Monster Like Me, by E.M. Sole
A long silence followed Dela’s admission of guilt. She wondered what Roger was thinking as he stood staring at his hands grasping the wooden railing of their old porch, his old porch, of the home he’d grown up in. Right now, she felt like a guest who had stayed too long.
Finally, he spoke. “So, where do we go from here?”
Now Dela was the one standing silent. How could she answer? How could she speak loud enough to be heard over the sound of her world collapsing around her, threatening to bury her under the debris. A single puffy cloud drifted across the sky uncaring about her pain. Tree branches waved in the breeze. The world kept going on leaving her behind. What did it know about falling in love.
He took a breath. It was loud and raspy like it was an effort to even begin to speak. “Tell me what do I do? How am I supposed to react to,” he paused. She could tell he was searching for words that didn’t bite back. “This?” He must have given up the search.
“I am the same person I was when we met, the same person you kissed that night for the first time, and the same person I was when you asked me to marry you.” Dela wished she really believed all that.
“But, that’s the problem isn’t it. You aren’t a person at all, You are … You are a monster.”
Dela cringed. No, not a monster, she screamed soundlessly. I’m not a monster, I’m me. “I haven’t changed. All that’s changed is that you know a little more about me. If things had happened differently you might never have known.”
“And that’s supposed to make it all right?” he snapped. There was more painful silence. It was becoming unbearable. She’d rather go face the fate that waited for her on the other side than live through any more of this torturous silence. “You’ll have to decide where you’re going and whether or not I’ll be there with you.”
Dela turned and went back into their house, his house.
Would this be for the last time, Dela wondered. Even if by some miracle he forgave her, she still had to face the inquisitors and the punishment for her crimes on the other side. Since she had no plans to ever go back to her home on the other side, her best hope was for banishment and coming back here. But, what reason did she have to stay here without him?
She walked past the living room and through the archway in the dining room. Here, by the new portal to the other side, stood the man who had come to take her back. Thick spiral horns framed his lank dark face. Carefully folded wings outlined his tall thin body. His skin was burnt from the harsh sun of the other side, even darker than she’d been when she first came here. Her arms looked so pale in comparison.
“Are you ready?” the guide asked. Not if she was going, she didn’t have any choice. There was nowhere to run now that she’d been tracked down to this world. She couldn’t open her own portal, her sister Sal, a second grade guide had opened the one that brought her here so many years ago. Had her sister been caught, tortured and made to reveal the world she’d escaped to?
The guide was getting impatient. Dela stepped forward toward the shifting wall of static that marked the edge between this world and her true home.
She caught a glance of Roger in the mirror above the buffet watching with a horrified look on his face. He truly seemed to think the guide was a monster, even though, just like Dela, he could have walked down the street unnoticed in different clothes. The horns were ornament changing with fashion and mood. The heavy leather clothes adapted to the climate of the other side. The wings were bat-like machines, allowing the people on the other side to fly in the much denser air. That was one of the few things she missed living on this side, flying soaring rising higher and higher until she couldn’t go any farther, and then slowly gliding exhausted back down to the soft grass. As a child she’d lay and sleep in the grass, safe in the park that was their city, under the red burning sun that filled a quarter of the sky. The sun on this side was so small and yellow, like a flower, a dandelion floating in the sky. Even on the hottest day it never came close to the other side’s heat.
Dela stepped forward. The shimmer enclosed her, another step and she was through and standing before the tree that was the Hall of Maintaining Peace and Prosperity. It was almost unchanged, like it was frozen in time in her memories and pulled out for the occasion of her return.
The guide stepped out of the portal behind her. She sensed his movements through the currents made in air so dense it was almost like water. The feeling was disconcerting. Dela had been away too long, her home had become unfamilar.
The guide turned to close the portal. Then he huffed a sound of frustration, and another person came through the portal. Dela turned and looked into Roger’s face. He was gasping and stumbling.
“Are you sure you wish to enter the world?” the guide said. Roger clutched his chest and nodded. The guide closed the portal.
“You’re my wife, I love you. Nothing is going to change that.” He struggled to breathe.
