’t sure what you were just looking at.
One thing’s always clear, though: Ashley.
You wipe your sweaty palms on your jeans and step into the woods. There, not a yard inside the dark treeshadow, you see a glimmer of color. A red thread–it matches Ashley’s favorite wool sweater. It’s caught on a branch and unravels deeper into the woods.
She came this way. You follow it as it twists and spins through trees, a wobbling path stretching into the heart of the forest.
You’re almost running now, so you can’t stop when the ground disappears.
It’s a long way down into the dark river below.
You were thirteen when Mom OD’d and your step-dad–fuck, why’d you ever call him Daddy?–left. At first you thought thank God he’s gone, but at night, you lay awake trying not to panic that he would come back.
(He’d spoken in his Normal Voice when you called him at work, hardly able to speak, because Mom wasn’t breathing. “What did you do to your mother, girl?”)
You had this aunt, some relative you’d only met once, who took you in. You moved to some backwards little town in the middle of nowhere. At least there were woods around, so much forested land you weren’t allowed to wander too close in case you stepped off the trail and got lost.
You didn’t care about the goddamn trees at first. Your mom was dead. You were stuck here. Friends were hard to come by for the new girl from the cities, the one who liked other girls and loved to dance by herself to music no one else had on their iPods.
“Why didn’t you protect her too?” you asked. Monster sat on the bed next to you, no longer as big as a house, fur darker, magenta and sleek, not the poof-ball you remembered as a kid. “You could have saved her! She’s all the family I had!”
Monster looked down. “She didn’t believe in us.”
“You’re supposed to be my friend, Monster. You should have saved her!”
Monster sat silently as you pummeled your fists against the thick fur until your knuckles hurt and your face burned from tears. Blaming your monster was better than blaming yourself. You hadn’t seen Mom shoot up in months. You’d thought she was getting better, that the support group meetings were working, that the new job with the nice guy she’d gone out for drinks with were helping, that your step-dad being gone more and more was returning the world to normal.
(Nice lies, weren’t they.)
“I’m sorry, Red,” Monster said, wiping sticky hair from your face with one claw. “There was nothing I could do.”
That’s the thing about monsters. They’re real–of course they’re real. But you have to accept that before they can come out of the shadows.
“Well, if you can’t do anything, then I don’t need you.” You were so angry you felt like you were about to explode. You hoped you would. POOF and done. Then you could stop hurting inside. “Go away, Monster.”
Monster flinched. “Red…”
“I said go away!” You shoved Monster as hard as you could, and Monster flew off the bed and slammed into the wall. Cracks rippled along the sheetrock. You didn’t care if your aunt saw the damage. “I don’t want to see you again.”
Monster’s head bowed and Monster’s whole body shrunk until your monster disappeared altogether.
You flung yourself on the bed and screamed into the pillows.
You pull yourself from the river, shivering, hair plastered to your face. You’re not sure how far the current carried you. You’re good at track because it gives you an excuse to run, to move, to feel wind comb your hair–your legs are strong, and so are your lungs.
You’re still in the woods. Maybe this forest goes on forever. Except–there’s the thread of red wool, curling up from tangled deadwood and winding through the trees.
You brush mud from your hands and look up.
An immaculately dressed wolf sits on a sycamore branch, swinging his legs. His suit is rich burgundy, pinstriped with black. His fur is glossy gray, neatly combed, and he smiles as he hops down and offers you a courtly bow.
“Good evening,” says the wolf. “What brings you here?”
You’ve never been scared of monsters. And since this isn’t a fairytale, you have nothing to fear from a big bad wolf in the woods.
“My girlfriend was kidnapped,” you say. “I’m going to get her back.”
The wolf rubs a claw along the lapel of his suit. Some undefined light source gleams off the polished nails. “Are you, now?”
You fold your arms. “And no asshole in a cheap suit is going to stop me, either.”
“Do you like it?” The wolf smiles wider. “It was tailor-made. I made him sew it for me before I ate him.”
