Dedicated to a lot of people who know exactly who they are…
To tell a tale is to light a fire in the darkness and wrap comfort around the shoulders of the people.
To listen to a story is to imagine what might be, or to see, for the first time perhaps, what actually is.
To sing a song, to dance a dance, to set paint or pen to canvas and to paper…
To tell a tale is to take a risk on remaking the world.
The machines. Good Gods the machines.
They never stopped their work. As part machine herself, s/he knew s/he should appreciate them. And they were helping her Beloved One. Or they were supposed to be, anyway. It was getting hard to tell.
Hard to tell what helped. What didn’t help. What made so little difference, it was not worth the cost.
The machines were always making noise. Beeping. Ssssuuussshing. Soft murps. All through the night, in diligent array. S/he thanked them in her mind. They beamed a little brighter when s/he did.
It was one of her many gifts, to communicate with machines. There was a resonance. A symbiosis. A fragile, beautiful recognition of one like thing toward another.
S/he wouldn’t tell her family that, though. There was enough that was strange about her already. They hated to be reminded: s/he was not exactly human.
It was a strangeness s/he was born with. And a further strangeness cultivated over years. The titanium bones? They were hers. Always. But the teeth?
The titanium-rooted white teeth had always tended toward sharp edges, true. But on her fifteenth birthday she had filed them sharper still. Her mouth was filled with shining daggers, marking her otherness with no mistake.
Beloved One had wept to see them in her shining daughter’s beautiful young face. Beloved One had only ever tried to keep her safe.
There was no real safety in this world for a creature such as s/he.
The light in the room was dim. Shadowy.
S/he was used to dim half-light and full dark, both, so it didn’t bother her. Unlike the scents of sickness and plastic, the tang of medicine, alcohol, and bleach.
And the taste of unbrushed, spiny teeth after too much coffee. S/he couldn’t brush her teeth in here, or risk infection, and didn’t want to leave –unsmocking and ungloving, washing slender hands at the tiny corner sink– to venture down the too-bright corridor to the proper wash room sixty paces down.
There was a slight glow from the parking lot lights outside, filtering through the window shade. The green and red lights from the machines. Computer glow at the rolling cart the nurses used to enter information through gloved hands.
The crappy gown crackled around her body as s/he shifted on the coiled springs of the fold up cot. It was hot, and her hands inside the disposable gloves were itching to be free to taste the antiseptic air.
“Help…” the voice was weak, a call into the night from the raised hospital bed. The Beloved One.
S/he swung out from the cot and put her feet into the slippers waiting there.
“What do you need?”
The voice in the bed wasn’t sure. The voice just needed something. Anything. Anything to stop the discomfort and the fear and the dry mouth and aching muscles and the pain from the incision bisecting a torso that should have been resting beneath the tangle of tubes and layering of light blankets.
But rest was far away. And ease had fled.
So s/he wet a swab in a cup of water, and rinsed the dry mouth. S/he adjusted the bed again.
S/he held the hissing nozzle to the lips, and reached toward the back of the mouth’s cavern, hoping to suck out some of the phlegm that caused lungs to labor and wheeze.
The eyes closed again after that. Would it be too much to ask that the Beloved One in the canted bed would sleep?
S/he crawled back to the lumpy fold out cot again, and closed her own eyes. S/he wasn’t going to sleep –never did at night– but even her half-machine body needed what rest it could get.
S/he had tried to make up for the scars that made the Beloved One’s surgery so difficult. The scars left from her own birth so long ago, that had lain dormant, hidden, in the now-riddled-and-tortured body in the bed.
S/he had tried to live her life to make up for being the last of too many. Her life in this overpopulated place needed to be worth something. Worth the pain and overcrowding and despair.
But what was the measure used for that?
There were no calipers or scales to gauge a life.
A living machine, the skin around her titanium bones ached sometimes. So did the fleshy heart that beat inside the metal cage.
