(Content Note for descriptions of sexual violence.)
Your sister has too–large hands and too many teeth. Not in a sense that her gums are crowded or her fingers are long and she might have a career as a concert pianist. No, her hands are massive, thick–boned, tipped in wickedly sharp claws that shine like pearls. And her mouth—well. Her mouth is normal–sized, but it has so many, many teeth. When she smiles, you feel queasy. All the teeth, sharp and white, fit inside her mouth around her pink tongue, but how they fit rubs wrong against your understanding of reason and reality. You don’t look at Phoebe’s mouth, even when she smiles bright and laughs. Of course you love her. You’re both monster girls.
Your monster traits are easier to hide. Small wings, almost vestigial, and knobby horns filed down until your hair—never shiny or soft like the normal girls’ in shampoo commercials—hides the wrong–bits. You can smile without making other people tremble, and your arms don’t hang down and arch your spine with the weight of claws.
So naturally you’re the one who goes out in the world. You’re the one who goes to school and checks out books from the library and buys groceries and makes friends outside of cyberspace. You don’t think about the way Phoebe watches when you leave in the morning, or the fact that she must always stay hidden tight in the old castle where Mama is buried.
“Why don’t you ever talk about your family?” your boyfriend asks as you sit in the theater waiting for the fifth Mutant Bride movie to begin.
You shrug and shove popcorn in your mouth. Mumble syllables with no substance.
He sighs, irritated. “Don’t your parents ever want to meet me?”
Another shrug, and then you’re saved because the lights dim and advertisements for soda and popcorn roll.
Mama never looked like a monster when you were small. You thought all mamas had mouths in their palms to better kiss bruises and scraped knees and sing lullabies in two different keys.
She sent you and your sister to your aunt’s farm every summer to learn how to be normal girls. You excelled. Of course you did. You didn’t have claws and too many teeth in a small mouth.
“Why don’t you file your nails, dear?” your aunt would say every night, just in case you woke looking more like Phoebe.
“Try to think like other girls,” your uncle would tell you. “Boys and makeup and whatever it is you kids do nowadays.”
Sometimes you’d see your sister prowling in the acres of old pine groves along the back of the fields, silent and smiling. No animals were afraid of her. Just people.
Your boyfriend slides his hand down the front of your pants, his mouth hot and sticky on your neck. He’s clumsy, his dick hard and steering what’s left of his brain, because he doesn’t notice you’re uncomfortable or find the taste of his tongue bitter under his breath mint.
When his other hand brushes your wing, he jerks back. “What the hell?”
You pull your shirt up, hoping to distract him with sight of your red bra‚ fringed in lace, pushing up your breasts to give him better access.
But he yanks your shoulder and you almost fall across his lap where you both sit on his uneven mattress.
The wings are small, scaled, green–brown like moss against pine bark. You wish they were white and downy and soft like an angel’s. They grow so fast, you have to ask Phoebe to snip them down with her claws once a week. It always hurts, but it’s better than being a monster.
“It’s nothing,” you tell him, and try to kiss him again. You must be normal. There’s no other option.
“Freak,” he says, and yells at you until you flee, shirt flung over your wings like a cape.
You ask your sister to make extra sure she carves out all the vestigial wing–tissue from between your shoulder blades that night.
One summer, when you were thirteen and Phoebe was twelve, she dared you to grow your horns out as long as you could.
“No one will know,” she said. Her voice was always a bright chime, clinking against her teeth like bells. “C’mon, I want to see them!”
It was the summer after your uncle died and your aunt let you both do what you wanted. As long as you fed the chickens and the barn cats, weeded the garden and swatted extra flies that snuck in the house, your aunt ignored you.
“Fine, but just once.”
So you didn’t file down your nubs for a week. Your horns grew a few inches, black like the sky without stars. Hardly impressive. You’re relieved, though your sister looked disappointed. Still, it was nice not to have to spent hours with the lathe and another hour washing shavings out of your thick hair. So you let them go.
A week later, you had a pair of heavy, swoop–curved horns so heavy and brilliant you could hardly hold your head up.