You’re not going to take this bullshit. You nurse the anger like a personal white dwarf star; maybe one day it will cool with nothing to fuel it, but now? Now it’s dense and bright and hot. “Get out of my way.”
The wolf glides around you and you turn to follow his gaze. “You must pay my toll to pass,” says the wolf.
You bet he doesn’t take plastic, and your wallet’s pretty empty as it is. What if he demands riddles or magic or games you can’t win? You throw at him the only thing you hope might work.
“I’ll pay you with a secret,” you say.
The wolf’s eyes glint like sequins. “And what kind of secret is worth safe passage into our land?”
You clench your hands to stop them trembling. This is a bad idea. But what else do you have? You can’t bring yourself to dance again, even with another monster. “It’s a secret I’ve never told anyone.”
The wolf’s ears prick towards you. “No one?”
“Ever.” You swallow hard. “Aren’t monsters supposed to like secrets?”
“The one I love is made from secrets and shadow,” the wolf says. “But what will you do if I do not like this secret?”
“Suck it up and deal,” you snap before you think better of it. You brace yourself, ready to run or fight back if the wolf attacks you.
But the wolf only throws back his head and howls with laughter. “I think I will like whatever you share with me,” the wolf says, smoothing his lapel again. “Very well. A secret for your safe passage.”
He leans close until you smell the river and hot sand and summer air after a rainstorm in his fur.
Words stick like toothpicks in your throat. You don’t want this secret and you don’t want anyone to ever know, but you already made a deal.
You take a deep breath, then whisper in the wolf’s ear.
Once upon a time, when you just started sixth grade, the cool girls cornered you and your best friend Terra by the lockers. Your heartbeat jumped, because you had a crush on Vanessa, the clique leader, and now she was speaking to you.
“Hey, Red. Want to hang out this weekend? I’m having a party Friday.”
She knew you existed. You blushed. “Yeah! I mean, I’d like–”
“Assuming,” Vanessa went on, “you’re not going to go on about ‘monsters’ again like a two-year-old. Terra says that’s all you ever talk about.”
You glanced at Terra. You’d told her about Monster, about dancing, and she hung on every word; you’d told her she could find a monster of her own, too, so she wouldn’t be scared all the time.
Vanessa tossed her hair. “Well? Is it true?”
You shrugged, looking at the floor. If you told the truth, Vanessa would mock you forever. You didn’t want school to be hell for another year in a row. “There’s no such thing as monsters.”
Vanessa leaned close. “I didn’t hear you.”
“Monsters aren’t real,” you said again, not expecting it to be that hard. “It’s just a bunch of bullshit for little kids.”
Vanessa smirked. “Obviously.”
Terra’s mouth hung open, shock in her eyes, but you ignored her and followed Vanessa and the other girls instead.
A week later, Terra’s family moved out of state unexpectedly, and you never saw her again. You never knew if she found her monster.
(Maybe she believed you that monsters aren’t real.)
The wolf sighs and half-shuts his eyes. “You carry so much pain in your heart.”
You shake your head, face burning, and remember where you are. You wish you could forget the shame of that secret as easily. “Let me pass.”
“I can do more than that,” the wolf says. “I know where your lady love has been taken.”
You stare hard at the wolf, trying to tell if he’s lying. His bright eyes and brighter teeth give nothing away. “Where’s that?”
“Ah,” he says with a smile. “Answers must be paid for.”
“What do you want in return for telling me?”
“Your help, lady knight.”
You realize in sudden panic that you’ve lost sight of the telltale thread. There’s nothing caught any longer among the branches.
If Monster were here now, Monster would know where to go, like the day Monster carried you out of the woods. (You can’t let yourself miss your monster. It’s always better to stay angry.)
“Enough,” you tell the wolf. “If you help me get my girlfriend back and let us get out of here, I’ll help you in return. Okay?”
The wolf bows. “Very well.”
“The Hall,” the wolf says. “Our home.”
“Who took her there?”
