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art by Stephen James Kiniry

I Kill Monsters

Nathaniel Lee puts words in various orders and arrangements on a regular basis. Sometimes he gets paid for this. He lives in North Carolina with a patient wife and the obligatory cats. His work has appeared in Podcastle, Pseudopod, and Abyss & Apex, as well as a handful of other venues. His biggest regret is being unable to fly unassisted. Today he will experience good fortune, and his Chinese word is "banana (xiang jiao)."

"I Kill Monsters" is Nathaniel Lee's third appearance in Daily Science Fiction.

Robbie killed monsters. He used a baseball bat, because they didn't give better weapons to ten-year-olds. It worked well enough. He'd cleaned out his room first, the slithering whispering things under the bed and the Chatterer in the closet. Then the attic, full of Flappers and Flutterers, and one that was more like a fog or a mist than anything solid. He'd poked holes in it with the bat, then swirled the bat around until the drifting fog-thing shrieked and funneled up through a crack in the ceiling like a tornado in reverse.
The last monster he killed was in the basement, where the strongest monsters always live, down near the earth and the dirt and the rot and the dark. The monster in Robbie's basement was a fetid, swollen worm of a creature, with a mouth of flat, grinding teeth. He'd hit it right between where the eyes would have been and kept hitting until it was a pulpy mass. It had taken him three days to finish breaking it into chunks and burying it in the backyard. Robbie's backyard was peppered with mounds of dirt, some overgrown now with grass, others still fresh. His neighbor Mrs. Cotterly thought Robbie was just a spectacularly bad goldfish-taker-care-of. Robbie patrolled the backyard nightly to make sure the monsters weren't coming back.
Robbie sometimes wondered if other kids saw the monsters like he did. He knew adults didn't; Mom had gone down to the basement every week to do the laundry and never once mentioned a twenty-foot, acid-drooling, spined worm that smelled like nail polish and farts. She'd even done laundry the week Robbie had killed it, but she never seemed to notice its decomposing corpse. He wondered if all little kids saw monsters to start with and then pretended they weren't there until everyone forgot they were pretending. He wondered why he couldn't pretend like everyone else.
When Robbie first started seeing the monsters, he'd tried to hide from them, but that only made them more interested. They swarmed under his bed and filled his closet until the hinges groaned, poking and prodding when he was asleep, leaving terrible messes to clean up in the morning and try to blame on the dog. This would have worked better if they'd had a dog in the first place. Now, after he'd cleaned out his house and made it safe, they just got him angry. He carried his baseball bat everywhere he could and threw a fit when they tried to take it away from him. Mom had had a word with the principal and Robbie was allowed to keep his baseball bat in the coatroom with the lunchboxes and jackets. He also had to go to see Dr. Spindler twice a month and talk about his feelings and why Dad left, but this was a small enough price to pay for safety and security. Even the school wasn't completely safe from monsters; Robbie had found one in the boy's shower room in the gymnasium, and he was fairly certain another one lurked in the boiler room, though he hadn't been able to convince Ned the janitor to let Robbie in to investigate.
This morning, Robbie stalked down the street stiff-legged, like a tomcat spoiling for a fight. The monsters that still lurked in the early morning shadows kept their distance, glaring snarls at him and flashing their white, white teeth. They knew him, now. All the monsters on his street did, because he'd hung the remnants of the worm-thing's head from his bedroom window on a jump rope for a week before burying it, as a warning to monsterkind. Something like a chimpanzee-wolf-porcupine puffed itself up as Robbie neared the thick bushes it hid in. Robbie hefted his bat from his shoulder, readying a swing, and the chimpolfupine hissed and withdrew.
They were all guts-nothing, anyway. The sun was half-risen; it wouldn't have been able to get even a normal kid. Robbie snorted and sauntered to the corner where the bus stopped.
A new kid was waiting there today. Normally, no one else was up as early as Robbie; he liked to do a sweep of the street and make sure no monsters got too bold and snatched up any of his classmates. The new kid had red hair and tons of freckles and glasses as thick as cheeseburgers. He smelled like medicine and soap.
"What's the bat for?" the new kid asked.
Robbie slung his bat and backpack down to the ground and rocked on his heels. "Killing monsters."
"Mom made them let me carry it, in case I need it during the school day."
