December Lights

Short stories to light up the winter season...

Monstrous Love, by Jenn Reese

Just as I got to my locker, I overheard Percy starting in on someone. Since it wasn’t me, I tried to ignore his voice and his dumb laugh as he tormented his victim du jour.

Bulfinch High sucks. The children of Zeus were bad enough with their my-dad-can-beat-your-dad-and-totally-destroy-him-with-lightning-bolts attitudes, but then you still had all the regular cliques to deal with: the heroes, the geeks, the hot chicks, the jocks… and the jerks like Perseus.

“I just want to see what color eyes you got, babe,” Percy said.

I shoved my locker key into the slot. Nope, not listening.

“Give them back,” the victim said. “I need them! Give them back!”

The victim was a girl.

I whistled a little tune. La la la, nothing to do but get my books and go to class, la la la.

“Bet you got sweet eyes,” Percy said. “I bet you’ll open ‘em up for me.” Percy’s friend — I called him Gruntwad — gave a little laughing grunt. His signature remark, if you will. Percy was suitably egged on. “I might just have to break these pretty little glasses.”

“Don’t,” the girl said. “Don’t break them.”

Her voice got low and serious. She definitely wasn’t begging. Most of the rest of us begged. It never did any good, the begging, but I think it made us feel more proactive. Like, we could say, “Hell yeah, I tried to get my stuff back! I asked for it and everything!” But her voice was calm, quiet. Maybe that’s what made me stop my well-honed conflict-avoidance behavior and turn around and look.

The girl was Maddie — new this year, and still an enigma to most of us. She wore a velvet headwrap and dark sunglasses every day, even inside. Even in P.E. Even at night. Only now she had one hand over her eyes and was reaching in the general direction of Percy with the other.

She wasn’t dressed rich or slutty like the popular girls, didn’t have the legs or the rack to command everyone’s attention. But I liked the way she moved. Graceful, maybe a little sinuous. And it’s not like she had no rack…

That’s when I heard myself say, “Give her the glasses, Percy.”

Percy reacted so fast I began to question his parentage. But, just when I thought I’d be getting a pair of sunglasses shoved someplace unpleasant, I heard a sickly crunch as Percy crushed Maddie’s glasses before my eyes.

“She wants the glasses,” he said to me, “she can have the glasses.”

Percy took Maddie’s outstretched hand and dumped sunglass parts onto it. “Courtesy of the stoner,” he said, and Gruntwad laughed. The two of them high-fived and walked off.

Maddie’s mouth hung open. She had the cutest little pointed teeth. Fortunately, before I could tell her that (or, more likely, chomp on my own tongue), she threw the sunglass pieces to the ground, said, “Thanks for nothing, loser,” and stormed off.

Her hand was still covering her eyes, so she sort of stormed off and into a row of lockers, but I got the point. In my mind, I moved Maddie from Column A (“Girls who were oblivious of my existence”) to Column C (“Girls who reached for weapons when I came within range”). Normally, girls I liked went through Column B first, “Girls who get nauseous when they see me,” but I guess I’m getting more efficient.

#

I’d tried to talk to my dad about girls once. I brought bread and fish and olives to his workshop, even though he never stopped to eat. Our conversation went like this:

Me: “School sucks. I don’t fit in and none of the girls like me.”

Dad: “Bring me my chisel. No, not that one, the other one. What, you can’t tell the difference between two kinds of chisel? Where did your mother and I go wrong?”

Dad’s a dork. He spends all his time in his workshop, carving warriors and manticores and six-headed dogs. See, back before I was born, Dad was really lonely. (I blame his parents for naming him “Pygmalion.” Ouch.) Then he carved the so-called “perfect woman” out of marble. Took him years, he said. But it paid off. Apollo came down and Poof! Brought her to life. Galatea, my mom.

