by Matthew Bey
When Hudson Principes returned from Minnesota, he was surprised to discover that his girlfriend had turned into a monster. He recognized it the moment it walked into the airport baggage claim. Most of the face and some of the breasts retained a striking resemblance to Elle, but the rest of it had mutated monstrously. It had to duck and drop onto its forelimbs to get through the motion-sensitive sliding doors. Hudson noted that each of its limbs terminated in two pairs of opposable claws like the feet of a chameleon.
It shuffled into the airport and rose to its full twelve-foot height, slashing a pair of tourists with its spined elbows. The protruding eyes, olive green like Elle’s, rotated independently, searching for him.
Hudson raised his hand. “Over here.” He shouldered his single item of checked baggage, a waterproof camping backpack.
The monster lumbered toward him. Red and black scales, shiny like jewels, covered its body. It parted pale, thin lips, and a ribbon of tongue darted out, tasting the air for traces of his scent.
“How was your flight?” it rumbled.
“Not bad. Did you have trouble parking?”
The last part was a tacit allusion to how, despite an hour delay due to a faulty engine revolution gauge, the monster had arrived even later than Hudson’s baggage.
“No. I just circled around.” It kept one protruding eye on Hudson while the other scanned the baggage claim and the defenseless passengers of flight 1479. “Is there a restroom around here?”
“Ah.” Hudson dropped his backpack. “I think there’s one on the upper level. By the security gates.”
“Thanks. I’ll be right back.”
It leapt onto a concrete column and scuttled up to the second level. There was a short scream as it bit the head off a federally-funded passenger screener.
Hudson sat on his backpack and put his hands on his chin. He remembered the last night he spent with Elle before he left for Minnesota. It had been only a week ago, but she had changed a lot. They had eaten at the Golden Corral, a sentimental treat. She had been upset by the non-functioning ice cream machine, but mollified by the candy corn on the dessert table. Then they went to see the latest Harry Potter movie. The over-air-conditioned theater prompted them to curl up in their seats and intertwine their arms for warmth.
The floor tile splintered as the monster dropped the full twenty feet from the level above. Fresh blood stained Elle’s lips.
“You ready to go?”
The monster had parked a couple rows inside the airport parking ramp. Somehow it managed to fold into the driver seat of Elle’s four-door Honda Civic. The black and yellow banded horns that arched from its forehead scratched diamond-tipped gouges into the windshield.
“How do I get out of here?” the monster asked rhetorically, swerving erratically through the parking lot aisles. Like Elle, the monster was easily befuddled by simple traffic decisions.
“So how was your trip?”
“Not so bad. Got to spend time with family. The fourth of July was fun.”
Hudson could have kicked himself for summarizing such a good conversation opener. Now the monster drove on in silence. It handed the parking ticket to the gate attendant, paying as little attention to the woman in the booth as it did to Hudson. Elle had the same distracted air through much of their relationship, which had made substantive connection difficult. Now that Elle was a monster, Hudson recognized this as the behavior of a predator circling a waterhole; the languorous wait for easy prey to show itself.
“So. You’ve been gone a week,” the monster said after a time. “I’ve changed.”
Have you ever, Hudson thought to himself. He kept his mouth shut. After a previous relationship had devolved into shouting matches and fights, he had vowed never to utter a negative word to Elle. He had thought that if nothing bad went in, then nothing bad could come out. So the whole monster thing had him off balance.
“Hudson, I didn’t want to tell you this over the phone. But I don’t have feelings for you. I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
They drove in silence. Hudson’s mouth worked as he tried to think of the perfect thing to say that would reverse everything, that would change the monster back into someone who smiled at him.
The monster shifted in its seat, bony spurs slicing vinyl.
“That’s why I’m going to hunt you down, gouge out your eyes, and eat you alive.”
“But I fell for you.”
“I’ve talked this through, and I’ve come to my decision. There’s a lot going on in my life right now, and I just can’t do a serious relationship.”