S/he had programmed herself to learn. To speak. To fight. To run. To stay stiller than a stone. To weep sometimes.
Then s/he ran away.
Two years after filing her teeth into small daggers, s/he shaved the hair from her head and enlisted in the armies of Night Walkers. The ones who fought crimes that no one else seemed to see.
The freaks and the marauders. The mermaids, the machines, the half-bats and the horse people, the butterflies with faery wings, the clockwork hearts and slippery eels. You’d think they would have little enough in common, all of these.
But they did.
They all lived in interstitial spaces. And they dreamed amazing dreams.
The Walkers, as they called themselves for short, banded together in enclaves lit by spirit fires and practicality, with small amounts of hope strewn on the flames to keep them crackling and alive.
People outside – the Ordinaries and Day Trippers both– complained about the Night Walkers, calling them harbingers of doom. Spoiled children. Disrespectful. Naysayers. Stupid cunts. Dark Ones.
The Night Walkers liked that last one. They stitched reflective letters to their long coats and dark sweaters, the ones with fingers helping those with no hands, or with webbed, rubbery fins. The letters winked, silver and red like foxes eyes: M. O. N. S. T. E. R.
Look out, the letters said. We are here. We’re coming for you.
We will not go away.
Fear us or join us. We will haunt you either way.
Some of her friends got beaten, when caught out alone. Groups of marauding Day Trippers sought them out. Tried to catch them away from the group. “Culling the Stinking Herd” they called it.
But the Night Walkers didn’t stink. Not to her at least. To her, they smelled of moonlight and secrets. Of the fresh air after rain.
To her, they smelled of sweet peppermint kisses and earth turned over by long, pale worms.
They smelled of Home.
And they were all s/he had.
Except the rapidly failing Beloved One, wheezing out life in a high, hospital bed.
“What do you need?”
The voice in the bed just needed to be free.
Out of all the things s/he had done in her monstrous life, out of the harm and pain s/he had stopped from happening, or the crimes s/he had committed, the comfort s/he had brought to some strange few, the friends s/he had loved…this thing requested beneath the gasped out words?
S/he had no idea how it could even be done.
You can never free another.
Every being –human or monster– had to figure out how to free themselves.
Her titanium bones felt heavy, and not for the first time. But it was the flesh wrapped around their slick surfaces that felt the pain.
The Monsters had told her s/he needed to go.
S/he had a duty to Beloved One. Greater even than her duty to the night and change.
Greater even than her duty to fight the bold and terrible crimes that no one ever seemed to see.
Greater than the burgeoning of resistance, Night to Day.
S/he knew that this was true. What had birthed her all those years before, now required her care.
S/he also knew s/he would be back. And they would welcome her. The Night Walkers were eternal. As part of them, s/he was eternal, too.
The Beloved One? Did not seem so eternal anymore.
Outside, the false dawn was increasing, fighting with the Night.
The Day Trippers grew stronger and more bold. They laughed and mocked and scorned.
They carried clubs and knives and fists and guns.
Their faces sneered from screens and shouted through earbuds.
And inside the folding darkness, the Monsters and their friends held the scathing Dawn at bay.
The Beautiful Ordinaries still tried to live their lives as best they could, protected by the Walkers –the Monsters– whether they acknowledged it, or no.
The Beautiful Ordinaries grew vegetables in empty lots. Toiled in the streets or shining buildings. Made love when darkness fell, or sometimes when the sun first kissed the sky.
They watched their fleshy children play come full morning.
Despairing over the offspring who looked different from the others. Laughing in relief when their little ones looked plainly Beautiful. Simple. With an Ordinary sheen no extraordinariness could harm or touch.
With no propensity for glitter or for gloom.
S/he had always had both. The gloom and glittering. Even in the hard short years pretending s/he knew what neither meant.
The other Beautiful Ordinary littles found her out. They always knew.
