Starless Imperium

Morgan Argor Strange, Science Fiction Horror Author

Where Monsters Go to Die 

Sepulcher of Strange Illustration by artist Kristian Strange for author Morgan Strange

Where Monsters Go to Die 

By Morgan Argor Strange

Bones illustration by Kristian Strange

“Mom, this is going to sound really weird, but I think I’m turning into a monster.”

I got no response but the “ping, ping, ping” of spoon against ceramic as she stirred her third cup of coffee, even though it was only 7 AM.

“Come on, don’t ignore me: This time I’m really serious,” I pleaded, burrowing my hands deep into the safety-pin-clad pockets of my jacket in frustration—purple plaid Tripp, of course. She’d paid $150 for the stupid thing on eBay, but still she couldn’t bother to even look up from her phone as I spilled my darkest secret yet. “I was taking my nail polish off earlier, and . . .” I paused, chewing my lip, probably covering my teeth in black lipstick again.

“I found scales, mom! Scales!” I finally confessed, nearly heaving at the memory of the gruesome discovery: I left out the gritty details of how starting at the cuticle, the skin of my entire finger slipped off like a glove with its tip cut off, revealing a slime-covered, veiny purple balloon beneath.

“You probably just scrubbed a bit too hard, sweetie,” she reassured me, her tone as vapid and empty as always. She shoved her phone into her secondhand Dooney and Bourke handbag, pausing suddenly as she jangled her keys. “Wait, you haven’t been playing that game again, have you?”

Crippled by the low blow of the century, I rolled my eyes and tried to think of how I could get back at her. I hated it when she tried to talk about it. I hated it even more when she pretended to understand.

“I’m staying at Devi’s house tonight, okay?” I snapped, turning around and storming towards the door. 

“Oh, really?” She asked, ten times more eager than I was to change the subject. “That’s good, I was going to be late at work tonight anyway.”

Bullshit. I knew from the relief in her voice that she already planned on going to Craig’s house, and this was just an excuse for her not to feel guilty when I had to order Dominos for dinner for the sixth night in a row.

“Yeah, really.” I scoffed coldly, picking up my backpack by the side of the door—covered in patches and pins, of course—and don’t even bother saying goodbye. Instead, I left her with,

“And as a matter of fact, we just started playing again last week.”

I was her Jesus of Suburbia, and she was my Edward Scissorhands, come down to play from her sultry stone mansion on top of the hill—but instead of ice sculptures, she carved broken glass as she stepped on a beer bottle with her ugly black combat boots. In this puke-worthy neighborhood of manicured lawns and powder-blue ranches, we were as out of place as the Keystone bottle she stomped upon.

We were headed back to Devi’s house to play the game, but she didn’t know it yet, and she didn’t have to. I liked going there more than my place because it was closer to the giant satellite dish, but that was my little secret too.

School was out for the day, but the real gauntlet of pain was only just beginning. Somehow, it was even more humiliating to stare down at the ground and hurry past the cheerleaders out here on the streets than it was in the halls at school—probably because now there weren’t any teachers around to stop me from kicking their asses, so they knew I actually couldn’t.

“Hey, look, it’s the dykes!” From the high-pitched squeal I already knew without looking that it was Vicky DiFloria, the most popular girl in 10th grade. Pin-straight blonde hair, sharp pink nails, and huge DD’s that I may have gotten off to out of spite, but only a couple of times. She could piss in a cup and pass it around to her lackeys, and all of them would probably pour it all over their faces and swoon. I fucking hated her. I wanted to be her, but just so I could walk in front of a train and kill myself.

“J-just ignore them,” Devi stammered, hiding behind her mousy brown hair like always. God, what a little bitch she was about stuff like this. I would have said told her that then and there, but it would have gotten her crying, and her inch-thick eyeliner was just too cute to smear.

Just ignore them,” Vicky squealed back in a singsong tone, earning a snicker from the two other skanks behind her. “She’s right, loser: Wouldn’t want to make a total ass of yourself like last time. Oh, and by the way, your jacket looks fucking cheap and stupid. But it’s not like you can afford any better, right? You’re such a—”

Her frosted pink lips kept flapping, and her twice-baked tan cleavage kept drawing me in, but I wasn’t going to fall for it again this time: I wasn’t going to give in, and I wasn’t going to sink to her level—especially because I already knew what this was about.

She was making fun of my tail.

Goddamn it! I thought I taped it to the inside of my jeans when I snuck off to the bathroom in the middle of third period, but this wouldn’t be the first time that slippery bastard wormed its way out again. No matter what I tried: staples, tacks, and even gorilla glue, I couldn’t keep it down forever. Vicky’s beautiful fucking stupid overlined lips were still flapping, and Devi was now backing away with a very nervous look on her face, so there was nothing to do but slowly look back over my shoulder and check . . .

. . . And sure as shit, there it was, as bony and purple and covered in thorns as the first day it crept out in the middle of church when I was six—venomous black barbs glistening hungrily, longing for Vicky’s throat, still wet with grandpa’s blood and all dad’s hopes for me.

If I didn’t get it the fuck back in my pants, and fast, Vicky’s full face of makeup was going to be smeared across the concrete by the time I got done with her. So I stormed over to Devi, grabbed her by the arm, and dragged her away as quickly as my battered Doc Martens could carry me—with my tail swaying wildly behind me in the breeze, of course.