“Kin,” says the wolf. “At the bidding of the new king.”
The wolf grabs your elbow and tugs you sideways, off the path. You yank your arm free, about to curse him out, when he points at where you were standing.
There’s a hole in the air where you were. It’s the size of a baseball and there’s nothing on the other side. Not darkness, really, but an absence of anything that sends shooting pain up your neck and behind your eyes.
You retreat, bumping into the wolf. “I saw…” The recollection is still fuzzy. You frown and concentrate. “There was one by the woods in my world.”
The wolf snaps off a branch as thick as his arm, then pokes it through the hole. The branch disappears and the hole grows a half inch wider. It sits there, ragged edges flapping as if in a soft breeze. Up above you see more holes poking through the endless twilight-lit treetops.
You hug yourself. “What are they?”
The wolf sighs. “Emptiness. Entropy. An end. That is what the king is doing–he is destroying our world. And yours.”
They aren’t separate. You asked Monster about this, once. They co-exist beside each other, overlapping and easily crossed if you believe you can. Yours is not a nice world. But it’s still yours, and Ashley’s, and your aunt’s. The world of monsters is just as important. Without one, the other can’t exist.
You hunch your shoulders. Your step-dad left holes in your life you don’t know how to sew shut. Your mom’s death. The loss of your dance. You tried to dance again, after you and Ashley were dating for a few weeks, but as soon as you struck a pose and Ashley turned on a CD, your muscles locked and you started shaking. Monster isn’t here. You curled up on Ashley’s bed and hid your head under the pillows, refusing to move even though she promised she wouldn’t ask you to dance with her again. You didn’t have words to tell her it wasn’t her fault.
You can’t freeze up again. You won’t lose her the way you lost Terra or Monster.
“Show me where the Hall is,” you tell the wolf.
He offers his arm and you loop your elbow through his.
The forest grows darker as you walk alongside the big, not-so-bad wolf. He gracefully dodges the holes that appear faster among the treetops and in the ground, eating away the world.
“Who’s this king?” you ask. You try not to clutch the wolf’s arm harder than necessary. You’ve already asked how far the Hall is. The wolf said it was as far as it needed to be, and no more.
“A man self-titled so,” says the wolf. “He beguiled his way into the Hall; he spoke with such charm and smooth words, we let him join us. Many lost travelers may find their way in. Perhaps not all leave again.” His teeth gleam. “But he brought a weapon with him. It is a small knife made of all the words that have ever been used to harm another. It is power unlike any we can match.” The wolf points at a hole, but you don’t look at it too long. “With each cut, the false king destroys pieces of our world and our kin.”
“You can’t kick him out?” You want to run, to drag the wolf along behind you. Ashley can’t wait, not if there is a wicked king holding her prisoner.
The wolf’s ears droop. “The ones who tried are no more. The Queen is…gone. He will not stop, lady knight.”
And the wolf thinks you can help? Shit. The angry part of you wants to blow it off, take Ashley and go home, let the monsters deal with it. Isn’t that what they’re for? Monster lived under your bed and protected you. But the guilty part of you knows it wasn’t Monster’s fault you were hurt when your mom died. Monster would do anything for you, but there are some things even monsters can’t fix.
And you sent Monster away.
Right in front of you, huge arched doors shimmer into sight.
“Welcome to our home,” says the wolf.
The Hall is made of whispers and mirrors and filled with monsters. There are more than you can ever count. They dance to a haunting, unknown melody that grows slower and slower, perpetual motion winding down. Dusk hangs from the ceiling; dawn winds through the foundations. Only stars light this place.
“One of us ate the sun,” the wolf says, “and another ate the moon. But it’s impolite to remember who devoured which, now isn’t it?” And when he smiles, you can almost see sunlight glimmering at the back of his throat.
For a moment, you can’t breathe. This place is what you always believed (secretly) heaven was like.