Hudson’s brow furrowed with suspicion.
“Waitaminute. You’ve been getting into the transmogrification alkaloids while I’ve been away, haven’t you?”
Both eyes swiveled onto him, burning with a reptilian hatred. The monster hissed, “This isn’t about the transmogrification alkaloids. This is about us.”
“I’m just saying –”
“I know what you’re saying. I came to this decision on my own. I don’t want to leave you with any hope. It wouldn’t be very respectful to lead you on. So I’m going to kill you in one week.”
The monster braked gently in front of Hudson’s house. Hudson climbed out and dropped his backpack on the sidewalk. Leaning down to the window, he addressed the monster’s hulking mass, saying, “Will you stay for a little while?”
“No. You should settle in. And, you know, arrange your affairs.”
Hudson watched the Honda Civic’s tail lights recede before going inside.
Hudson barely slept at all the first night. He lay awake, staring at the ceiling, his mind filled with fear, anticipation, and memories of his life with Elle. He recalled the day they had spent hiking in the city greenbelt. It was a shockingly beautiful canyon, forested and serene. They hiked until they got too hot, and then they cooled in the turquoise waters of the creek and played in its tumbling rapids. The limestone creek bed was as clean as a Los Angeles swimming pool. When they got hungry they ate a picnic lunch of crackers, goat cheese, and mangos. Back at Hudson’s house, they drank about a quart of water each and fell into his bed, spontaneously falling asleep in each other’s arms.
The conversation in the car festered in Hudson’s mind. Every reply he should have made during that drive back from the airport occurred to him with an insomniac’s clarity. Sometime after five in the morning he began to write an email filled with all the suspicions, fears, analogies, and obliquely related anecdotes that he had thought during the night. He accused the monster of turning its co-workers against him, getting bad advice from Elle’s mother, suffering bi-polar disorder, displaying inhumanly contemptuous hostility, deleting that very email without reading it, only appreciating boorish boyfriends, and having stupid musical taste. His confessions had an abusive familiarity, like a pervert unbuttoning his fly on the bus.
He emailed the letter to the monster, not because he wanted it to know how he felt, but because Hudson had no one else that would accept his confession. He felt fundamentally alone, his investment of intimacy had gone worthless overnight.
It took two days for the monster to reply, a delay that seemed more disdainful than mere words. He imagined the monster reading his email in its lair, cruelly baffled by his admissions of hurt.
“What you’re feeling is normal. I was firm with you because I didn’t want you to have any hope,” the monster wrote. “Your ex-girlfriend trained you well. You didn’t seem to have much of a personality.”
That’s the second time she told me not to have any hope, Hudson thought. She wouldn’t have stressed that unless there was some chance we could go back to the way things were.
Almost immediately, Hudson emailed the monster back, apologizing for everything he had said. The monster never replied.
Hudson slumped through work all week. He snapped at his co-workers at Captain Goosebush’s Alkaloid Synethetorium. He could go no more than twenty minutes without thinking about the monster or all the good times he had had with Elle.
He entertained the prospect of escape, of returning to his childhood home and starting a new life. He went so far as looking up a website for a real estate agent in northern Minnesota. The photos of wooded lots only depressed him. Even though the photos were ostensibly a sales tool, they looked unspeakably bleak and forlorn. The north woods wilderness had too short a growing season for all but the most anemic and tortured vegetation. The roads were unpaved, the cottages and hunting shacks constructed from ramshackle plywood. All the photos needed to complete the effect were turn-of-the-century immigrant couples; crabby and gnarled at thirty, crippled by frostbite and Seasonal Affective Disorder. Was this supposed to be the home of his heart? This pathetic, empty wilderness? In the end he found he was too lazy to flee.