The redhead nodded. "My mom had to fill out a form and stuff for my inhaler because they wanted it to stay in the nurse's office but I might need it when I can't get to the nurse's office or when it would take too long and so she told them and did the forms and now I can carry it with me." He rummaged in his pockets and came up with a small white canister encased in plastic. "See?"
"Cool. Is that, like, medicine?"
"I have asthma."
"My name's Stuart."
"I'm Robbie."
"It's my first day today."
Robbie grunted as though this were news. "Did you just move in?"
"Yeah." Stuart bit his lip and glanced around. "Are the kids here mean or nice?"
Robbie shrugged. "I dunno. I don't really pay much attention. I gotta keep an eye on the monsters."
"Wow. So you're... like... a policeman or something?"
Robbie shook his head. "It's not like a real job. It's just something I do and I have to do it because no one else does it."
Stuart was silent for several moments. "Do you really believe in monsters?"
"I have to, if I want to kill them."
"Oh. Do you think maybe that's why no one else does it? Because they don't believe in monsters?"
"Dunno. Maybe."
Stuart bit his lip again. It was chapped and raw; apparently, this was a habit. "Can you kill the monster in my house? I'll give you two dollars." He dug in another of his jacket's many pockets and retrieved a pair of crumpled green bills. "Mom gave me it for lunch, but I'd rather have the monster gone."
Robbie thought about this. He'd never asked for money for monster-killing before, but then, no one had ever believed him when he told them about the monsters. He shrugged. "Okay."
Stuart's monster was weird, even for a monster. At least, in Robbie's experience of monsters, he'd never seen one like it. Monsters were hard to pin down. He'd tried to catalogue them, a bit. He wasn't good at organizing or examining or hypothesizing or any of the Scientific Method because he'd flunked that quiz, but he'd kept some notes and tried to keep track of what monsters tended to live in what places. He'd seen Oozers and Slimers, Chatterers and Clatterers, Flappers and Flutterers, and all manner of wispy ghostly claw-bearing things. The monster that Stuart described, though, was unlike anything in Robbie's lexicon.
"It's shiny and metal, like a big metal spider but with claws and stuff," Stuart said. They were crouched in Stuart's room, using his blanket for a makeshift tent while they planned their assault. Stuart's mother had given them cookies made with whole-wheat flour and tousled Robbie's hair like a maiden aunt.
"Are you sure it's a monster and not a robot or an alien or something?"
"Is there a difference?"
Robbie shrugged. It was a good question.
"It lives in the basement."
Of course it did. Robbie sighed. Basement monsters were the worst. "Come on. Hand me my bat. We'll have to go down to it. You can't lure basement monsters outside. They're too smart."
Stuart reached out a hesitant hand, as though the bat were electrified and booby-trapped.
"Go ahead," said Robbie, scooting out from under the blanket. "You can carry it down for me."
"Wow. Really?"
"Come on. Better do it while the sun is up."
It really was kind of like a spider. Or maybe a crab. It was hard to see it in the shadows, but it glinted in the glow of the single bare bulb and Robbie followed the edges. Stuart cowered back by the stairs, his eyes big behind his glasses that caught the light just like the monster's polished steel. The monster steamed and rattled, emitting a piercing teakettle wail when Robbie smashed the big click-clacking cylinder in the middle. It slashed out with its big front claw, and Robbie ducked, then swung sharply and shattered the joints: one, two, three. The claw fell to the floor with a clatter, and Robbie moved in for the kill.
"Look out!"
Stuart's cry came too late. With a clatter of metal that sounded somehow triumphant, the monster unveiled its hidden weapon, a stinger-tail tipped with a needle a foot long. Something dripped from the end of it. Robbie could see the light gleam on the droplet as it fell. He was in too close, with no room to maneuver. The tail came down, faster than Robbie's eyes could see.
There was a sharp clang, like someone slamming the swing set pole with a stick. Robbie opened his eyes again.
Stuart stood beside him, right amid the flailing legs and whirring gears. He held the monsters fallen claw, one sharp blade in each hand, crossed overhead like swords on a pirate flag. The stinger-tail quivered, held by the blades, its tip mere inches from Robbie's forehead.
Stuart's arms trembled. "Hurry!" he rasped, wheezing.