“They’re magnificent,” Phoebe said in awe. And they were. Like a painting from the Renaissance: dragon horns, devil horns, monster horns.
“If your wings grew like that,” Phoebe said, “could you fly?”
“No.” You didn’t want to find out if there was another answer.
It took almost six hours with a saw and file to remove your horns and the pain made your eyes sting.
Your second boyfriend tries to rape you on your three–month anniversary date.
You’re in his car, the mall parking lot empty now, and he climbs across the seat to straddle you.
“Stop it,” you say, tired from a long day of pretending your horns don’t ache with the summer heat and ignoring the way he keeps running his hand up your butt and lower back, almost touching your wings.
He’s nagged you for sex more and more, but you always stop him at first base. You’re scared he’ll run if he knows about the wings.
He unsnaps your bra, and his other hand pulls the seat recliner and suddenly you’re almost flat on your back with his weight pinning you down. The movement startles you. He pries at your jean snap, his breath heavy.
You headbutt him under the chin. You just want him to sit back enough for you to squirm free, open the passenger door, and roll out into the humid July air.
Your horns shatter his jaw in four places and break his teeth.
You leave him to fumble for help and walk home, rubbing at the sore knobby protrusions and wondering what would have happened if they’d been longer.
“She’s sick,” is what you tell your girlfriend, a senior in college like you, and who’s better in bed than the men you’ve slept with before. “I visit her on weekends, usually, when the caretaker is off.”
The lies slide easily across your tongue, unhindered by sharp teeth.
You keep your wing stubs wrapped in ace bandages and tell the people you date that you have lesions that need to stay covered. You avoid medical students.
It’s easy, once you have practice, to keep your partner’s hands off your back and out of your hair.
“I’d like to meet your sister,” Kassy says.
“She doesn’t like visitors.”
“She can make an exception, surely?” She grins. “Come on. I introduced you to my folks. I want to know this mysterious sibling.”
It’s been so long since anyone besides you and Phoebe have visited home.
You like Kassy. She’s short, solid, fierce. You think, Maybe this one will understand.
“Where did we come from?” Phoebe asked Mama once. “Why aren’t there other monster girls?”
“There were lots of us once,” Mama said, her palm–mouths frowning as she braided your sister’s silky hair. It’s the prettiest thing about her: white like spider silk, long, never tangled. You envy her just that. “But times are hard.”
“What happened?” you asked.
“People hurt or killed us,” Mama said. “Or sometimes we did that ourselves to blend in.”
“Why?” Phoebe asked. “What’s wrong with monster girls?”
Mama kissed you both on the cheek, one hand each.
Mama was killed by a man who hated monsters.
Or maybe he was afraid of them.
But Mama was dead all the same.
Your sister paints all the time. The walls turn into murals. She fashions brushes to hook at the tips of her claws, ambidextrous, and fills canvass and stone and the air with color and vivid, haunting images.
All she paints are monsters, so you keep the rooms of your walls flat and blank.
Your girlfriend whistles when you pull the car up the old drive.
“When you said it was a castle, I didn’t think you were being literal!”
You smile tightly, surprised. The glamour Mama put on the property makes anyone not–monster or not–family think it’s a big, shambly Victorian with peeling yellow paint and a manicured lawn.
“How does no one know about this place?”
“We don’t get visitors,” you reply.
Your horns itch. They always grow faster in the winter, when wool hats should be easy disguises—any kind of fiber or synthetic rubs the nubs and makes you want to scream. You never feel the cold, anyway.
A normal girl keeps up appearances, and normal women don’t go out in sub–zero temperatures in T–shirts and sandals, not even up north where the cold is always lurking.
“Come on in,” you tell Kassy, and almost take it back, half–hoping for the briefest second that she’s the kind of woman who needs an invitation to cross a threshold.
The castle is old; it was your grandmother’s, Mama told you, who ruled with her daughters and moved the land and the stone as it pleased her. Old magic, Mama said, suitable for old monsters. But it faded, like all things do, and now it’s worn granite and crumbled battlements and drafty halls. It’s fitted with electricity stolen off a rich neighbor’s grid—four miles away, unnoticed—and a satellite fixed to a retrofitted tower gets decent internet.
