Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams





I never met my father, the sea monster, but my mother told me about him: eight raging tentacles that felt, when she stroked them, like finest silk, the deep calm ocean blue of him, the round eyes that revealed secrets in their reflections. The first time she looked into them, she saw an image of herself in her future, and she was kind and full of joy. They met on a dating app. There weren’t that many options. Like most women in our seaside city, she didn’t realize he was mean until it was too late. I was already kicking in her belly, and even as she read the reports of destroyed villages and massacred maidens, she could not bear to let me go. She had become attached to the idea of holding a little girl in her arms as she slept. If I came out with tentacles of my own, enough to remind her of him, then it was a price she was willing to pay.

I came out as human as she was. At least on the surface.

By the time I was old enough to fix my own affections on a bad boy, then a bad girl, then my own badness—my rebellion took the form of past-curfew games of King’s Cup, trash can vandalism, and amateur fight clubs on the dirty sand of public beaches—I could hardly breathe. On my fifteenth birthday, I fainted in the arms of my then-girlfriend, Elia. She panicked and left me in the sand, but three strangers carried me to the hospital, where the doctor scanned me through. He discovered my own little sea monster curled around my lungs. It had wrapped its biggest tentacle around my heart.

“Isn’t there something you can do?” my mother pleaded with the doctor, squeezing my hand in the hospital room.

“I’m afraid we cannot operate,” the doctor said. “But hers is not the first case like this. Many patients have seen great strides from other forms of therapy. It will be difficult work, but your daughter’s condition can be managed if she sticks to a particular regimen.”

She wrote me a referral to the local wellness center. The woman who ran it used to be a witch, before witchcraft went out of fashion and she fast-tracked a degree in counseling. She told me as much as she led me into her bland grey office. I slumped down into her couch. “The counseling board advises against certain mental tricks. No more bestowing lessons through involuntary transformations. No more selling poisoned treats. But it’s mostly the same gig. Lamer furniture, though.” She pulled out the drawer of the table beside her own chair; inside she’d stored a leather-bound book of spells and several amulets. She winked. “Nostalgia,” she said. She shut the drawer. “I hear you have a sea creature inside you.”

“It’s my father’s fault,” I said.

“Isn’t it always?” she said.

The treatment involved many steps: she called my affliction “entanglement.” The sea creature had become so much a part of me that, deep down, I did not know how to live without it. We would work through meditation. I would take a daily supplement of eel blood; sea monsters of my father’s type hated eels. I would learn to see myself outside of my father’s shadow.

Elia came to visit me after I got out of the hospital. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Doctors give me the fear.” Her mother had died from fear, scared of everything until it rotted her from the inside out. I understood.

“I forgive you,” I said. It was easy to forgive her; she told me often that she loved me. She took care of me when I was sick with lesser illnesses, ones that did not require hospital visits. For my fourteenth birthday, she’d defeated the master of the school labyrinth in my name. Plus she never held a grudge. I invited her into my bed, where she pressed her palm over the center of my chest.

“It’s in here?” she said. “I don’t feel anything.”

“That’s the trouble,” I said. “Every day I feel less and less.”

“But your father—wasn’t he an angry monster?”

I shrugged. “I’d thought so. But maybe not. Maybe it’s just the destruction that’s in our blood.”

She tried to kiss me, but I turned away. Her lips grazed my cheek instead. “I doubt that,” she said, but it wasn’t long before she got out of bed and disappeared.

The therapist advised against cutting off relationships that brought me comfort. She recommended I apologize to Elia and try to live as I had lived before I knew about the sea monster. At home I sat on the little chair in my room and closed my eyes and imagined prying the tentacles off each part of myself, imagined burning them away with Elia’s fancy Zippo. Afterward I picked up my phone and dialed her number but hung up before it had rung twice.

• • • •

The doctor put me on low-salt, no-savory, all-sweet diet. “How am I supposed to live as I lived before if I can’t eat my favorite things?” I begged my mom at the dinner table when she placed a plate of spiced apples and pomegranate seeds and a gingerbread sandwich before me.

My mother did not budge. “I don’t want to lose you,” she said. “It was hard enough raising you alone. You want that to be all for nothing?”

I saw the fear in her eyes and thought of Elia, of her mother’s hollowed-out carcass. I ate everything she made for me and didn’t sneak into the kitchen after she’d slipped herself an eight-hour sleeping curse. Instead, after she was snoring in her bed with her hands clasped at her heart, I called Elia for real.

“I want to help,” she said. “I made an appointment with the witch too. To work through this hospital-fear.”