Robbie came to his senses and lifted the bat overhead in both hands. "I kill monsters!" he said, swinging it down in the area that looked most like a head. There was a soft crunch that could have been mistaken for someone stomping an aluminum can for the recycling bin. The limbs around them spasmed, froze, and then clattered down to the floor.
"You did it!" Stuart was ebullient. He grabbed for his inhaler. It hissed twice. Stuart heaved a breath and then coughed.
"Everyone on TV always has a cool line to say at the end," said Robbie. "I can never think of anything funny."
"Who cares? You're like a hero. You need a hero name, like 'Super Smasher' or something. If you get a good name, then you can have a special finishing move and a line to go with it. Oh! I almost forgot: here." Stuart handed over the two dollars.
Robbie looked at the money. "You helped," he said. "I don't think I get paid if I don't do it alone."
"Oh." Stuart looked at his left hand, which still clutched the monster's broken claw, like a giant pair of scissors.
"I know!" said Robbie. He handed one dollar back to Stuart. "Here. You're like a sub-con-tracker. My dad used to do that."
"What's that?"
"Like... I hire you to do part of a job that I got hired for, and then I pay you out of what I get paid."
Stuart picked up the dollar thoughtfully. "So I'm a monster hunter, too?"
Robbie shrugged again and pointed to the claw in Stuart's hand. Stuart grinned a long, slow grin.
"We should advertise," said Stuart. "I bet we could make a lot of money, more even than mowing lawns. Not everyone needs their lawn mowed, but nobody likes monsters."
They did make money, it turned out, even if they usually ended up giving most of it back. Robbie hadn't had any idea there were so many kids with monsters in their houses. He'd figured his house had been some kind of monster hotspot, but once you went looking, they were everywhere.
Stuart made up posters and hung them around the neighborhood after they got in trouble for putting them up in the hallways. He couldn't carry his severed monster claw with him at school because it was sharp and could make the police come, but he did remind Robbie several times per day to call him by his monster-hunting code name, Ultra-Blade. Robbie was technically Captain Crushinator now, but he generally preferred just "Robbie."
It was Stuart's idea to go to the Talent Show. "We need more exposure," he said. He'd been watching reality shows about cooks and fashion designers. "We've got to build our brand if we want people to keep coming to us for their monster-removal needs. We have a unique style and sensibility."
Robbie didn't ask what that meant. Stuart really liked explaining things, a lot more than Robbie liked listening to explanations. They had avoided the dress rehearsal by pretending to be sick. Stuart said they had to keep their trade secrets. Plus it was hard to practice killing monsters on an empty stage surrounded by tap dancers and lip syncers and Joanie Neal playing the same wrong note fifteen times in a row on the piano.
"What if it goes wrong?" asked Robbie. "What if there's a monster out there and we can't kill it and everyone sees?"
"Relax, Captain Crushinator," said Stuart. "We've killed like a million monsters the past two weeks."
"Sixteen. And half of those was just one nest of Slithery Tentacles in the bus station toilet."
"We're really good at monster killing, is what I mean. You're really good. You're gifted. If they had Monster Killing as a class you would totally have an A-plus."
Robbie peeked out through the curtains like Ms. Colfax the drama teacher had told them not to do. There were a lot of people out there. The collective sounds of so many people being quiet all in one place nearly overwhelmed Joanie's piano solo. "I'm not good at talking to people."
"Better'n I am."
Ms. Colfax loomed over them, setting Robbie's combat nerves tingling. "Are you boys ready? Don't you have a costume or anything?" She stared at Robbie's sneakers. His left one had come undone.
"I've got my bat," said Robbie. He held it up by way of proof.
"Robbie," Ms. Colfax got the look on her face that Dr. Spindler got when Robbie tried to tell him about the monsters. "This isn't show and tell, sweetie. You boys have been awfully secretive about this little play you're putting on. Something about monsters?"
"It's okay, Miz Colfax," Stuart interjected. "We're ready. We're ready to go."
Ms. Colfax's lips twisted up like they wanted to get away, but she only said, "You're going on in five minutes. Go wait in the wings, okay?"
Five minutes never went so fast and so slow at the same time. When Ms. Colfax gave the signal from the other side of the stage, Stuart had to push Robbie onstage. Robbie stumbled, stared around wildly, and froze. The auditorium was full. Everyone's parents were there. This was a terrible idea.