Inside isn’t luxury, but it’s comfortable. Modern furniture, modern appliances. It’s not like a castle means you need to stay in the Middle Ages. And your sister’s artwork is everywhere.
“Wow,” Kassy breathes. “Wow.”
It’s awe in her voice, and you let yourself smile.
Phoebe liked to eat her toothbrushes when she was little. “They tickle!” she’d say when you made a face.
It wasn’t so hard to look at her when she laughed.
“Why are her hands always so big?” you asked Mama once. You were never too young to notice that your wings and horns grew slower than your sister’s teeth.
“When we’re happy,” Mama said, “we don’t have to hide.”
Your ex, the one whose jaw you broke, finds you again. At first, you just see him walking on campus—he doesn’t seem to notice you.
Then he’s in the same grocery store, passing you a few aisles away, never looking but always there.
You change your route when you drive to work and school—you stay in a tiny apartment in town, working as a barista and when finances are tight, you can dip into the trust Mama left.
Twice, you spot his red Honda Civic behind you in light traffic, but he always turns off the main road before you hit your exit.
Then for a few months, you don’t see him at all, and you think you’re safe.
Except that’s a lie Mama fell for. Men aren’t safe, especially not for monster girls.
Your sister hides in bed, her hands tucked under heavy blankets, a scarf wrapped about her mouth. She hates being indoors, trapped by clothes and walls. She roams free in the woods behind the castle, or runs in the fields, or tunnels with her big, big hands through the grounds and paints vistas of what she sees under the earth when she emerges.
Once, you asked her: “Don’t you want to try? You could get cosmetic surgery or… something. We could move to the city. People would be different there.”
“I don’t want to be the same,” Phoebe said. “I want to be me.”
You dropped the subject and let her be.
Of course Phoebe doesn’t shake your girlfriend’s hand. Kassy doesn’t mind. She chats with your sister, never seeing her mouth or her teeth, and you relax. Everyone thinks you’re both normal.
That’s all you want.
Mama was the only one who could tell when you were lying.
“You okay?” Kassy taps on the bathroom door again. “ Zaria?”
You grind down harder with the file. The horns are harder to keep hidden; there’s more blood when you trim them. And it hurts, it fucking hurts. You thought you were used to the pain of snipped wings and buzzed horns, but ever since the winter night you brought Kassy to visit, everything has been worse.
You moved into her apartment a bit at a time, smuggling clothes and textbooks and your plush unicorn collection in your backpack or in shopping bags. You haven’t seen your ex around in a week, and never near Kassy’s place, but normal girls are careful.
Ironic that fear is never something you’ve had to fake.
“Yeah, fine.” You rinse the bloody file in the sink and splash your face to hide the puffiness of tears.
On the anniversary of your mother’s burial, you bring Kassy with you to see Phoebe. You brought roses for the grave, even if the petal edges have wilted and the thorns have been chipped down. Kassy asked to come. She says she’s not afraid of a cemetery and she wants to support you.
You try so hard to remember Mama’s lessons: monster girls don’t find love.
The castle is cold, lights turned off, the door unlocked.
You smell him.
Your ex was here, and your sister is gone.
Your girlfriend found the horn shavings in the wastebasket after you forgot to dump the trash. She looked concerned, so, for the first time in your life, you showed someone besides your family your wing stubs.
“I hate them,” you whispered, as Kassy dabbed cotton swabs against the horns, which had started bleeding again.
Kassy said nothing. You wondered how soon she planned to break up with you.
The last time you saw your mother, you were trying to file down your sister’s claws in her sleep.
Mama’s barbed wire shadow writhed and slashed the walls, peeling back the layers of paint and paper and cracking stone beneath.
You dropped the nail file and the shears you’d found in the garden shed.
“What are you doing?” Mama said, both hand–mouths tight and her face–mouth set in a cold, neutral line.
“I want her to be normal so she can be happy!” You stomped your foot, your tiny wings fluttering in anger under your nightgown. They felt bigger than before, like they were growing with your temper. “I’m tired of everyone thinking I’m the only child.”
