Science Fiction & Fantasy

GENOME by Sergei Lukyanenko

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Fiction

Beauty

Beauty by David Barr Kirtley, Illustration by Galen Dara

Nicole Sanders was beautiful. One night after work, she stopped off at a bar downtown, which is where she met the beast.

“Hi,” the beast said, in a gentle voice. “Can I buy you a drink?”

He was a hulking, hairy creature. His spindly goat legs ended in a pair of cloven hooves. Massive sheep horns poked out of his forehead and curled around his gremlin ears. Instead of hands he had two furry paws. His demon eyes were bloodshot and sad.

Nicole studied him. He certainly wasn’t the best-looking guy in the place, but he seemed so hopeful and shy, and she didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

“Okay,” she said. “A drink would be nice.”

He bought two beers and carried them over. “I’m the beast,” he said, sitting down beside her.

“I’m Nicole,” she said.

He smelled sharp and fiery.

“That’s an interesting cologne you’re wearing,” she said. “What is it?”

“It’s brimstone,” he said flatly, then added, “It isn’t cologne.”

“Oh.”

The beast studied his drink.

“So what do you do?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Telemarketing.”

“Do you like it?”

“It’s all right.” He gulped some beer. “Actually, I’ve been having some problems with my coworkers.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah, I mean, things used to be a lot better there, before the whole, you know . . .” He gestured at his appearance.

“Oh,” Nicole said. “So it’s . . .”

“A spell.” The beast nodded wearily. “Yeah. I actually used to be pretty handsome, if you can believe that.”

“So what happened?”

He lowered his voice. “I was cursed by an evil sorceress.” He held up his huge paws. “She turned me into this.”

Nicole gasped. “That’s horrible.”

The beast sighed. “Oh, it’s not so bad. I have some magic talking furniture that keeps me company. It’s enough, most of the time . . . ” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Look, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to . . . maybe I should go.” He started to get up.

“Wait,” Nicole said. “No. It’s all right, really.” She added, “I’ve never met anyone before who owned any magic talking furniture.”

He glanced at her hopefully, then sat back down again.

They chatted for a long time, then she walked with him back to his apartment, and he invited her up for a drink. The apartment was small, and kind of a mess.

“I should straighten up a bit,” said the beast.

“No, it’s fine,” Nicole assured him. She glanced through a doorway into the kitchen. “Where’s the magic furniture?”

He lumbered into the living room and turned on his tiny television. “That’s it.”

She stared. “That’s just a television.”

“It talks,” the beast said weakly.

“But . . . that’s not magic at all.”

He settled down on the couch and hung his head in his paws. “I know,” he moaned, “I haven’t got any magic furniture. I haven’t got anything.”

“Hey,” Nicole said softly. “Don’t worry. It’ll be all right.”

***

The beast called her the next day.

“I had a good time last night,” he said. “You’re such a good listener.”

“It was nice,” Nicole said. It had been a long time since a guy had opened himself up to her like that.

“Can I see you again?” he asked.

“All right.”

They started going out together—to movies, to restaurants, and bars. Her friends didn’t approve.

Her best friend Katie said, “I mean really, Nicki. The guy’s a telemarketer. You could do so much better.”

But she ignored them.

One night Nicole and the beast were relaxing in a local restaurant. Suddenly he gasped.

“What?” Nicole said.

“That’s her,” he whispered. “The evil sorceress I was telling you about. Over there, by the register.”

Nicole sneaked a glance. The woman he’d indicated was in her mid-twenties, attractive, with curly red hair. “She doesn’t look evil,” Nicole said. “She looks pretty normal, actually.”

“They always do.” The beast sighed. “They always do.”

Nicole dated the beast for a few more months. She began to really like him. His bloodshot eyes were soft and caring. His werewolf paws were strong and gentle. When he slept, he would fold his goblin ears in the most adorable way. He giggled whenever she poked him on his cute little doggie nose.

One night, as they sat on his couch watching TV, Nicole asked, “Is there any way the spell can ever be broken?”

“It’ll never happen.”

“Tell me.”

He sighed. “For the spell to be broken, I must marry a beautiful girl who loves me for who I am.”

“A beautiful girl?” Nicole echoed. “Only a beautiful one?”

“Yes.”

She frowned. “Is that all I am to you? A way to break the spell?”

“No!” he said, wounded. “How can you think that? Yes, you are beautiful, Nicki—and smart, and sweet, and caring, and I love you.”

She studied him for a moment, then took his paw and squeezed it tight. Of course he wanted to break the spell. Who wouldn’t? That didn’t mean he didn’t love her.

He did love her, and she loved him. He was an honest, dependable, adorable creature.

And he wasn’t shy about commitment either.

***

They got married in the spring.

The morning after their wedding, Nicole awoke to find a stranger in her bed—a gorgeous man with jet black hair.

“Beast?” she whispered.

He opened his eyes, which were bright blue.

“Beast no longer,” he said, in a deep voice. “The spell is broken, Nicki. We did it.”

He sprang from the bed and paced barefoot across the floor, studying himself in the full-length mirror. His shoulders were broad and toned, his calf muscles vividly defined. He stretched and flexed and laughed.

