Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Picnic, with Monster

Journal Prompt: What does freedom mean to you? How do you know when you’re free?

Freedom means walking through the park on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon, instead of being locked up in the hospital or a group home. Caleb was released from the hospital this morning, not because he’s well—he knows he’ll never be what the doctors call well—but because they had nothing left to offer him. He dutifully took their pills when he was locked up, because otherwise, they just get a court order to force you. No freedom in hospitals. But he’s not going to take the meds here, on the outside. Meds make him so slow and heavy he doesn’t recognize himself. Freedom means not having to take meds.

That’s why, when the hospital sent him to the group home, he picked a fight to get kicked out. Group homes made you take meds, too. He feels a little guilty about that, because he knows the social workers worked their asses off to get him that spot. Very few group homes will take people diagnosed with psychosis, and the fight he picked probably means that there’s now one fewer.

But now he’s free, walking through the park. Clouds build overhead, promising rain that will be a relief from the overwhelming humidity. Caleb’s drenched just from walking, but that’s okay; it’s so much better than the dry, sterile air in the hospital. He smells grass, trees, things growing.

He has a little money and plans to buy a hot dog as soon as he finds someone selling them. The hospital served hot dogs sometimes, but they never tasted right. He also has the pencil and pocket journal the hospital gave him for afternoon group, where the social workers used writing prompts to help the patients explore their feelings. Caleb likes writing. Writing in the journal during group reminded him that, no matter what the doctors and social workers said about recovery and staying on your meds, freedom means staying off meds and out of places that make you take them. The journal was the only good thing about the hospital.

Journal Prompt: How do you know when you’re starting to spiral down or go into a relapse? What can you do to take care of yourself when this happens?

Caleb has always known he’s going to a bad place when the monsters came back. The monsters themselves, vague whispering forms looming around corners and above trees, are less frightening than the problems they cause. Other people can’t see them and think Caleb’s weird when he dodges to get out of their way, although he’d rather duck monsters than be zoned-out on meds.

Walking through monsters smells awful, like sulfur and shit, which Caleb supposes are what his own insides smell like, too. But he’d be mad if someone walked through him, and he doesn’t want to piss off the monsters. He only walked through one once, and it didn’t seem angry, but that one was little, a baby. Why take the chance?

Any recurrence of monsters means that, sooner or later, Caleb will be heading back to the hospital. He always winds up doing something people around him consider dangerous, like yelling or running into traffic. When he sees monsters, other people think he’s the monster.

He’s been off the meds for barely a day, although he already feels more like himself. The monsters have never come back that fast, and he doesn’t see any now.

But he sees other things.

There, above the tree line of the park: a giant green head, swiveling, turning to take bites out of buildings which it then spits out. Caleb hears screams, not his own. Distant trees start toppling.

Caleb scans his surroundings. Nobody else is here, not even the usual babies in strollers being pushed by their moms, not even the inescapable dog-walkers, some of them professionals walking ten dogs at once while their people toil away in offices or clinics or construction sites or wherever they work.

There’s no one here, except Caleb and—coming closer every second, if the toppling trees are any clue—a monster. It’s a lizard, or one of those really scary movie dinosaurs that chases and eats people. T Rex. That’s what they’re called.

Squinting at the approaching form, Caleb realizes that he’s seen this monster before, on TV. It was in Japan when he saw it. He can’t remember its name; that was too long ago. He wonders why his brain has ditched his usual monsters and come up with this thing instead.

Standing in the park, kissed now by raindrops and cooled by a restless wind, Caleb begins to hear sirens and screaming. Then he hears the buzz of aircraft, and watches as airplanes arrive to drop bombs on the monster. It swats them away like balloons; their detonations shake the ground under Caleb’s feet. None of this has ever happened before.

His eyebrows rise.

He starts to grin.

He breaks into a trot, running towards the monster, and very soon he meets people running away, sobbing. Some of them are yelling a name: “Godzilla!” Caleb, still moving against the current, begins to laugh, his heart soaring.

Journal Prompt: Sometimes when we’re really worried about something, the problem will resolve in a way we never could have predicted. Write about a time when this happened to you. What did it teach you about worrying?

Other people can see the monster! It’s not just him! He’s not alone anymore!

The crowd of people fleeing Godzilla has thinned. Some of them try to warn Caleb. “What are you doing? Don’t you know there’s a monster that way? It’s Godzilla!”

“I know!” Caleb says happily. “It’s wonderful!” They stare at him the way people have always stared at him when he talks about his monsters, but this time he can’t get locked up, not unless the hospital plans to lock up a lot of other people, too. He doesn’t think they have that much room. He could turn and run with the people who are fleeing—he’d be one of them, if he did that—but he wants to meet Godzilla.

Running towards the creature as a few panting stragglers race past him, Caleb sees an abandoned hot-dog cart. He stops and grabs as many hot dogs as he can, burned ones and perfectly cooked ones and barely cooked ones and raw ones. He doesn’t have time to fix them nicely, although he stuffs some buns in one sweatshirt pocket and a bunch of condiment packets in the other.

It’s raining much harder now. Godzilla’s stopped to munch on a tree, and for the moment isn’t coming any closer, but Caleb jogs towards the monster, splashing through puddles and clutching his feast. When he reaches Godzilla, he stops, short of breath. He wants to wave, but can’t, because his arms are full of hot dogs. Instead, he sits cross-legged on the ground and begins putting the hot dogs in buns—stopping to eat one first, because he’s hungry—and then decorates them with mustard and relish and ketchup in varying proportions. They’re going to be soaked, but he thinks they’ll still taste good.

After a few minutes, the giant chomping sound of Godzilla chewing on the tree stops, and Caleb realizes that the monster is looking at him, cocking its huge head—stories above Caleb’s own—to fix him in its sight. Its eye is round and yellow, like a cat’s eye. Water drips from its chin onto Caleb, who smiles and waves, hands free now. “Hey! Hi, Godzilla! I brought you hot dogs! Do you eat them? I saw you spitting out those buildings, so I guess you can’t digest them. And you’re chewing trees, but who wants to live on salad? We can share! I don’t know how you like them, and I don’t think you could tear the packets very well with those hands of yours”—the monster’s arms are small and spindly, the four-clawed hands ridiculously small, although Caleb wouldn’t dream of insulting it by saying this—“so I did them up a bunch of ways. You can take any you want.”

Godzilla roars, but it’s not the ear-shattering noise the monster let out earlier: more of an inquiring, dubious sound. Caleb smiles and says, “I know. I’m acting weird, for a human, because most of them run away from you. I know how it feels when people run away. It’s lonely. I thought you might like some company. If you don’t, I’ll go away. But I hope you like hot dogs as much as I do!” He picks up two, one in each hand, and scrambles to his feet to hold them over his head, where maybe the monster will be able to reach them.

The great eye blinks. The head cocks in another direction. And then, very slowly, Godzilla bends, and reaches down with its tiny hand to meet Caleb’s outstretched right arm, and accepts a hot dog.

Susan Palwick

Susan Palwick

Susan Palwick has published four novels with Tor Books: Flying in Place (1992), The Necessary Beggar (2005), Shelter (2007), and Mending the Moon (2013). Her story collection The Fate of Mice appeared In 2007 from Tachyon Publications. Her second collection, All Worlds are Real, was published in 2019 by Fairwood Press. Susan’s fiction has been honored with a Crawford Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, an Alex Award from the American Library Association, and a Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, and has also been shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award, the Mythopoeic Award, and the Philip K. Dick Award. After twenty years as an English professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, Susan now works as a healthcare chaplain. She lives in Reno with her husband and their three cats.