You’re tired of being alone, is what you want to say, but even to your teenage brain that sounds too harsh, too cruel.
“She should get to go to parties and movies with me and not be… caged up here like a freak!”
Your shouting woke Phoebe, who sat up and blinked. Her heavy hand knocked over the light in a frantic effort to turn it on. Bulb and lamp shattered on the floor.
Phoebe started crying.
“What did you do, Zaria?” She held up her left hand, her middle two claws rubbed down to the quick. Blood seeped at the edges of the exposed bone. “What did you do?”
“We’re monsters!” you screamed, and weren’t sure if that was a plea or an excuse or an accusation.
Mama bandaged your sister’s hand, sent you to bed, and left a note that she was going to see an old friend who would be able to help you understand what it was to be a monster girl.
I will be back tomorrow night, she wrote, but it was a lie.
Kassy tugs your arm, says, “It’ll be okay, we’ll find her,” but you can’t listen. Where would your sister go? Why was he here at all?
Phoebe: the wild one, the artist, the girl comfortable in her skin—your sister was content here. Her paintings almost seemed to be alive in the half–light of evening, and she told you that somewhere, sometime, there were others like you. Like her.
She was content to wait for the other monsters to come.
But she forgot a crucial thing: humans and monsters don’t get along, and in the end, the monsters always lose.
Kassy drives you back, her mouth animated. All you hear is your pounding blood and the memory of waking up to find your sister crying by the front door the morning your mother was found dead.
All you want to do is curl up on your girlfriend’s couch and scream into a pillow. But monster girls don’t cry, and you are going to find Phoebe and get her back. There will be no more graves with wilted roses.
“How can I help?” Kassy asks, and you tell her about smelling your ex, about how you were sure he was stalking you. When you tell her his name, her eyes narrow. “I know him. Premed. My cousin knows him from Duncan General.”
The private hospital up on the hill, an old establishment, run and owned by an old family. Mama told you to stay away from there.
You touch the aching tips of your horns. “Find out if she’s there, please?”
Kassy nods and makes some calls.
He has your sister.
Then he emails you.
At first I just wanted to see you again. I wasn’t sure how to approach you, given how you broke up with me. I thought we could make amends, try again.
Then I found that poor girl you’ve had locked up at that wreck of a house. My god, what kind of depraved psycho does that? She needs medical attention! She has severe physical deformities and is in unstable mental condition, given the artwork I saw displayed, and she needs help.
I won’t report you to the police if you come see me in private. I need to know what happened. I think you need help.
In the meantime, I’m going to see that poor girl gets the care she needs.
You know what “care” means: he’ll take her claws and pull out her teeth and make her safe. Make her normal.
But isn’t that what you wanted?
“Why can’t Mama take the mouths out?” you asked your aunt once. Mama never wore gloves, because then she couldn’t breathe.
“Once your… traits bloom in full, you can’t remove them anymore,” your aunt said. She rubbed the side of her neck where the scars knotted in her wrinkled skin. “They are who you are.”
“Is that why you help me keep the horns away?” you asked. “So when I grow up they won’t come back?”
“Since that’s what you want, dearie.” Your aunt wouldn’t look you in the eyes and your mother wasn’t there to tell if she was lying.
Somehow, you’d never thought to ask what your aunt had done to herself to unmake herself from being a monster girl.
It’s near midnight, the new moon clouded out, and no stars to bust through the threatening rain.
Phoebe is quarantined in the upper floor of the hospital.
“Please talk to me,” Kassy says. “You are not thinking about answering that asshole’s demands, are you?”
You don’t want to lie, so you shake your head and wait until your girlfriend falls asleep on the couch to the sound of a thunderstorm.
The receptionist at the hospital is expecting you. She’s a thin girl, wrapped in a heavy maroon sweater, and there are dark hollows under her eyes. She smiles like its nothing more than a preprogrammed response.
The reception room is all cold mahogany and stainless steel, and the row of plush leather chairs against a bank of windows is empty. Everything feels empty in here.