Trouble is, Dad only thought he wanted a wife. I guess he didn’t realize what a time-sink marital bliss could be. When the honeymoon ended, he was back playing with his chisels, same as before. He took enough time away from his work to make me, but that’s about it.

Mom does what she can to raise me, but most of her energy goes to fending off unwanted suitors. (Being perfect has its drawbacks, too.) There have been a lot of suspicious looking animals around the place lately… white bulls, white stags, white stallions… The way I see it, it’s only a matter of time before I have a little half-brother son of Zeus running around.

Things are so bad that Mom doesn’t even trust me. I think she’s afraid I’ll get all Oedipal on her or something. Man, just the idea makes me want to yak. But that’s where things stand between us, and neither of us wants to talk about it. So we don’t talk about anything. Our typical conversation goes like this:

Mom: “Did you have a nice day at school?”

Me: “No. It totally sucked. I hate school.”

Mom: [Looking out the window at the fluffy white bunny in our garden.] “That’s nice, dear. Bring me my frying pan. No, not that one, the other one. The one with the spikes.”

You know the old saying? The one about the rocks or the stones that don’t feel anything? How does that go? Oh, screw it. You get the idea.

So here I am. I’ve got Dad’s uber-dork looks and Mom’s alabaster skin. Literally.

I owe the Fates three very emphatic wedgies.

#

When I saw Maddie in Modern Survival class that afternoon, she wore a pretty silk blindfold over her eyes. I guess she was uber light sensitive or something. If Percy felt bad about what he’d done, he hid it behind a veneer of additional taunts and lewd suggestions. (Some of the latter were quite good.) Maddie’s face remained a stone mask throughout the abuse. I was impressed. My face was actually made of stone, and I couldn’t have pulled that off.

We just had to make it through the day. Percy would find someone else to play with tomorrow, and everything would go back to normal. But the Fates–they’re always messing with you, you know? Here’s what happened:

Teacher Sotiris quizzed us about all the bad things that can happen to us in lakes, rivers, ponds, and sacred streams. Displeased with our performance, he decided to give us an assignment to drive home the importance of his lesson.

Sotiris: “It’s important to understand not only how a monster will kill you, but why. I want you to go out an interview a monster. Find out why it does what it does.”

Me: “Er, isn’t that a little dangerous?” I was picturing a high mortality rate on this one.

Percy clucked and flapped his arms like a chicken.

Sotiris: “Well, most of you are children of Zeus, so you’ll be protected. I’ll split the rest of you into groups.”

This is where things went from bad to really freakin’ bad. Percy, having made Gruntwad grunt with his chicken joke, was clearly high on the power that being a successful class clown and varsity wrestler provided.

He said, “Hey, why don’t you put the stoner with little blind chick?”

My jaw dropped. I looked at Maddie. Her jaw dropped too, so instead of lodging a protest, I stopped to admire her cute little pointed teeth again.

“Excellent idea, Percy,” Sotiris said. “You two are a group.” He matched all the other non-children of Zeus into groups. “You will all present your findings at the end of the week. Better get started.”

“So, what exactly qualifies as a monster?” Two-Eyes asked. (The school’s only cyclops wore glasses, poor thing.) I’ll bet she was hoping to interview herself for the easy A.

This stumped Sotiris for a good thirty seconds or so. “Well, let’s just say it’s anything that poses the threat of physical harm to your person,” he answered finally. Two-Eyes glared back at the daughter of Odysseus, who liked to sharpen her pencils whenever Two-Eyes was looking.

I spent the rest of the class fluctuating between abject terror and euphoria. At least now I’d get a chance to redeem myself with Maddie. We’d be working together, maybe closely. There might be adrenaline and sweat, heavy breathing, that sort of thing.

The bell rang.

I shifted in my chair, but didn’t stand up for several minutes. When you’re made of stone, some things are way too hard to hide. (No pun intended.)

#

We met after school, by the fountain in the olive grove. Maddie kind of stumbled into the fountain and banged her shins.