“You realize on this side you are the monster, don’t you?” Dela couldn’t stop staring at him. She’d let go and now he was here and she wanted to grab hold of him and never let go again, but she knew that she still was a monster to him. Dela didn’t know if she could live with that.
They stood side by side in the huge tent that was the Inquisitor’s Court. Roger struggled to breathe the thick air. Dela was growing more accustomed to it. Five plus years away and she was still a part of it.
The Inquisitor’s Court was a large platform hung from the branches of a tree, like almost all the buildings in the city it wrapped all the way around the trunk which formed a central pillar. Three lanterns dimly lit the interior leaving the thirteen inquisitors heavily shrouded in hooded cloaks on their high backed thrones.
The guide who brought her here stood to the side half lit by flickering light. “It is the law that only the aged and infirmed may sit before the inquisitors. However, considering your circumstances an exception will be made,” he told Roger.
A flash of relief went across Roger’s face but it only lasted a moment and then his face hardened again. “No, I’ll stand.” There was his pride again, Dela thought, was there anything inside him except pride?
“As you will.” If Roger thought he’d get admiration or respect he was wrong. The guide turned to her. “You have been accused of crimes against the world. You have the right to explain your actions.”
Dela shook her head. She knew what she did. They knew what she did, and no defense she could offer would make any difference. The sentence was pronounced years ago. She glanced at Roger. He was pale under a reddening sunburn he’d gotten from walking from the portal to the inquisitor’s tent. “Please, just get it over with.”
The guide looked at the head inquisitor sitting behind the others on a raised platform. The head inquisitor nodded. “You have created a problem for us,” the guide said. His words heavy, carefully pronounced. He seemed unused to speaking English and probably was. She wondered if Roger noticed the respect they were giving him. “The sentence for your crimes would be banishment, but in your self-imposed banishment you have made a new home, a new family. Banishment would no longer would be a punishment. A new sentence must be determined. You will return tomorrow when the sun begins to rise above the treetops for judgment.”
The guide led them out of the tent and took them to a small tent isolated from the city by a high hide wall. Dela followed with Roger clinging to her arm. Her eyes eagerly took in every glance of her home. She’d missed it more than she thought possible, the tall trees held high by bladders filled with helium, like the kelp beds in the ocean she visited before meeting Roger, the winged shapes of people flying through the air caught up in their own business, or simply enjoying flying. She wished while she was here she could fly once more, but those accused of crimes were denied that pleasure. The last thing she saw before the hide wall enclosing the little tent took her in was a cluster of children playing a chasing game in the purple grass. She’d played the same nameless game with her brothers and sisters a long time ago.
The guide told them to stay inside. “Many of us have had ones close to us killed by humans. For your own safety, we will put a trusted guard outside the tent.” The guide looked at Roger. Like he was a monster. Dela smiled at the thought, of course here he was.
Roger threw himself down on the sleeping platform. “You grew up here.” It wasn’t a question but she nodded anyway. “Now I see where you get your stamina from.” He tried to take a deep breath and choked on it. “You’ve got family out there.”
Dela nodded again. “The whole city is my family. The people aren’t like humans. We don’t get married and separate ourselves apart. Couples come together when the individuals want to, separate when they want to, and the children belong to the whole city. Every one of my generation is my brother or sister. Everyone older is my parent or grandparent. All the children are my children, or would be if I weren’t a criminal.”
“But, you got married.”
“When in Rome do as the Romans do, isn’t that the saying you humans have.” She could hear the sounds of the children drifting in. She could feel the air movements Roger made with his nervous uncomfortable shifting around.
He was rubbing his face with his hands. “Next question, what is this crime you are accused of committing, and are you really guilty?”
She smiled sadly. “My guilt is not in question. Being accused, in this world, at least in this case, is being guilty.”
Roger looked at her through his fingers. “That doesn’t make sense.”
Dela went to the sleeping platform and sat down by him. It was too low. She was too used to human beds and chairs. “My crime is that I abandoned a brother, and he died.” She put her arm around Roger’s arm hoping he wouldn’t pull away, hoping that the contact would help her deal with the memories. “I was a food collector.”