“The doctor is waiting upstairs.” The receptionist stands, sways, and shuffles out from behind the desk. A breath might knock her over. “Come, I’ll show you up.”
His office is windowless and the walls are blank. He’s so much older now, florescent lights making his thinning blond hair look brittle. “Thank you, Mel,” he says, rising.
The receptionist nods and shuts the door behind her. You wonder if that small gust of air sent her spiraling through the hall like a sheet of tissue paper.
“What did you do to her?” you whisper.
“I helped her.” He rubs his face. “Melanie used to have five shadows,” he says, and you remember the receptionist’s nametag. “She couldn’t go out in the sun without drawing attention. She needed help, and I gave it to her.”
“Did she want your help?”
“Of course she did. Who would want to look like that?”
You fold your arms, trying not to shake. “Where’s my sister?”
He sighs. “She asked about you.”
“Where. Is. She.” You don’t have horns to impale him against the wall until he talks; no wings to break his arms with a gale until he hands her over. You didn’t think to bring a weapon, as a normal girl might. “I need—”
“I’ll show you,” he says, still leaning his hip against the desk. He was never handsome, you realize. He just paid attention to you. “But first, Zaria,” and he hesitates, watching you as if you’ll shatter his jaw again, “I need to know… will you let me help you?”
Isn’t that what you’ve wanted? A way to make your wings and horns disappear?
Does it really matter whose scalpel turns you into a girl like all the others?
“Where’s my sister?”
He slides away from the desk and moves to the wall, where there’s a hairline crack. “I’ve had to keep this private. For my other patients’ safety.”
He presses his palm against the wall, and it slides open like a glass patio door, and then you’re following him inside a sterile hallway. Your heart pounds like the beating of wings.
“That night we… broke up. It made something click for me. My dad always talked about how monsters were real, but they could pass as human if they tried. So I started researching. Looking. And I found his journals after his funeral, just a few years ago. They had sketches. Pictures.”
Like Mama, with her mouths. Like your horns. Like your sister’s hands.
“I realized that night what my destiny was. I could see there were things out there that needed my help.”
People, you want to correct him. Monsters are people too. People can be monsters. Sometimes you don’t know where the difference lies.
He opens another door, and then you see Phoebe.
She lies on a pristine white–sheeted gurney, her hands wrapped in gauze, her mouth stuffed with cotton. Her eyes stare blankly at the bank of florescent lights above.
You’re at her side before he can stop you. “Phoebe? I’m here to take you home.”
“Not yet.” He stands by the doorway, sagging under the weight of his jacket. “She needs rest. Therapy. She needs rehabilitation. We can provide that here.”
Your sister’s eyes focus—so, so slowly—and she blinks at you. Tears drip down her face.
She lifts her hands, staring at the gauze, and already you can tell her hands are smaller, stubbier. No claws.
You’re afraid to see what’s inside her mouth.
“I can help them all,” he’s saying, far away. “My father tried to do the same. But medical practices have improved now. There’s less chance of a procedure going wrong, or infection, or…”
Hair itches against your horns, and the wing nubs burn under your shirt.
Your sister’s body shakes, sobs muffled against cotton. She thrusts her hands at you, pleading. How can she paint without her claws?
“…she’ll know where others are,” he’s saying, “and we can fix them.”
Make all the monster girls normal.
“…we can’t guarantee all will survive,” he’s saying, “but it’s better than what they are now…”
And he’s saying your name, and then his hand is on your shoulder, and he’s trying to pull you away as Phoebe cries.
“You’re not as bad,” he’s saying, “minimal surgery would be all you need to fix you, make you better, cure you of this…”
What’s wrong with monster girls?
“…you can’t live in normal society,” he’s saying, “not like you are…”
What’s wrong with monster girls?
Nothing at all.
“No,” you say.
He gapes, his mouth ajar. “What?”
“I said no.” You shake off his hand and unbuckle the straps holding Phoebe down. She paws at her mouth, and you begin pulling cotton free of her lips. “You won’t touch her. You won’t touch any of us unless we give you permission.”
“You’re not well!” He grabs your arm. “None of you! Don’t you get it? Monsters are dangerous!”