“Sneak over here,” I said.

An hour later, she was climbing up the braided rope I lowered down the side of my house and into my arms. But each flutter of my heart sent a shooting pain through my blood, an ache that felt as though it were wrenched bodily inside me. I soothed her worry when she asked what was wrong, but it was clear that I needed this creature out of me. I needed it gone for good.

• • • •

I played along with the witch’s plan. I swallowed my capsules and half-assed my meditations. I created the collages she encouraged to visually inspect my identity, but there wasn’t much for me in the pages of her magazines. Even as I did the things the witch asked of me, I kept one eye trained to the television, watching for a sign of my father’s destruction.

I tried to undo his damage, in my small ways. When he leveled a city, I volunteered for roadside cleanup. When he struck the electric company and ignited a fire that ate up twenty lives, I patrolled the seashore looking for drowning children to rescue and return to their parents. These good deeds were supposed to make me feel better. I turned down my girlfriend’s requests for late-night wine coolers. Instead I asked her along on my correctional journeys. She turned me down.

“The one thing we had in common,” she said, “was our love for destruction.”

I hadn’t thought of us that way before. I paused at the words, but she was right: kicking trash cans until they fell over, depositing their litter all over the sand; racing until someone got hurt; breaking hearts, though never each other’s. I let her continue her rebellion. She let me cease mine. But I itched for it. Not just because of her, although now we only saw each other in the dark of my room once my mother had gone to bed. Because it was what lived inside me.

• • • •

My mother cooed her pride at breakfast each morning over pancakes soaked in maple syrup, blackberry jam on sweet bread. I downed gallons of juice and kept one fist clenched beneath the table.

“You’ve been doing so well,” my mother said. “I had worried, but—”

When I kissed her, I left a lip-print of sugar on her forehead.

When my mother stroked my hair, I held in an unsettling, unnamable anger until she left for work. I wrapped my arms around my belly and imagined hugging the creature inside of me.

“We’re connected, you and I,” I said. “Even from this far apart.” On the television, he menaced yet another city. I called Elia at once. “I know what I have to do,” I said.

“More charity?” She did not approve.

“I have to kill my father,” I said.

• • • •

This was a good deed that Elia could get behind, one that crossed lines with destruction, the perfect task for us to partake in together. Neither of us were murderers; my father wasn’t human. There was a difference in that. It would be no different than killing the thing inside me.

During my next therapy appointment, I requested a glass of cool water. As my therapist left the room, I rooted in her drawer. I grabbed her spell book and her matchbox. I had heard my mother’s stories of matchbox-travel, how easy it had been to go from coast to coast. In my day, we needn’t walk uphill to school at all. We simply lit a match and wished it and arrived wherever we needed to go!

After my appointment, I lit a match outside the office and wished myself home, where Elia waited, bags packed, for our journey.

“He’s been on the television,” she said. “I know where he is.”

I held out the matchbox and grabbed my own bag, already packed. I’d made sure to slip sleeping curse into my mother’s morning coffee.

“Take us there,” I said.

• • • •

One moment we stood in my bedroom. The next we stood on an ocean’s shore. My knees bent involuntarily, sending me into the sand. Elia knelt beside me and rested a hand across my back.

“Dizzy?” she said.

“Aren’t you?” I breathed in the salty air; it called to me. I longed to crawl out into the waves and lose myself in the foam. From the direction of the city, barely audible above the ocean’s roar, I heard an explosion, then another, and the rumbling of the great monster creeping through the city streets. I imagined the crush of his tentacles against the buildings.

“Not enough that I can’t care for you. What do you need?”

I breathed in, out. The dizziness was subsiding. “Help me up.” I pulled on her hand. My knees worked again, though my hands shook. Elia held onto them tight and warm.

“Don’t let the fear in,” she said.

I shook my head. “Don’t worry about me.”

“I can’t help it.” She kissed me.

“I know.” And I did know all about things one couldn’t help.

We walked the beach at the ocean’s edge, letting the water tickle our feet, a gentle moment before the murderous act some would name heroism. The sun beat down, but the intermittent breezes kept us cool as we made our way toward the city, toward the chaos. Finally, skyscrapers we had only seen on screen cast their shadow upon us. We stood where the sandy path turned to paved concrete. We stepped together over that threshold. The metal buildings gleamed to either side of us. Cars sat bumper-to-bumper on the street that cut our path ahead. Several had been abandoned, no drivers behind their wheels. Others emitted desperate honks, those inside unwilling to admit that the standstill would not move, with half its drivers gone running far away from the monstrous scene.