S/he stank, the way Day Trippers said the Monsters did. S/he never knew exactly what it was they smelled upon her skin. Never knew how they found out her skeleton was metal, and not porous bone.
Never knew how s/he was marked differently than the others in the family of her birth.
But the other children did. Despite squashing any signs of prescience or strange sight, their sense of smell was all too keen.
It was how they knew their own.
How they found one another.
How lines were drawn and safety sought again.
In the dim room, with the diligent machines, and the rasping Beloved One in the raised and canted bed, s/he crouched in a chair shoved against the window, jammed against the cot-of-little-rest.
What was s/he doing here? Besides caring for Beloved One as best s/he could, to give the multiple other offspring a break from vigil duty.
Things were changing outside. S/he could feel it, even here. S/he could see it in the distorted faces on the flickering screen before s/he flicked it to dark again.
S/he’d been trying to avoid it, though it poked at the back of her brain sometimes, and conversations skirted around and around the brutal facts.
S/he was here now, with the helping machines, and the labored breath and groaning from the bed. S/he had entered this in between, twilight space, because to plunge into the unfamiliar was to take the chance on sensing something new.
“Do you think things are getting worse?” Bu had asked, straight blond forelock falling across his sloping forehead.
“Worse than what?” Telly replied, tugging at the dark coils that crowned their head. Scratching at their squat, beautiful nose.
S/he always wanted to bite that nose, and kiss it, but Telly would slap her face away, squealing with laughter.
“Worse, worse. You know. Like, New Dawn kind of worse. Like elegant bastards marching lock step down the cobblestones kind of worse.”
S/he hadn’t answered then, because s/he honestly didn’t know. Every night was too busy. Stopping assaults of femmes on street corners. Making sure deliveries got through so the children –Ordinaries, Night Walkers and Dawners all the same– had food come morning. Escorting doctors to battered and bombarded clinics.
Clandestine meetings, building the resistance against a brutality that decimated so many of their friends.
Fighting off truncheons, and bullets, and tiny spies, and drones.
Here, in the in-betweenness of this machine guarded, antiseptic space, s/he felt it now. Bu was right.
Things were worse than they knew. It took this exhausting respite from her life to realize it.
The Monsters had grown steadily busier. Crimes and raids, deaths and rapes and beatings had increased, leaving them run ragged and stretched thin.
Ssssssush. Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Mrrrph. Ssssssush.
The machines were steady. Working. Safe for now.
The Beloved One groaned in the cantilevered bed.
S/he tucked her knees beneath her chin in the high-backed vinyl chair, leaning against an armrest that dug into her flesh. That was good.
The irritation reminded her that flesh was still a part of her. Monster or not, s/he was also human, still.
Actually, s/he was less Monster than most Night Walkers, and knew it. But damn if s/he hadn’t cast her lot in with them all the same. And proud to do so, too. Proud to wear the glimmering letters on the coat stuffed into the tiny, pressboard closet of this room.
No use compromising. No use attempting assimilation when her skin stank of the Night. May as well embrace Monster status all the way. Become a force.
“Darling?” the voice, so quavering and small, rose up from the bed.
S/he uncurled from the chair, climbing over the folded out cot-of-little-rest. Slid feet back into slipper shoes. Tugged the grey gloves over the sleeves of the crackling, synthetic gown.
“I’m so tired…” Breathing labored. Crackling in the lungs. The slight sick smell increasing.
“Do you hurt? Do you need to be cleaned? Should I call in the nurse?”
The soft scrabbling of swollen fingers on blankets. The pulling at the tangle of tubes.
“Hold my hand.”
Hold my hand. Sometimes that was all a person could do, Monster or human. Beautifully Ordinary, or Strange.
When night crashed into new dawn, holding hands was as important as forming a strong fist.
This was the thing thing s/he had needed to learn, s/he guessed.
There was no telling now, what exactly would happen.
Would the boots really march again?
Would Beloved One slip slowly into endless, starry night?