The monsters are beautiful and terrible. Not one is alike. Some have glossy fur and coarse manes, some are covered in shimmering feathers and scales. Some have horns or claws or antlers or teeth. The monsters have bright eyes and some have no eyes. There are monsters made from shadow and monsters made from light. Smooth skin and armored pelts. Some monsters have skeletons, or exoskeletons, and some only pretend.
The dance floor stretches out in all directions to the horizon lines. You rub your eyes hard. This place feels like home.
“Here,” says the wolf, and offers you a dance card. “It never fills up, so you may dance until the world ends.”
You tuck the card in your pocket. You need to find Ashley first. “Where’s my girlfriend?”
The wolf points at a dais that floats above the monsters, luminescent stairs trailing down all six sides.
Ashley’s sitting there, hunched with her knees pulled against her chest. For a second, she’s all you can see. Ashley: quirky, smart, dedicated Ashely, who was the first to make you feel welcome in the new town, who’s going to be an EMT when she graduates, who takes care of her younger sisters while her single mom works three jobs. Her sweater is only a few threads tied around one wrist now. Her jeans are muddy and her make-up little more than messy streaks. Your heart lurches.
“Hurry,” the wolf murmurs. “Before the music stops.”
You weave your way towards the stairs. The dais is translucent at the edges, and a carpet made of a white material mutes the light near the middle. You can’t see anyone else on it. Just Ashley.
A monster made from metal angles, sharp and contrasted, sweeps by with a glass cougar in its embrace. Their bodies reflect the light in geometric patterns. A brilliantly painted girl made from ivy dances with a metallic velociraptor, and they smile at you as you pass.
Your breath comes faster. Your body longs to move, join the music and dance, but you can’t. You can’t lose sight of Ashley.
Closer now. You want to yell to your girlfriend to jump. You’ll catch her. But you don’t know who else is up there. You dash up the steps, hope thumping along with your heart. You stop short at the last step when you see what awaits you.
You gasp. Monster is thin, fur ragged and patchy. Monster’s eyes are dull and won’t look at you.
The king sits on a throne. A thick, heavy chain tied around Monster’s neck holds Monster down at the king’s feet. That’s blood matting Monster’s fur. Bones cover the dais: pale and dark and silver and translucent. But bones all the same.
You glare at the king, the asshole who married your mother then ran off to do this to your monsters.
He’s got his hands now, but they aren’t his–they look sawed from someone else and stapled on with undulating threads. He holds a pistol in one hand and a knife in the other. He points the gun at Ashley.
Your step-dad smirks. “Not so tough now, are you? I get your boyfriend and your freaks–” he kicks Monster and Monster flinches “–and what can you do?”
“Let Ashley go,” you say, but your voice cracks.
“Why?” He speaks in his Normal Voice, calm and confident and it makes you want to listen. Like when you were little, before the Bad Days, when he would read you stories and buy you presents and candy and make you laugh with funny faces. “I’m doing what I said I would. It’s your fault, girl. It has always been your fault.”
You shake your head. That’s bullshit.
“Don’t believe me?” The king leans forward. “Where were you when your mom killed herself?”
“It was an accident–”
That one syllable is like a sledgehammer in your stomach. There is so much hatred in his voice, you can’t catch your breath.
“No, she did it on purpose. You might have gotten away with anything you wanted because of that beast you had.” He kicks Monster again. “She started getting ideas she could do the same, and we couldn’t have that, could we? I’m in charge. She had to learn that. If you hadn’t hidden behind your monsters, your mother wouldn’t have thought she needed to escape. We could have been a family.”
You stumble back a step. The realization sinks cold in your stomach. You usurped his power and he couldn’t bear it.
“I didn’t…” But you can’t go on.
“Don’t listen to him, Red,” Ashley shouts. “It’s not true!”
“One more word and you join my wife,” the king says, his finger on the trigger.
You stand there, shaking, trying not to think how much sense his words make.
The music–it’s softer now, weaker. And it’s coming from Monster’s throat.
Ashley locks her jaw and stares unblinking at you. Don’t listen.