“A member of a team that goes to the other side and collects food and brings it back to the city to feed the people.”
Roger stiffened. “What kind of food?”
She tried to imagine what was going through his head, human legends about her kind could get very nasty. “The simplest way I can explain it is that we eat emotional energy. We go out and collect it from the environment where humans or other sentient beings live. The human world and the people’s world are just two of many. I don’t know how many. I’m not sure any one does.”
“You eat emotions. That doesn’t quite agree with what I’ve been told about demons.” He finally said the word.
“We eat emotions, strong ones, like anger, hate, jealousy, despair, and if it isn’t convenient to gather it, we make it.”
“Spreading discord and evil in the world?”
Dela nodded. “You could look at it that way.”
“But what about you, you’ve been eating human food.”
Dela shrugged. “And emotions. There are plenty of bad emotions floating around, like Alice and her husband’s failing marriage.” Roger’s eyes narrowed. “And I didn’t have anything to do with that. They were in trouble a long time before I met them. With your family and their host of problems and even you and your job there’s been more than enough for me to eat.” She glanced at him. “Even without causing trouble.”
“You’ve been eating me?” He pulled away.
“No, by the time I’ve eaten your emotions, you’ve been done with them. Sometimes a collector will eat what could be called a human soul, and that is bad news for the human in question, but that’s only allowed in desperate circumstances.”
“You kill humans and eat them?”
She pulled away from him now. “And how many living beings have died to feed you?” She felt a tear fall onto her cheek.
“We were talking about your crime.”
Dela hugged herself. When it came down to the truth of things, the only friend she had was herself. “My brother Gobro and I were collecting and a human, a demon hunter, caught us. He attacked Gobro. I was afraid and I hid instead helping Gobro fight. That was my crime.”
Roger shook his head. She could see his human egotistical pride rising up, the pride that always pushed everyone else down. “It’s unreasonable to expect you to not be afraid.”
Dela stood, keeping her back turned toward Roger. “No, it isn’t. I was wrong, and I will bear the consequences of that error for the rest of my life. Just like I have borne it up to now.” That ended their conversation, and now the silence was a comfort. A place of safety from Roger, his pride, and her past.
They slept back to back on the platform. By an unspoken agreement they were careful not to touch each other.
In the morning, light streaming in the door woke Dela as a woman entered bringing food for them. The woman called her sister and the word almost brought Dela to tears. The woman handed her a bundle. “Proper clothes,” she said, “you must be so uncomfortable in those things.” Inside the bundle was a pair of horns, thin elegant ones that curved down and forward. Dela changed into the heavy dark blue leather. The clothes fit tight against her skin, a comforting embrace, something of home to give comfort when nothing else would. She glanced at Roger sitting at the far end of the tent watching her. It was like he expected her to suddenly turn into the monster he thought she was and jump on him, ripping him apart.
“Why don’t you have wings, everyone else does.” Roger asked. His voice was stronger he was acclimating quickly.
“The wings are machines we wear. As a criminal I won’t be allowed to wear them so I can’t leave the city. The city sits on a high flat mountain. If you look when we leave to go back to the inquisitor’s tent you should be able to see the edge. Without wings I can’t leave it.”
Now he was poking at the bowl of stew that was meant to be breakfast. Dela couldn’t eat. Her insides too upset from worry, and she regretted it. It was probably the last time she’d ever have a chance to eat real food.
“Is this what a human soul looks like?” Roger sounded almost afraid, like a child.
“No, that’s stewed fruit from trees that grow down in the valley. There might be emotion dissolved in the broth.” Dela answered. Roger stared at it with a frozen look on his face. She ignored him and spent the time until the guide came arranging and rearranging her hair around the horns.
The guide took the walk to the Inquisitor’s Court slowly out of respect for Roger. Dela appreciated the time to look around at the home she hadn’t seen for years. Clusters of people watched them at a respectful distance, most hiding fearful expressions by turning away and glancing back after they passed. Tall trees reached up high supported by their bladders too far up in the sky to see.