We paused at the crosswalk and listened for my father’s destruction: a crash to our left. We turned and walked that sidewalk, making our easy way toward him. I clutched my fist, gathering that anger. We were in no hurry to save people; we were here for revenge.

When finally we came to him, I lost my breath once more. He was, as my mother had said, beautiful. Eight raging tentacles spread out from his center, a perfectly spherical mantle. The most haunting blue, like the deepest parts of the ocean that few ever saw with their own eyes. He lifted one tentacle from the road and slammed it into a nearby car. To watch him crush things underfoot was to watch a titan re-taking his earth. I cheered for him without thinking.

Elia squeezed my hand. “What are you doing?” she whispered, but it was too late; he had turned his head to face us, those two round eyes settling on us and only us, all the world forgotten in the reflection.

He opened his great mouth and emitted a sound like the love songs of whales; it reverberated against the buildings and settled in my ears. I moved toward him, letting go of Elia’s hand. His tentacles crept along the road, sliding off the destruction in which they had wedged themselves, pulling him closer until I stood right before him, close enough to smell his sea scent, salt and fish and the trash we let collect in the place that had once been his home.

I reached out and touched him. He didn’t feel like silk but like the velvet curtains my mother hung over my windows when I was a baby, so that I would sleep longer, so that she might sleep longer. The sleeping curse she took was the only way she forgot that she had loved and lost. That she had given in to a monster.

To understand his pain was not to condone it. I was his daughter, but I was also born of my mother, of the world, of all the people who had been wounded by him. I was also myself, that monster tangled around my own inside.

I removed my hand from him. He blinked once, twice, and on the third blink, a fog seemed to cloud his eyes. He lifted one tentacle from the ground and began to curl it around me. I froze to his threat, the monster inside aching to be done with it, to let him crack me open to get at the true self, to free my heart from its binding.

Elia’s voice emerged from behind us. “Please,” she called. “Don’t give in.”

And then I saw myself in his eyes: a future me, and she was kind and joyful, even if she was a little wild.

I threw myself to the ground as his tentacle squeezed the air where I had been. I rolled out of his reach, away from his center, away from his velvet touch, toward Elia, toward the only person who had ever tried to let me be me. We did not need to repeat the mistakes of our parents.

I grabbed her hand. We ran, no looking back, until we reached the ocean once more. We kissed beside the light of the stricken match. A second later we were home again.

• • • •

I snuck Elia into my bedroom, where she curled into the blankets as the sunlight outside crept away from our part of the world. I checked on my mother, drooling against her pillow under the influence of the curse. I sat beside her and lay my hand against her back.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It was wrong of me to do that.” She mumbled in her sleep. “But it’s not wrong of me to want to figure out my own way, to want to learn to live with the parts of me that come from him instead of living against them.”

It would be difficult, but I would find another therapist, another routine, one that didn’t involve so much sugar my belly ached. I moved away from her and into my room where, though I tried to sleep, I ended up staring at the velvet curtains, so thick no street or moonlight came through them.

In the morning, we met my mother at the breakfast table, where she’d cooked up a high stack of pancakes.

“Oh, Elia is here,” she said. “Would you like me to cook you some pancakes?”

I shook my head. “She’ll eat these. I’ll make myself some hashbrowns. Do you want any?” I asked my mother.

She frowned. “The doctor—”

“I can handle this,” I said. “Trial and error. We’ll see another doctor. Someone in the city perhaps.” I pulled the matchbox out of my pocket. “Trip’s on me for a while.”

My mother’s forehead furrowed. “Where’d you get that?”

“We’ll get some help for your sleep, too. Something that doesn’t involve nightly curses. We’ll get help for Elia’s fear of fear.” I squeezed her hand. “Help for everyone. Everyone who wants it.” In the other room, a news report played about the damage my father had done: how much money it would cost to repair, how many families had been affected, how, for now, he had returned to the sea.

I thought of the version of myself I saw in my father’s truth-telling eyes. I thought of that hero version of myself, a sword in my hand, facing the great beast, winning back our sense of safety. I might always dream of her, but there was no sword. There was no help for those who could not help themselves.

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s fiction and poetry has appeared in over 50 publications such as Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Lightspeed, and LeVar Burton Reads, as well as in six languages. She has been a finalist for the Nebula Award and won the Grand Prize in the SyFy Channel’s Battle the Beast contest; SyFy made and released an animated short of her short story “Party Tricks,” set in the world of The Magicians. She lives in Texas.