Would they all scorch under the fiery sun that s/he could feel rising, even now?
S/he breathed in, filling her lungs with the antiseptic, plastic air. S/he raised her arms, stretching the skin held steady by titanium bones.
There were no answers to those questions. Not now. Maybe not ever.
But in the middle of this vigil? One thing was crystal clear.
S/he would continue to do the work of a Night Walker. S/he would continue her resistance to the Dawn of the New Day. It was trumpeted by golden eagles in the streets, beaten into soft, yielding flesh by Day Trippers on rampage, and uniformed phalanxes doing their corporate duty. And it must. Not. Prevail.
And besides, there wasn’t anything that s/he would rather be.
A Monster. Holding up the sovereignty of Night.
And yeah, coming for the bastards all the same.
S/he would care for the human beside her.
S/he would do battle in alleyways and hospitals, schoolyards and cafes.
S/he would kiss Tully’s lips and nose and face, breathing in the scents of peppermint and loam.
S/he would haunt all those who needed haunting.
Until they never slept again.
Day came once again. Beloved One was finally resting in the bed. The other offspring would arrive soon, to care for the Beloved One again.
S/he leaned over the sleeping face, and smelled the talcum sickness on the pale, papery cheeks.
“I must leave you, but I love you. And I will be back again.”
The eyes flickered open, blue and staring. The mouth gasped for some air.
“You’re a good girl,” the voice rasped back. “Stay safe out there.”
“I’ll try, Beloved. I will try my utmost best.”
The eyes fluttered, then closed again.
“That’s good,” the voice said. Then sleep came. Finally. Some rest.
S/he went off and slept all day, until the darkness fell again.
S/he took up the banner, committed crimes to right grievous wrongs. Continued to love, and sing and fight.
The things that Monsters do.
Staving off a sterile, ugly world.
Haunting the uneasy dreams of the comfortable ones in their soft, enormous beds.
How do fables ever end?
They don’t. They change shape and name, and beat on in the hearts of the tellers, and in those who read and hear.
You know your work, here in these times.
Find your own tale, monstrous and ordinary.
Write it. Speak it. Sing it. Shout it and dance it and grunt it out against that which will burn and decimate your spiny, lovely, world.
Hoist heavy flesh on your slim, titanium bones. Flap your scaled and shimmering tails. Tune your clockwork hearts to the rhythm of the stars. Beep and whir and hum. Run forward on sharp, shining hooves. Shake the hair on your ordinary heads.
Choose. Choose yourselves and your beloveds. Become the best damn monsters you can be. Or live the most extraordinary ordinary life you can.
But most of all?
Stay safe. Stay strong. Stay in love.
Until you die.
Make your life worth the efforts of us all.
T. Thorn Coyle, November 2016
This is reader-funded writing.
I give thanks to all of my Patreon supporters, who donate every month so I can offer one essay and one short story to the general public for free.
I give thanks to brand new patrons and to ongoing supporters Jennifer, Elliot, Ellen, a phoenix, Jersey Meg, Tony, Sean, Sherry, Christopher, Stephanie, Lira, Ariana, Tamara, Karen, Morgaine, Sarah, Rachel, Jenny, Joanna, R.M., Ember, San, Miriam, Leslie, Sharon, Mary Anne, Joanna, Tony, Angela, Constance, Stone, Omorka, Unwoman, Shemandoah, Sarah, Rain, Cid, Alley, Mica, Christine, Vyviane, Katie, Emilie, Louise, Victoria, Greg, Ealasaid, Jennifer, Louise, Rose, Starr, Sinead, Lyssa, Aeptha, Cara, Crystal, Angela, Misha, Eridanus, Cheryl, Lori, Soli, Peter, Angela, Ambariel, Sonia, Jennifer, Ruth, Miranda, Jeremy, Jonah, Michelle, Jenny, Jen, Mir, Ruth, Emilie, Jonathan, Kate, Roger and Nancy.