The thick purple grass brushed her legs, feeling soft and comforting. A drowsiness came over her and she wanted to fall down into it and sleep like when she was a child cocooned in the warmth and the smell. The only thing in Roger’s world that came close to the smell of the grass was vanilla.
Without the deep tan of a native the dark red sun made her skin prickle. She briefly thought to keep watch on Roger. He sunburned easily even on the other side, but that wouldn’t be her problem anymore. Even if the inquisitors did banish her, Roger wasn’t likely to take back a wife exposed as a monster.
They walked up the sloping hanging ramp to the inquisitor’s tent. Roger was having no trouble with it today. His strong body adapted quickly to things.
At the top she stopped and looked out across the city. There, under the canopy of the second largest tree in the city, was the children’s house she’d grown up in. Hidden beyond it would be the tree where her house used to be. She’d made it with her own hands, but it would have been destroyed years ago, as soon as her crime of betrayal had become known. There wasn’t any place here for her except the work camp down in the valley. It was an awful place hidden from the sun that rocked with the thundering of herds of byrwryms. Huge beasts who wouldn’t mind making a meal of a person caught alone and unarmed.
The interior of the tent was dark after the bright sunlight. The inquisitors sat still and silent, invisible faces under the hoods watching as they entered. They didn’t waste any time.
The head inquisitor greeted them, and then continued after a moment of silence, “We have decided your punishment, but before we speak if you have anything to say please do.”
“Would you send Roger back to the other side. He hasn’t done anything wrong except support me. He was unaware of my crimes.” Dela said.
The head inquisitor nodded waited a moment for her to continue. When she didn’t, he spoke, “You betrayed your brother through your acts of cowardice, and through your brother, betrayed all the people. Since you have made a life on the other side, banishment does not seem to be a suitable punishment. We will send you to the work camp.”
“No.” Roger said. Dela turned at the sound of his voice. “Don’t you understand? She has already been punished, losing her home, her family, being forced to live among those she considers monsters. She must hate us after one of us killed her brother.”
“No.” Now Roger turned to look at her. “I don’t feel humans are monsters, and I only hate the one who murdered Gobro.” Dela could tell from his expression he didn’t understand. “Even after years of living among humans, they frighten me. Every day I miss the city, miss the people.” And miss flying, she thought. “But, I am not suffering from anything but my own memories and guilt. Even in the work camp, I shall see the city far above. I’ll smell the air of home. I will not suffer there either.”
The head inquisitor shook his head. “You are making things difficult for us.” Another inquisitor leaned over and caught the sleeve of the head inquisitor’s robe. They whispered back and forth a while and then called the guide to them. He bowed and left with a sad glance at her. “We have decided a suitable punishment for you. Since nothing in the outside can make you suffer, let your suffering come from inside.” The guide returned carrying a leather wrapped package. He handed it to her. “These are the horns Gobro was wearing when he was killed. You will keep them by your side. Every day you will look at them and remember your betrayal.” She bowed, and held the package as tight as she could, pressing her arms hard against it to feel the shape of the horns under the leather. “Return to your new life among the humans, and never return here.”
And that was the end. The guide showed her and Roger out of the tent. He opened the portal and suddenly they were back in Roger’s house, in Roger’s dining room. Only the leather clothing she was wearing, the horns twisting around her face and the leather package showed that anything had happened. They were right back where they had been before they left, except her monstrousness was even more obvious.
“Now what?” He turned to her. “Will you stay with me?”
“Do you want to live with a monster like me?” Do I want to live with you thinking of me as a monster? Dela added soundlessly.
“Do you want to live with a monster like me?” He shot back.
“Yes, I do. Now and forever.”
E. M. Sole is a proud resident of Nebraska, living there with three jack russell terriers and a very confused cat. She was given the gift of the love of literature of all types by her grandmother, a gift that has grown in value through the years. Her short stories have appeared in Mystic Signals, Infective Ink and Liquid Imagination.
6 readers love this story!
Tags: E.M. Sole, horror, relationships, romance