He spent more nights of sleepless worry. During this nocturnal fretting he had revelations into aspects of Elle’s personality that had previously been a mystery to him. He had labored under an angelic vision of her, incapable of even the most modest ill thought. In his re-analysis, a pattern of quitting emerged. Elle had quit college and her job at the grocery store. She had quit her Pilates classes and her family. Whenever faced with difficulty or duress, she gave up, part of a lifetime retreat into a slothful primitivism. With nothing left to surrender, she had quit humanity itself. At the heart of this quitting lay a brutal apathy, tinged only on the farthest reaches with offhand rage. When the time came, the monster would kill Hudson out of lazy reflex.
Even with all his worrying, it came as a surprise when his week was up. The monster called him at work.
“Meet me at Goosebush’s at four-thirty,” the monster growled, then hung up.
Hudson sat at the window of the synethetorium, stirring an iced frappalkaloid, waiting for the monster to show. Among the tables a handful of customers lounged in feverish pursuit of alchemical culture. In a corner, beneath an amateurishly framed painting of a masculine nude, a pair of slacker dudes drank cerebralkaloids. They mumbled about the latest political documentary as their brains bubbled out their ears like bloody wads of chewing gum. Outside in the cheap plastic chairs that passed for sidewalk seating at Goosebush’s, a girl from the local alternative high school giggled as her limbs liquefied from a syrupmog. Goosebush’s Slovakian dishwasher would be grumbling about mopping up that mess.
Like Elle would have been, the monster was late. When it came into view, walking across the street toward Goosebush’s, his heart leapt. The monster walked just like Elle, loping with a spacey gait, the back arched languidly, the head despondently tilted to the side.
It’s coming to see me, Hudson thought with a mixture of fear and pride.
The bell above the door jingled as the monster leaned its head inside.
“Let’s go for a walk,” it suggested.
It was a blisteringly hot day as they made a circuit of the neighborhood. Hudson held his iced frappalkaloid in the hand opposite the monster, so his free hand might ward off the monster in the event of a precipitous attack and buy him an extra moment of life.
“I don’t think you’re right for me,” the monster began. “So I think it’s best that you die.”
“Before you do it, do you think that I could get one last kiss?” Hudson asked, taking a sip from the frappalkaloid.
“Yeah, sure.” With distracted disinterest, the monster bent to Hudson’s face, the forked tongue snaking across its pale lips.
Hudson spit frappalkaloid into its mouth. The monster recoiled, strong emotion coloring its face for the first time. Its mouth bubbled and frothed. It fell onto claws and spiked knees.
“I’ve been spending the week researching. Goosebush’s synethetorium is relatively well-stocked with alkaloid reference manuals.” Hudson stepped out of claw-reach. “What you’re experiencing is the first stage of a transmogrification alkaloid antidote that I developed. How do you like the mocha flavor?”
The monster vomited purple viscera. Its back heaved and arched. The jeweled scales lost their luster and sloughed off like rotten banana skins.
Hudson grabbed the banded horns and snapped them from the monster’s forehead. He tossed them to the ground with a sneer.
“It was probably a mistake to fall in love with you. We never had much in common. But there you go. What can I do about it now?”
Elle lay in the piles of shed monster flesh, clothed in blood and slime. It was definitely her, as beautiful as ever. She looked like an anime rendering of Winona Ryder. Her olive green eyes turned on Hudson and she gave him the sideways-crooked smile that had stolen his heart.
He dropped to his knees in the monster muck, resting her head in his hands.
“Do you think I would give up on you so easily? You are everything I have ever wanted.”
“Oh, Hudson.” Elle’s left hand brushed his cheek. “This had nothing to do with the transmogrification alkaloids.”
With her right hand, Elle drove the curved monster horn up beneath Hudson’s ribs. His jaw dropped in surprise, air hissing from shattered lungs.
“This is about us.”
MATTHEW BEY’s work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Drabblecast, Pseudopod, Black Gate, Town Drunk, and many other publications. He is the editor of Space Squid and assistant editor at the Drabblecast. He is currently campaigning to win the least deserved Campbell Award in history.