“You don’t have a spare pair of sunglasses?” I asked, in what, upon reflection, was not the best way to start the conversation.

“Yes, genius, I do, but they’re at home,” she growled.

She growled pretty.

“Well, do you want to go there first and get them?” I said. “We can’t exactly face danger if you can’t see.”

“No, we can’t! I mean, I, er,… just no.” Her cheeks flushed. She fidgeted and I wanted to grab her in my arms and squeeze her close. “Why don’t we just decide who we’re going to interview today? ”

“You mean what we’re going to interview. It’s a monster, remember?”

This, it turns out, was not the right thing to say, either.

“Oh, so monsters can’t possibly be people?” She lost the fidgets and actually seemed to grow taller while yelling at me. “They’re just animals, are they? No one worth getting to know? All you want to do make fun of them, or kill them?”

It seemed like a trap, but I was helpless against it. “Well, uh, yeah,” I said. “Monsters are for killing. Everyone knows that.”

Maddie shook her head and her velvet headwrap wobbled. “Unbelievable. You take Survival with a cyclops, there’s a siren in our gym class, and you’re friends with a satyr. Don’t you think the line between monster and human is at least a little blurry?”

She made a good point about Two-Eyes and the siren chick, but Rudy didn’t count. He wasn’t much of a satyr since he hadn’t hit puberty yet. But I’m not a big fan of getting lectured, however justified, even if Maddie did have a nice… features.

“Look,” I said, “I’m not making any moral judgments here. I’m just saying that if something is trying to eat me or kill me, I’m going to call it a monster and get the hell out of Athens.”

Maddie crossed her arms and said, “Fine.”

“Fine.”

“Good.”

“Fine.” I crossed my arms, too.

“So,” she said, her voice loaded like a catapult, ready to hurl hate all over me, “exactly what do you propose we interview?”

“Well, it’s supposed to be something we’re both afraid of,” I said, “And,…”

“Yes?”

I shrugged. “I’m pretty much afraid of everything.”

She almost smiled. Almost.

“Ooh, how about a nymph!” I said. “Or a dryad!” Visions of scantily-clad, dangerous women filled my mind.

Maddie’s smile twisted into a scowl, and suddenly I had a fully-clothed, dangerous girl right in front of me.

“How typical,” she said. “Too bad you weren’t partnered with Percy. You’d fit right in with him and his sidekick.”

“Well, if you’re so brilliant, let’s hear your suggestion then,” I said. Percy and Gruntwad. That was low.

“How about… a sphinx?” She pulled her arms even closer to her chest and inadvertently unhooked one of her shirt buttons… A strategic button, in fact.

“Yeah… a sphinx…” I said, staring, “that’s not too bad.”

“Of course, it’ll be dangerous,” she continued. “I’m pretty good with riddles, and if we can answer one, she might agree to the interview as our reward.” Maddie shrugged and her shirt fell open a little more. Gods, I loved that blindfold. “But if we fail, then we’ll have to run, and run really, really fast.”

“Yeah, fast,” I said. She was wearing a black bra. I thought they only came in white. Black was now my favorite color.

“What did you say?” she asked.

“Huh?”

“You just said, ‘Yeah, black.’”

The world slammed back into focus. “I did? Oh! Uh, I meant to say ‘Yeah, fast.’ I can run really fast.” Which was a lie, of course, since I’m made of stone. I run like a big block of marble with legs.

Maddie’s mouth twisted into a tiny frown. “Tomorrow after school, then,” she said.

I nodded. “Yeah, black.”

#

My euphoria lasted until the following afternoon. Until PE class, to be exact. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised; gym has always been the ultimate crusher of dreams and egos. I just hadn’t realized it worked on hearts, too.