You’ve always been stronger than you look. You seize his wrist and pry him off. You lift him off his feet by the arm. “I told you not to touch any of us without permission.”
His face flushes red. “You are not taking my patient!”
“She’s not yours,” you tell him, and Phoebe spits free the last of the white fluff choking her. “None of us are yours.”
Your sister’s mouth is raw, gums bloody, but there are still teeth visible. He couldn’t pull them all. She bites away the gauze on her hands.
“Security!” he yells. He flails at you, catches you in the ribs with a knee. “Help!”
You drop him with a grunt. He scrabbles across the floor away from you and pulls a syringe out of his coat pocket.
“Can I help you?” you ask your sister, and she nods.
You unpeel the gauze and lift her hands in yours. Her bones are splinted, smaller, and her claws are cauterized nubs. Your chest squeezes tight. No one should be hurt this way. Melanie shouldn’t have had her shadows excised.
There is room in the world for girls of all kinds. Monster girls and the girls who love them and all the others who’ve ever lived.
“I’m so sorry,” you whisper. “Let’s go home.”
Phoebe smiles wide, and it doesn’t make you sick this time.
“There’re others here,” she says. “I saw them before he did this.”
“Then we’ll take them all away from here,” you say, and help your sister to her feet.
Your ex stands in the door, needle in hand. “No one is leaving my hospital.” His voice remains even. “You don’t belong out there—freaks shouldn’t be seen.”
“You told me I’d die,” Melanie says behind him. She stands in the hallway. “You said I’d die if you didn’t operate.”
“I said you wouldn’t have a life worth living!” He whirls, arm raised. “And it’s true!”
“No it’s not,” Phoebe says. “There’s nothing wrong with us.”
“I liked my shadows,” Melanie whispers.
You hear feet pounding down another hallway, coming nearer. You glance down at your sister’s hand—and gasp.
Her claws are growing back, long and heavy and sharp. “Mama was right,” she tells you, smiling wide. “When we’re happy, we don’t hide. But also when we’re angry.”
The man spins to face you again, and now his skin is sallow, sweaty. “That’s impossible. I cut them off—I fixed you!”
“You hurt me,” Phoebe says, and she prowls towards him, lifting her arms with slow, steady grace.
In the hallway, blanketed in florescent light, Melanie’s shadows begin to unfurl from her skin. “You hurt all of us.”
You shake back your hair and think of all those years combined when you shaved down your horns and clipped your wings. All the pain. For men like him, for all the men who refused to accept you. You think of your mother, dead because someone feared her. Of your aunt, who hid behind scars. Of all the monster girls you’ve never met and who Phoebe was waiting for.
Your horns are hot as a welding torch—arching out and into massive, beautiful darkness. Your shirt rips as you stretch your wings.
Melanie and Phoebe corner the doctor.
You unfurl your great wings and step into the hall to meet the security.
Kassy waits outside the hospital, standing by her open car door. Her breath huffs in great steamy clouds. Her headlights pin the glass doors, fogged up on the inside.
Dawn is close, and the clouds are peeling away from the gray sky.
You take a breath before you step outside. Behind you, all the imprisoned monster girls—and the monster boys, and the ones who are neither—are waiting. Following. Hoping there is more outside than terror and a mob with pitchforks and torches or police cars with sirens.
You’ll take them all home, to your castle. Let them heal and rest. Show them how to hide if they wish, but not through mutilation and pain.
Phoebe shows your new family the wilds behind the castle and the paintings they recognize themselves in. Some wish to stay; others will journey on. Everyone can return, welcomed, if they wish.
Kassy comes with you to the castle.
She doesn’t flinch when she sees your sister smile, or clasps hands with her. She laughs and grins and dances with the other people now filling your home with joy.
You tell her, and Phoebe, that you’re keeping your horns and your wings whole. They hug you tight. You are a monster girl and you are learning how to live.
You ask Kassy, “Will you stay with me?”
She says yes.
(Editors’ Note: A. Merc Rustad is interviewed by Julia Rios in this issue of Uncanny Magazine.)
© 2017 by A. Merc Rustad