There was a microphone at the middle of the stage. Robbie plodded over to it, wrestled with the height adjuster thing, lost control of it, sent a thump and a feedback squeal hurtling around the auditorium. The murmur of the audience took on an irritated timbre.
"Um..." Robbie hesitated. "My talent is, um. I kill monsters."
The audience went quiet, truly quiet.
"With this." Robbie held out his battle-scarred bat. There was the chip Stuart's monster had gouged out of the handle. There was a green-yellow ichor stain from a weird flower that had teeth. The handle had scorch marks.
A baby started to wail, out in the faceless dark. Robbie heard the murmurs begin again; confusion, questions.
"It used to be my Dad's. He left, um, a year ago. But I still have this." He coughed, his throat dry. "I didn't find out it was good at killing monsters until earlier this year. Um. I've helped a lot of kids who, um, had monsters. I killed them. The monsters. With this."
The audience was no longer simply murmuring. Robbie heard voices rising, heard words bobbing to the surface. Therapy. Poor boy. Mother. Terrible.
Then Robbie heard another sound. A rumble, like distant thunder. Another. Another. Regular, like a heartbeat. No, not a heartbeat. Footsteps.
"You have to listen!" he said, grabbing for the microphone. He saw Ms. Colfax gesturing at someone offstage. "Listen! There are monsters. They're real, but you don't know it because you used to know it but you forgot you were pretending they weren't there. They're real and they're dangerous, and you can't just walk away and leave your kids alone. Everyone leaves and the kids are alone, and there are monsters out there."
He could feel the footsteps now, each one like a tiny earthquake. Mom used to wake him up for earthquakes when he was little, tell him that they were a part of living in California, but that it was mostly safe as long as everyone was careful. These weren't safe little earthquakes. The audience seemed to be noticing them, too. Ms. Colfax was beside him, calling out to Ned. People were standing, shouting, yelling back and forth. Ms. Colfax tried to take the microphone away from Robbie.
"Please!" said Robbie, feeling the pounding footsteps of the approaching beast in his bones, inside his ribcage. "There's something coming now, and it's bad. I don't know if I can stop it by myself. You have to stop pretending it's all okay! You have to--"
His voice cut out as Ms. Colfax succeeded in wrenching the microphone away. Her voice filled the auditorium like anesthetic, giving instructions, guiding the evacuation, using words like "magnitude" and "emergency exits."
That's when the monster ripped the roof off.
Huge black fingers tipped by claws sheared through the wall as though it were just a snow fort, each finger the size of a park bench. With a roar, the ceiling flew upwards. Debris rained down, bricks and plaster dust and chunks of metal and concrete. Robbie clutched his baseball bat and looked up, up, up to the milky-blue eyes far, far overhead. It was dark, dark as night all over, like tar, like soot, like Robbie's own black hair that everyone said was just like his Dad's. It stared back at him, each moonlike eye the size of Robbie's bed. Then it threw back its head and howled into the starless sky.
Robbie screamed back.
The monster--and it was definitely the monster, not just a monster--pointed one massive hand at Robbie and roared again.
Robbie understood, better than he'd understood most things people had said to him the past year. You took them. You took my children. I am alone now. I will have my revenge. Robbie glanced to the side of the stage, but Stuart was gone. Robbie felt like he had backstage, his stomach falling and bouncing off the floor with a sickening lurch. He tightened his grip on the bat.
"I'll fight you," he said to the monster, knowing it would hear him over the noise and the cries and the chaos below. "I kill monsters. It's what I do."
"It's what we do," said Stuart. He stood by Robbie's side, his gleaming weapons ready, monster claws repurposed and comfortable in his grip.
"I thought you left."
"I'm Ultra-Blade. I had to get my blades. You can't fight her alone, Captain."
"Echidna. Tiamat. Nyx. The mother of all monsters." Stuart shot him a look. "Didn't you read any of those books I gave you?"
"Uh..." Robbie shuffled and looked up. "I'm glad you're here, but even two of us won't be enough."
"Three." Joanie pushed through the curtains, catching her stiff piano-recital skirts on them. She had her jump rope in her hands, the one with the real wood handles. She'd used it to finish off the Chatterer in her closet.
"Four." Morgan, whose closet they'd cleaned of Flutterers four days ago, hefted a metal garbage can lid like a shield. It still had a dent in it, a concave shape like a face with tiny horns.