It’s not just that I’m made of living stone, although that brings its own set of obstacles and humiliations — I sink in the pool, I lag behind in the races, and I break other people’s bones when I wrestle — but I’m also clumsy. And when you’re a huge block of clumsy marble, you’ve got to be very careful, or you’ve got to get really good at apologizing. Me, I’ve given up on the former and gone exclusively with the latter route.

Today’s PE punishment was javelin dodge. Coach had outfitted a bunch of javelins with sea sponges instead of points, and we lobbed them at the other team in an attempt to knock them out of the game. My traditional strategy in javelin dodge was to stand perfectly still — like a statue, if you will — and get knocked out in the first volley.

But today was different. Today, I wanted to appear athletic. Today, I wanted to dodge javelins effortlessly, to dispatch my opponents without breaking a sweat, to win the approval and worship of my classmates.

Today, I wanted to impress Maddie.

She hadn’t spoken to me yet, but I’d caught her stealing glances a few times from behind her new pair of sunglasses. She was looking at me, and yet she wasn’t throwing up. I called this “progress.”

So I dodged and ran and sprinted and feinted and worked up an honest-to-gods sweat. Coach gave me two “Way to go”s and one “Nice effort.” I think he was more suprised than anyone at my dazzling display of competence.

One minute later, as I was leaping gracefully to avoid a javelin, I crashed into Maddie and sent both of us into the gym wall. Something crunched, and for one terrible, soul-flaying moment, I thought I might have killed her.

But it wasn’t bones that broke, it was her glasses. Again.

This time, Maddie didn’t have time to react. She was staring right at me in shock when we collided. And when her glasses got knocked off, I found myself staring deep, deep, deep into Maddie’s beautiful grass-green eyes.

Time stopped. My breath sat trapped in my lungs. I stared and stared into those perfect, intense circles of green. I felt heat from her gaze, felt it crawl over my body, tingling and searing and tickling. My body and mind and heart welded together behind one desire, one purpose. We needed a kiss. One slow, sweet, passionate kiss to end all kisses.

Instead, Maddie screamed.

She squeezed her eyes shut and screamed, “Get away!” She stumbled backwards, stepping on her glasses. “Get away, now! Run!”

“But, why–”

She shook her head, clamped her hands over her eyes. “Run!” Maddie said again, “Please!” I stared and stood there. She sobbed, “Why won’t you listen to me?”

“But, what–”

“Oh gods, I hate you,” she said, then screamed, “I hate you!”

I turned and ran.

#

I didn’t wait for Maddie at the fountain after school. I’m not even sure what happened to her after gym class. I didn’t care. I hoped I never had to see her again.

#

I didn’t feel good the next day, so I stayed home from school. Dad wrote me a note after I promised to help him in the studio. Sometimes he used me for a model, since I could stand perfectly still in whatever pose he wanted, for however long he needed. Today I was holding a sword in one hand and an apple in the other. Not a bad life, the life of a statue. I wanted to stay there, without moving, forever. If only I could turn off my mind in the same way I could shut down my body.

And then I had a better idea. Maybe the best idea of my whole, short existence. I told Dad I had to pee and ran up to my room for supplies.

#

The trek proved long, but not arduous. I munched on some bread and olives I’d lifted from the kitchen before I left. Dad probably wouldn’t notice I was missing for hours, if at all. I’m not sure Mom even knew I stayed home from school. I was golden.

Like most days, Apollo’s chariot lit the sky and kept me warm as I walked. Each step cleared my mind a little. I needed distance… from Bulfinch High, from my parents, from Maddie,… from everything. I was about to become either a hero or a corpse, and that required a serious amount of concentration. (It was also possible I might become both at once, but in my current state of mind, that was okay, too.)

Maybe I should have said good-bye to Rudy, but hell, he’d be a full-blown satyr by junior year, and then he’d be throwing the best parties and getting all the girls and guys that he wanted. And he’d want a lot. No room for me in that world, anyway.