You swallow hard. The melody drifts through your fingers and toes. It’s the lullaby Monster sang to you when you were very small.
If you believe the false king, he’ll win. He’ll take everything away, like he’s tried to do all your life. You can’t endure losing Ashley. And you can’t see Monster go away again.
You put a foot on the dais floor. A bone crunches under your shoe. Perhaps you can find a way to heal Monster, because you want your monster back so badly it hurts. You want to tell Monster you’re sorry, so sorry.
But how do you find your own words when the king owns so many? You couldn’t tell Ashley you loved her. You couldn’t tell your mom. You lied to Terra. And what if Monster doesn’t want you back?
You look at Ashley again.
You can’t fight the king. He has a gun and a knife. But with Monster at your side, you have a chance. If Monster will forgive you.
“Monster?” you breathe.
One of Monster’s ears twitch. Very slowly, Monster looks up and meets your eyes. You hold out your hands.
“Please come back,” you whisper. “I need you.”
“And now,” says the king, “let’s turn off this fucking music.”
You lunge forward–
The king shoots your monster in the head.
Monster’s body goes limp and the music dies.
Once upon a time, when you were very small, you fell off a skateboard and scraped both knees raw. Mommy was drinking, and Daddy wasn’t home, so you climbed on the sink in the bathroom and looked for Band-Aids all by yourself. But you couldn’t find any.
You tried not to cry when you crawled under the bed and told Monster.
Monster pulled two pieces of fur off one hand and made bright purple Band-Aids for you. You gave Monster a hug.
You sat together on a huge bean bag chair, which you couldn’t have in your room or Daddy would take it away.
“Do you ever get owies?” you asked.
Monster nodded. “We all do. But you know what makes them feel better?”
“Dancing?” you asked, because that was your favorite thing in the world and you were going to be a ballerina princess astronaut veterinarian when you grew up.
Monster smiled. “Yes, Red. We dance.”
You cradle Monster’s head, but Monster’s eyes remain closed. You keep shaking Monster, not caring that there is blood all over your hands and jeans. Monster’s body remains limp, so much lighter than you remember, and the chain remains dark and heavy around Monster’s neck.
The anger isn’t there now. It’s gone cold, like your white dwarf has burned out and turned into a black hole, sucking away everything inside you.
You felt like this at Mom’s funeral, and you remember punching one of the nameless mourners who showed up to pay useless respects. You don’t remember who that was, just a sudden crack as your fist met a nose, and then shouting, maybe you, maybe the idiot you punched–shouting for people to get the fuck away from you. Because you were alone, and everyone made it worse by pretending you weren’t.
The king laughs, jerking your attention up.
Ashley stares at you wide-eyed, a hand crammed against her mouth.
All around you, the Hall is still. None of the monsters are dancing any longer. In the starlight, holes appear above them.
You’re not sure when the wolf showed up, standing at one side of the throne. There’s a shadow-monster at the wolf’s side, wispy and long like a feathery snake. The wolf curls an arm around the shadow-monster.
You kiss Monster’s forehead, lay Monster’s head gently on the floor, and stand. You don’t know what to do. If this were a fairytale, a kiss would bring Monster back to life. All you get is the taste of fur.
You focus on what really matters–you focus on Ashley. You focus on the living monsters around you.
Dance takes away the pain, Monster said once.
You won’t let the king take any more of your monsters. You won’t let him hurt your family again.
You begin to hum softly, the same music Monster sang. You know this melody. It builds in your chest and fills your throat. You’ve never had a voice for singing, but it doesn’t matter. The music is there.
Your limbs are stiff and heavy at first, your feet clumsy. Like when you were first learning the steps and rhythm and how to let the music flow around you, become part of you. If the dance is what keeps the holes from devouring your worlds, then you will dance.
The king frowns. “What are you doing?”
You step over the bones but don’t avoid the blood. Your feet are red.
The holes grow wider. You feel the air being sucked up and out, a rush of wind that pulls your hair in all directions. It stirs Monster’s fur.