"I called for help," said Stuart. "I used the Monster Emergency Whistle. I told you that would be a good idea."
"We're all here." Robbie didn't even know that boy's name, but he had a hockey stick and a grim expression. "You're right, Captain. We can't pretend anymore."
Echidna, Nyx, the Queen of Monsters, lowered her head to stare, reaching down with her truck-sized hands to brace her immense weight. It was dark now, no lights anywhere except for the monster. Her eyes glowed like searchlights. She opened her mouth and roared again.
"Okay," said Robbie.
He charged.
The news shows the next day didn't say anything about monsters. They said a lot about localized quakes and scientists who were mystified. They used the word "miracle" a lot, mostly when talking about how no one was killed even though a lot of people got injured. They didn't have even one picture of when Robbie jumped right into the monster's mouth and stood on its lower lip to poke it in the eye. They didn't have video footage of Stuart slicing away at the tree-trunk ankles, sending wisps of black fog up with every cut. They didn't have quotes from anyone who saw the monster hunters attack and be driven back, who saw hunters kicked or slapped away, who saw the hunters regroup and prepare for a swarm, the last stand, the fight or flight.
They especially didn't have any information about the shadowy figure who'd leaped from the top of the broken wall with an umbrella, floating like Mary Poppins in that stupid old movie, who jammed the pointy end right down the monster's throat, making Echidna or Nyx or Tiamat rear back and claw at her face in anguish, leaving an opening that even a much less experienced monster hunter than Robbie could have seen and taken. Robbie didn't know what broke when he'd hit the monster, but it made a noise that wasn't at all big or dramatic or impressive. Just a sort of sad crunching, like stepping on a Christmas ornament. The monster fell, melting away even as it collapsed, first to its knees, then to all fours, and then to nothing at all, filling the night with the hiss of snakes and the smell of old fireplaces. All the monster hunters gathered together, a shared knowledge in their eyes. None of them, however, had known who it was who gave them their last shot.
"The TV is stupid," Robbie said, his eggs getting cold.
"Eat your eggs. They're getting cold," said his mother.
"But they don't talk about the important stuff! They don't even know what really happened."
"And you do?" Mom smiled, raised an eyebrow.
"I know more'n they do," said Robbie.
"Cheer up," said Mom. "You've got no school for at least a week while they check the rest of the building. Maybe longer if they have to find another site while they repair the auditorium. No school is good, right?"
"Can I go to Stuart's house?"
Mom sighed, but she was smiling. "Put on your slicker and grab an umbrella. It's raining out."
Robbie ran down the hall, pausing briefly at the coat closet for his coat and even more briefly at the umbrella stand. He had his hand on the doorknob before he noticed the umbrella he'd selected was broken. Bent right in half, in fact, and with holes in the fabric just as if some enormous mouth had closed on it. Robbie lifted the umbrella to his face and sniffed. Snakes and ashes. He looked back down the hall to the kitchen. Light spilled out, splashing on the floor of the hallway. He saw his mother's shadow cross that light, heard the clank of dishes in the sink.
"Have a good time, sweetie!"
Robbie hesitated, then put the umbrella back and carefully selected another one. "I will, Mom."
"Be safe."
"I will, Mom!"
Robbie pushed open the door and ran outside. Raindrops fell like fingertips on his face. The sky was gray overhead, and it was better than the black. Robbie didn't pretend, and he'd left his baseball bat at home, but he made it to Stuart's house okay anyway.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 28th, 2011

Author Comments

This story and "Terrible Lizard King" (recently published over at Pseudopod, a horror fiction podcast) were written more or less simultaneously. I wanted to write something about childhood monsters, got "I Kill Monsters," and then thought, "Y'know, it doesn't always turn out that well...." Both of these stories had a strong touch of the autobiographical, in a roundabout way. I spent most of my childhood in my own head (and still do, really), and I was bullied incessantly in all the various schools I attended. Through various lucky breaks (genetic predisposition, quality parenting, just being born white and middle class), I somehow avoided serious mental illness or lasting trauma. "I Kill Monsters" is sort of a thank you note to the universe for letting me win. The monsters aren't just bullies, of course; we all had beasts we had to face down (most of them far worse than anything I've ever had to tackle), and I hope "I Kill Monsters" is able to tap into a broader vein than just my selfish point of view.

- Nathaniel Matthews Lee
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