“Look at me!” he said, turning. “I’m my old self again.”

“Beast . . .” she whispered.

“Brett,” the man insisted happily. “That’s my real name—Brett.”

“Brett,” she repeated, uncertainly.

He leaped back into the bed and kissed her over and over. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for being who you are.”

She studied this man, this stranger. He noticed her expression and said, “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know, it’s just . . . I’ve gotten to love you one way, and now you change.”

“You’re a beautiful woman, Nicki,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to live with some ugly monster. What kind of happy ending would that be?”

“It didn’t matter to me,” she said. “I didn’t care how you looked.”

He settled back, kneeling, troubled. “I don’t know what to say.”

After a moment she added, “I’m sorry.” She pulled him close and embraced him. “I don’t mean to be like this. You look great. Really.”

***

Shortly afterward, Brett got promoted. He got his own office, and an assistant named Cindy. Then he started working late at the office more and more.

On weekends he’d recline shirtless on the front porch of their new house and play the guitar, and women from all over the neighborhood, who just happened to be walking or jogging by, would come over and talk to him.

One day Nicole came home early and found him relaxing in the living room, sharing a bottle of wine with her best friend Katie.

“Katie,” Nicole said. “Could I talk to you for a minute?” She led Katie into the kitchen, and demanded, “What are you doing here?”

“It’s not what you think,” Katie said. “Brett’s been teaching me to play the guitar, that’s all.”

“Katie,” Nicole growled. “You were a music major. Brett only knows three songs.”

Katie sighed dreamily. “But he’s such a good teacher.”

That night at dinner, Nicole said to him, “It’s like I don’t even know you anymore. These women hanging around all the time, your late nights at the office, you never call—”

“Nicki, calm down. You’re not being fair.”

“Oh, I’m not?”

“It’s not easy, being attractive,” he said, wrapping spaghetti around his fork. “You of all people should know that. I can’t help it if women like me.”

“You are not the man I married,” she said. “The man I married was a kind, gentle—”

“Oh, come on, Nicki,” he said. “Did you really think nothing would change? Nothing at all? If you woke up tomorrow and you were some ugly monster, would you still act exactly the same way? Feel exactly the same way about everything?”

“I’d still love you,” she said. “Would you still love me?”

He glared. “I don’t have to take this.” He threw his napkin out on the table. “I’m going to bed,” he said, as he stomped up the stairs.

***

The next morning Brett awoke with horns. There were two of them, stubby pale things, poking out of his temples like giant whiteheads.

“No!” he raged, pacing back and forth in front of the mirror. “No! This can’t be happening.”

Nicole watched from the bed. She said softly, “How?”

“I don’t know. The spell was gone, broken, it—” He turned on her suddenly. “You! You did this to me.”

“What? But I . . .”

He sat down beside her and took her by the hand. “Do you still love me?”

“Of course I do.”

“With all your heart? Like you used to?”

She stared at the blanket.

After a moment, he stood. “I’m late for work.”

When he returned home that night, he’d changed again. The stubs on his brow had grown into great horns nine inches long. His pant legs were shredded, and his knees bent backward when he walked. His smooth tanned arms now ended in a pair of jarringly incongruous werewolf paws.

At work, he had been demoted.

“Look at me!” he shrieked, grasping her by the shoulders and shaking her. “Look what you’ve done!”

“Get away from me!” she screamed. “Don’t touch me!”

Later, he packed up a few belongings and disappeared into the night, slamming the door behind him.

***

He called the next day, but she hung up on him. He called her at home, at work. She wouldn’t speak to him.

“These damn telemarketers,” Katie said. “They never leave you alone.”

He sent her roses, which she threw in the trash.

“I told you he was no good,” Katie said. “I always said you could do a lot better.”

One night he showed up at the front door, drunk. It was raining.

“Please, Nicki,” he said. “Please. You have to take me back. No one will ever love me the way you can.”

His ears were pointed and his face had grown into a half-snout. He gazed at her longingly, adoringly. He looked so much like the old beast that it was all she could do not to touch him on his cute little doggie nose, to tickle his adorable gremlin ears.

“I’m sorry,” she told him sadly, “but this is the way it has to be.”

***

Months passed. The paperwork for the divorce came through.

One night, on her way home from work, Nicole stopped by a bar to have a drink. As she squeezed through the crowd, she came face to face with him. He was beastly as ever, and had a pretty young girl at his side.

Nicole said awkwardly, “Hi.”

He studied her with his bloodshot demon eyes. “Hi.”

The girl glanced back and forth between them. Finally she said, “Beast? Who’s this?”

He was silent a moment, then said wearily, “That’s the evil sorceress I was telling you about.”

Story © 2012 David Barr Kirtley
Illustration © 2012 Galen Dara

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David Barr Kirtley

David Barr KirtleyDavid Barr Kirtley is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He recently wrote a 12-part column for Wired.com covering Season 2 of Game of Thrones. He’s also the co-host of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, for which he’s interviewed folks such as George R. R. Martin, Richard Dawkins, Paul Krugman, and Simon Pegg. He lives in New York.