For a moment, you can’t see through tears. You want your monster back. You dance faster, harder, flinging yourself into the music with all your fury. It burns and you welcome the heat and the pain.
Nothing around you moves.
The king leaps to his feet. “Shut up!”
Then the wolf begins to hum along with you. The shadow-monster joins him.
The king aims the gun at the wolf’s head.
You kick off the dais and sail through the air. You aim for the king’s arm, but you spin too fast and suddenly you’re between him and the wolf.
You don’t hear the gunshot over the music. There’s a pain in your arm and it fades to nothing as you dance. Red ribbons of blood spin around you as the music swells.
You move like silk in the wind. Faster and faster you dance, your heartbeat the only rhythm you need. Your feet are weightless and sure. It is when you dance that you know you alive.
“Stop or I will kill him!” the king screams. He wields the knife above Ashley. The gun lies far from the throne, swept aside in your wake.
But the knife. Its blade glimmers, every horrible word you and Ashley have ever been called, and so many more, twisting inside the metal. It almost touches Ashley’s check, and you know what will happen if that goddamned blade even scrapes her skin. She’ll disappear.
Your steps falter.
A thick, rusty wire muzzle appears around the wolf’s face, and heavy chains coil about the shadow-monster, pulling it to the ground.
Agony flares in your arm.
All around you, the monsters waver and fall. Breath comes ragged in your lungs. You try to hold onto the song, but the music slips away as your body overwhelms you with pain.
“Bind her,” the king tells the wolf. Then, to you, “And if you take one more step, I will cut your boyfriend’s throat.”
You stare in numb shock at the blood spreading across your shirt. You crash to one knee.
Ashley’s expression hardens into fury. “You aren’t gonna hurt Red anymore.” Ashley twists away from the king and slams her heel into his crotch.
The king gasps and doubles over. Ashley rolls to the side as the knife comes down. The blade cuts into the floor. Bones pour into the tear in the world. Ashley scrambles backwards. In a blur, the wolf scoops the chained shadow-monster into his arms. You lurch on your hands and knees. The dais groans, bending at the edges. The whole structure will implode inward in minutes.
You grab Monster’s limp body and hold on. Ashley staggers towards you, her hair full of twigs and her face pale with shock. But she keeps her balance on the warping floor.
The king crawls to the gun and snatches it as bones cascade past him into the hole. The knife has fallen through, gone forever. He raises the gun at Ashley’s back.
“Ashley, look out!” you scream.
Glass explodes behind her. She whirls. The glass cougar crouches between Ashley and the king, one arm shattered by the bullet meant for her. You stare at the large shard of glass embedded in your leg.
Across the dais, the ivy girl vaults onto the platform beside the metallic velociraptor with glowing red eyes. A rainbow-colored tentacle monster heaves itself onto one corner of the dais. All along the edges, monsters climb and jump and fly onto the platform.
The king whirls, pointing the gun wildly, but it has no more bullets.
“Enough,” says the cougar. Translucent blood drips from its arm, glittering among the shards of glass. “You will not harm us any longer.”
Ashley clasps your good arm. “Come on,” she whispers. You can feel her shaking. “We need to stop this.”
The wolf crouches by your side. He still holds the shadow-monster in one arm; he easily picks up Monster in the other. “I will guard your friend.”
You don’t want to let go. But Ashley pulls you to your feet as the wolf holds Monster tight.
“Will you dance with me, Red?” Ashley asks.
“Yes,” you tell her. And before you can silence yourself, you add, “I love you, Ash.”
She grips your hands tight. Your words mean what you want them to; her smile in response is enough.
Together, you and your girlfriend hum the music once more.
The world is heavy. You struggle against the inexplicable weight, against the icy pain in your leg and the burning in your arm. Ashley holds you steady, holds you close.
You remember every time you danced with Monster. Every time you danced by yourself, wild and unchecked and free. Every time you wished you had the courage to dance with Ashley.
Faster and faster you move now. With the music, with the dance, you can pull closed the holes in the world.