I checked my map. Hm. It looked like I overshot the lair by a grove of olive trees. But if I retraced my steps and turned right at the–

“Hello, boy,” a husky voice said from behind me. “You’re just in time for dinner.”

The sphinx had found me.

#

When I was little, my mom took me to see lions in Athens. There were three of them pacing in cages by the Parthenon. They looked soft. I wanted to pet them. My mother spoke to the owner, gave him some coins, and said something in a low voice. He shook his head, she batted her eyeslashes, and he opened the cage for me.

I didn’t get more than two feet inside before the first one clawed me across the chest and tried to bite my head off. If I hadn’t been mostly stone, my guts would have spilled everywhere. Mom yanked me back to safety, saying, “There. Have you learned? Monsters can be pretty. Monsters can have soft fur. Monsters can look at you with warm brown eyes and beg to be petted.” She ran a finger along one of the scratches in the marble of my chest. “But if they’re monsters on the inside, they’ll still try to hurt you.”

I cried. I cried because it hurt where the lion had raked me, but more because I didn’t want it to be true. I wanted soft things to be nice, I wanted monsters to be ugly. That it worked any other way was just wrong.

#

She had the body of great, soft, golden lion, with huge, playful paws and white, fluffy wings. Her face, curtained by long, silky hair, held a majesty found only in nature and my father’s best statues. And her other attributes, naked and tanned, defied me to find a word to do them justice. She was… sphinx-tastic.

“Remember the lions, remember the lions,…” My hands balled into fists. “For the love of Zeus, remember the lions!”

“Mmmmm,” she said. Was that drool around her mouth? “I’ve been eating sheep for weeks. You’re my reward for sticking with my diet.”

This sphinx stood tall as a horse and wide as an ox. A young one, then. But old enough to jiggle as she stalked closer.

“Hey,” I said, suddenly remembering my brain. “You’re supposed to ask me a riddle. There are rules!”

She made a face, but sunk back onto her beautiful, silky haunches. “You’re not going to guess it anyway, so I think we should skip that part and go on to the fun stuff,” she said. “Did you bring any condiments?”

“No, I did not bring condiments to my own death,” I said. “That’s just so wrong.”

The sphinx smiled. Her tongue flickered across her lips. “So you admit that you came to die.”

Hm. She had me on that one. In my mind, I was coming to defeat her and prove to everyone that I wasn’t such a loser… But really, ending up a martyr wasn’t a bad option either, and it was far more likely. Maddie might even cry at my funeral. Maybe they’d bury me in the school graveyard next to that pimple-faced kid who’d called Poseidon a water fairy.

Something growled. I couldn’t tell if it was–

Oh, hell. “Was that your stomach rumbling?” I asked weakly.

“Sheep’ll do that,” she said, nodding. “You think you’re full, but a day later and it’s all you can do to stop yourself from killing your sire and feasting on his thighs.”

“Uh…”

“So, then. Dinner!”

I took a step back. “No, no, no! So, then. Riddle!”

“Riddle? Oh, come on,” the sphinx said. “Aren’t you a little old for that? Wouldn’t you rather just skip straight to the horrible maiming death and feasting?”

“Maiming? Who said anything about maiming?”

She shrugged, still beautiful, but perhaps a little more terrible, too.

“No,” I said, “I insist on the riddle. That’s how this works.”

The sphinx mouthed my words back at me while making a face, as if she were my little sister. But after that, she ruffled her wings and settled into a more stately, majestic pose.

“Answer my riddle correctly and you may request any one thing it is in my power to give. Answer incorrectly, and you shall die.” She smiled. “More important, I shall kill you and suck the meat off your bones until there’s nothing left for the birds.”

In the spirit of disclosure I could have pointed out that I’m mostly made of stone and wouldn’t taste so good, but honestly, I suspected many of her wants would be satisfied with just the killing part anyway.

Casually, I scanned the clearing. Running seemed like such a good idea all of a sudden, except that I run really slow and the sphinx had wings. Other than that, my plan of cowardice seemed perfect.

