OF MONSTERS is a series of flash fiction exploring what it means to be monstrous, and each piece, small and silver-wrapped, opens to reveal something different. In Dana Diehl’s “Child Star”, monstrousness is fame, and the feeling that your body is undependable, might any moment split like a seam. In “Jane Eyre,” Zach Doss explores the monstrousness of cutting someone to bits and reconstruction, of a love turned scientific and procedural. Monstrousness is having a fish in your heart, is a series a B movies where we’re just waiting to be attacked, is the pebbling in of a migraine, is being a different sort of person in your attic, is darkness, is senility, is the struggle to swallow. A topcoat of witchcraft. The hint of a tentacle in a pool. Monstrousness is being the person who wasn’t good enough to love. Is the dragon you can’t control. Is knowing how powerless you are.
The series is inspired by Melissa Goodrich’s debut collection Daughters of Monsters, a raw and magical book of spells, an honest yet harrowing look at the wonder and threat of the world.
In the video game Mark is a level 70 Fire Mage. In the kitchen Mark is doing the dishes. He remembers, too late, that Gail prefers he use the dish brush on caked tomato sauce. It turns her sponges brown, she says, but Mark thinks whose sponges are they really if he’s the one who ends up scrubbing? He props a shimmering saucepan on the drying rack with the other dishes and casts a light Scorch spell to dry them.
“We have an episode of the show to catch up on,” says Gail.
Mark blinks. “I’m just about through my dungeon.”
“See you next week,” Gail scoffs. She huffs a breath out her nostrils and Mark thinks he sees smoke—a parlor trick, something a level 18 could do.
“Be out in a few,” he promises and goes to his study.
Mark has a study. Gail doesn’t. Gail works outside the home as an IT specialist. Her days are filled with computers and men on computers. Mark quit his job as a middle manager at his father’s online ad agency six months ago. He wants to become a salesperson or a security guard or something he’s never been. His favorite ever job was summer camp counselor. He’s been begging Gail for babies.
In the dungeon Mark encounters the Maggot Lord. The Maggot Lord wears a cape of larvae and oozes green sludge. It drags its legless torso with two exoskeletal arms that slash when the Fire Mage gets too close. Mark casts Inferno on the ground around the Maggot Lord and its body catches. It shakes like a wet animal, hurling maggots from its back in a slimy rain. Their squirming slug bodies surround the Fire Mage. Mark fries dozens, but they keep coming. His health bar drains. He dies. He respawns. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Mark doesn’t mind the dying—each attempt, a fresh start. He equips different gear, casts new spell combinations, reassigns skill points. He reinvents himself so even failure feels like progress. Until it doesn’t. The Maggot Lord flays Mark open, slices him in two from scalp to crotch, and Mark leaves his study.
At 1:00am he finds Gail asleep on the couch, the television streaming service asking if she’s still watching. He turns the TV off. Gail’s eyes flicker and she hugs herself. Careful not to wake her, Mark casts Radiate, his gentlest warming spell, and climbs the staircase alone. He continues down the hall past the bedroom and yanks the cord dangling from the ceiling.
In the attic Mark digs out a black trash bag stuffed to bursting with his armor. He unloads gloves, boots, bracers, chest piece, helm, and dons them. The thing Gail doesn’t know is, a few times a week, on nights like this, Mark is a lady wizard. His breastplate protrudes two nippleless brass tits. Mark unsheathes his wand, looks up, and sets the insulation ablaze. In minutes the rafters collapse in ash around him. The sky in view, Mark shoots fireballs at the moon.
Gail calls from the bottom of the ladder, as if she’d Teleported there—a level 65 skill. “Keep it down,” she says, “I’m going to bed.” Mark hears her footsteps as she strides to their bedroom. When the door shuts Mark climbs down and shoves the ladder into the ceiling, then lights the cord like a fuse or a filament. “Gail,” he whispers. He wants to tell her a secret, to be seen in his armor with his guard down. He grasps the doorknob, then pulls his hand away. It’s hot—raw pink palm, scent of burned flesh. When did our bedroom become a furnace? he wants to ask her. You tell me, she’ll say, and he will. If she asks he’ll tell her anything.
The flame of the cord hits the ceiling and fizzles.
David Joseph is the winner of Revolution John Magazine’s inaugural Highlander Fiction Award. He placed second in Cheap Pop/ GLCL’s 2015 Micro-Fiction Contest. David’s work has appeared in Hobart, Big Lucks, and the W.W. Norton anthology, Hint Fiction. He served as Co-Editor-in-Chief of Susquehanna Review for its 2012 and 2013 issues and now lives in Philadelphia with his wife. Connect with David on Twitter: @dfhjoseph