“Dance with us!” you call to monsters. “The music is not over!”
Ashley laughs. The monsters roar.
Light blurs around you. There is a tremendous cracking sound, metal splitting and bursting, and the chains around the shadow monster burst into sparkling light. The wolf’s wire muzzle crumbles. The cougar’s glass ripples smooth into an unbroken mirror-shine; the shard vanishes from your leg.
The starlight catches the music and echoes it back. One by one, the holes crinkle and snap shut.
“You cannot do this!” the king screams, but he is alone and unarmed. His words go unheeded.
You whirl with Ashley in front of the throne. The king charges at you with fists raised. He gets no more than two steps.
“Enough,” says the wolf. He and the shadow-monster hold the king’s arms behind his back.
You pause, leaning on Ashley for support.
The wolf looks at you. “What, pray, shall we do with this one?”
The king looks around, his terror unmasked.
All the monsters watch you and wait.
“I never want to see him again,” you say to the wolf. “The rest is up to you.”
The wolf laughs and the shadow-monster purrs and shows very sharp teeth. They drag the false king away. You never see him again.
Pain flares sharp in your leg and arm. You stagger, and only with Ashley supporting you can you stay upright. You’re suddenly so tired.
“God,” Ashley says, “Red, you need to sit down, I–oh Jesus, I don’t even have my first aid kit with me.”
It doesn’t matter. Light shimmers along the floor, repairing the dais, and the most beautiful monster you have ever seen rises from it.
She’s covered in black and cobalt feathers, her face made of mirrors, and her eyes are dark like the sky. She’s taller and more terrible and more glorious than anything you’ve ever seen, and you know at once she’s a Queen.
“Thank you,” says the Queen of the monsters. “He chained me first with his poisoned words and so gained power, but you have freed us all. And you have begun the dance once more.”
“Red!” Ashley’s voice, so distant.
You think of bad cell reception and wonder if you still have your phone. You slip, falling backwards.
Strong arms catch you. “Red?” says a different voice, deeper and bigger than Ashley’s.
Monster is holding you.
Fur poofy and silky purple once more, grown to the size of a house (almost), Monster is just like you remember. And Monster is here.
Monster smiles, holding you close in one arm. With the other hand, Monster pulls out tufts of fur and bandages your arm and leg.
Ashley kisses you and you pull her close.
Monster does not disappear. You throw your arms around Monster and Monster hugs you back and you know it will be okay.
For the first time in your life, it will be okay.
The Queen of the monsters tilts a hand and the gates appear. Through them, you see a path through the woods. At the edge of the woods stands the hill with its dead-brown grass, and the school beyond. There are no more holes in the October sky.
“Do we have to leave?” Ashley asks, wiping her face with the back of a hand.
You look between Monster and the Queen. You hate the stories where the heroes grow up and are banished, everything they grew to love ripped from them for no reason.
You fight to find your voice, and not let your words be muted again. “Please don’t send us away,” you whisper.
“You may always come and go as you please,” says the Queen. “You are forever welcomed here.”
Monster nods. “There will always be room for you in the dance.”
Ashley grins. You let your breath out at last. There’s cool, calm relief in your chest where the usual anger is. You lean back against Monster. You’ll have time to go back and call your aunt to reassure her you’re fine. There’s still time to take Ashley on a date for your anniversary.
Ashley rests her head on your shoulder. You squeeze your girlfriend’s hand, and Monster’s too. They hold you tight. The three of you watch as the monsters dance.
This isn’t a fairy tale. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a happy ending.
About Merc Rustad
Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer and filmmaker who lives in the Midwest United States. Favorite things include: robots, dinosaurs, monsters, and tea. Their stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Fireside Fiction, Escape Pod, Daily Science Fiction, Scigentasy, and Vitality Magazine. When not buried in the homework mines or dayjobbery, Merc likes to play video games, read comics, and wear awesome hats. You can find Merc on Twitter @Merc_Rustad or their website: http://amercrustad.com.