“Well?” said the sphinx.

No way out but through.

“I accept–” My voice cracked. My knees wobbled. I tried again. “I accept your terms. Ask your riddle, monster.”

She raised an eyebrow–a beautiful, perfectly-shaped eyebrow–and nodded her approval. “Okay, boy. Answer me this: What walks on three legs in the morning, two legs during–”

“Oh, oh! I know this one!” I blurted. “The answer is–”

“I’m not finished!” the sphinx said, her cheeks red. “What I meant to say, was ‘What walks on four legs in the morning, and, uh, three legs at noon, and, uh,… five legs in the evening.”

I stared at her. “Five legs in the evening?”

She lowered her gaze, studied one of her own claws. “Uh, yes. Five. In the evening.”

We stood there.

“It makes perfect sense,” she blurted. “You just don’t know the answer.”

“I don’t know the answer because you just made that up!” I said. “That’s not a riddle, that just a bunch of random things!”

“Is not.”

“Is, too!”

“I’m going to eat you now, then,” she said, and she leaped.

I dodged, but not very fast. The sphinx slammed into my right shoulder and knocked me down. Her claws dug into my stone arm and I could feel, deep down, blood beginning to flow. I had a really good view of her monstrously amazing cleavage, but even that wasn’t enough to dull all the pain.

That’s when she dug the other paw into my left shoulder. I was pinned to the ground, helpless. And now that she was closer, she really smelled more like carrion than roses. And, gods, was that a piece of wool stuck between her teeth? My heart started dancing in my chest. Breathing seemed like a Herculean task all of a sudden. I guess my great big plan was going to be a success after all.

Woo.

“See ya,” said the sphinx. She reared up, opened her mouth wide, and–

Froze.

No, really. She stopped moving mid-maim. Only she wasn’t actually cold, she was… she was stone!

“That was close,” a familiar voice said from behind the sphinx’s huge body.

“Maddie!” I tried to wiggle free of the sphinx but failed. Her paws on my shoulders were like pins in a butterfly.

“In the flesh,” Maddie said, and walked into view.

She looked the same, dressed in her black skirt and white blouse, only her sunglasses and headwrap were gone. Instead, I saw her glowing green eyes and a pile of squirming snakes where her hair should have been.

“You’re–”

“A gorgon, yes–”

“–beautiful,” I finished.

Maddie giggled and blushed. “I’m really sorry I freaked out in gym, but, I thought, you know, that I was going to kill you.”

“Oh,” I said brilliantly.

“Yeah,” she said. “I have to be really careful.”

I looked at the sphinx, still stoned. “I guess you do,” I said, “just not with me.”

I grinned. Maddie grinned back. She walked closer, knelt down by my head. Her eyes held the ocean inside.

“So, you’re already stone,” she said quietly, “and maybe you’re immune to poison?” She rolled her eyes towards the dozens of tiny green snakes coiling and uncoiling around her head.

“Totally immune,” I assured her. She brought her head closer still. Tiny snakes struck my cheek, my ear, my chin. I couldn’t even feel their little fangs.

“And it sounds like you took care of our interview project?” she whispered. Her gaze felt like a wildfire as it swept over me.

“The A pluses are in the bag,” I said. Sure, my interview with the sphinx had been brief, but I’d gotten a lot of good material. We were at least guaranteed a B or a B minus. “A plus” just sounded so much sexier in the moment.

As Maddie leaned in, I tried to meet her halfway, but the sphinx’s claws still kept me pinned and immobile. Maddie’s mouth opened slightly, hinting at rows of sharp, perfect teeth. Her eyes slipped closed. Still, I couldn’t reach her.

“Maddie,” I breathed.

“Yes?” she whispered, her pink tongue taunting me across the distance.

“Can you–”

“Yes?”

“Can you bring me a chisel?”

-End-

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