“Oh, come on, Nine Inch Nails?! More like Nine Inch Nails on a Chalkboard,” I wailed, covering my ears and shaking my head. They were Devi’s favorite band, but I couldn’t stand them. “Turn that shit off before I come over there and—”

Instead, of course, she cranked that screeching, grinding bullshit all the way up, snickering. She’d already forgotten about our little incident with Vicky earlier: It was written all over her smudge-lipped smirk as she dared me to come closer. Suddenly, the low red light glimmering off her box-dyed black curls was way too much. I tackled her, turning the CD player way the hell down on the way, and pushed her back on the bed, giggling.

“Get off!” She teased, pretending not to like it, squirming so hard her purple plaid skirt—the one her mom wouldn’t let her wear out—was practically hiked all the way up.

“If you don’t watch it I’ll eat that shit like Jeffrey Dahmer the first time he tasted blood,” I practically salivated into her three-pierced ear. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking, that’s sick as hell: But what can I say? We were true crime junkies. I was the Eric to her Dylan, the Euronymous to her Dead, all that shit.

“Gross!” She scoffed, yanking down her skirt and squirming away—but I knew she didn’t mean it when a minute later, she wriggled back over and rested her head on my shoulder, nuzzling in. It felt really good, but I was starting to get a little paranoid that she was going to be able to pick up on the rhythm of my third heart if she kept her ear pressed up on that part of my chest like that . . .

I went kind of rigid, like I always did when she got like this, and the gears started scraping inside my head and suddenly everything felt like it was melting. “Come on,” she teased, twirling her neon green fingernails through my hair and giving it her all. “You always talk such a big game, but when it comes time to do any more than snuggle, you lock up . . .”

“No I don’t,” I snapped back, knowing it was a lie. I caught a reflection of the two of us laying there in the full-length mirror by the side of her bed, illuminated weirdly by the red Christmas lights she had strung up between all the hastily-scratched song lyrics on the wall, and I let out a long and distant sigh. The last thing I needed right now was a reminder. Now I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not like those other kids who want to shoot themselves up with hormones or whatever, even though my mom offered to take me to the gender clinic a hundred thousand times. I hate my body, but not for the usual reasons. The things I wanted from being a guy, you couldn’t get from all the doctor’s appointments and T-shots and carefully-calibrated blood tests in the world—the things I wanted from being a guy, you had to be born with.

And besides, I never really even wanted to be a boy. I wanted to be a monster.

It was enough to make me remember why I came here to begin with—enough to help me finally gulp down all the pain and fear and kiss her. I forgot how good it felt when our lipstick smeared together like that. She bit my lip, tugging a little bit too hard on the ring: She knew it drove me crazy, she knew it was going to get me in the mood to start playing . . .

She leaned back off the side of the bed, still giggling, going for the dresser drawer where she hid all her favorite toys. She was gone long enough for me to catch a reflection of myself in the mirror again, ringed with a tube of blacklights that clashed weirdly with all the red. I liked the way I looked in that warped, psychedelic glass: I looked more like myself. I could even start to see my horns coming out. I hope she was in the mood . . .

“M-M-Morgan,” she stammered, practically dropping the fluffy cat ear headband she clutched in her trembling hand, snapping me out of my trance. I snorted through nostrils that probably weren’t as flat and wet as they looked in the mirror as she shook me by the arm, fear in her eyes. “Oh, there you are,” she muttered, the relief on her tone soon melting away into anger. She chucked the headband against the wall and folded her arms across her chest, clearly pissed off.

“Oh, come on,” I sigh, annoyed, slinging my arm over my shoulder and forcing her close to calm her down. “You of all people should know I can’t stop myself sometimes.”

“Keep staring into those mirrors and one of these days more than your own reflection is going to stare back!” Devi suddenly shouted, standing up and stalking over to that glassy portal to another world in a frenzy and spinning it around—stealing my horns and all my confidence.

It already has. The blotches on the back reminded me of granddad’s crude, bruised-up mug—still laughing even with . . .

After that, I didn’t need the mirror anymore to see my real self bleeding out: My nails were peeling back again, farther back this time, and the purple scales went all the way up to my elbows instead of my knuckles like before. I should just rip the whole fucking thing off one of these days. I don’t know what I was waiting for.

“Devi, you’ve seen parts of me that no one else has ever known. Parts no one else ever will know,” I hissed, fangs bared, my right arm twitching and moving slowly towards my left wrist. “But here you are making fun of me for playing the same game that both of us used to love. Making fun of me just like my mother.”

I rolled up my sleeve, and the skin of my arm rolled up with it.

The sky was always changing colors, but no one noticed but me. Green was boredom, minty and sharp, tantalizing even from so far away. Yellow was sadness, wilted and weak, losing its luster and drawing me somewhere, anywhere but here. But tonight, all suburbia burned red.

Red was freedom.

The grinding of gears and the crashing of metal hypnotized me with every step, resounding over the powder blue houses from beyond the distant tree line. It was hard—harder than anything I’d ever done—to resist the urge to stare into the windows as I made my escape. Every TV rattling off mindless warnings was a siren’s song made metal, and every messy dining room table was a portal to someone else’s dreams and weaknesses.

I finally gave in to the urge to stare in past the glass, chasing the thrill—the mere snowball’s chance in hell of seeing a reflection—and the scraping instantly grew louder: Probably because the pristine, fake-ass living room inside had a mirror nailed up on the wall above the couch. Sadly, though, the angle wasn’t right for me to see the wings contorting and breaking out of my back as I hobbled off towards the trees. But it didn’t matter, because I was…

“. . . Almost there . . .” I rasped to no one, but it didn’t come out right. It was more like pebbles grinding the wrong way through a metal tube than a human voice. It felt like I was being choked from the inside, but I realized with a twinge of relief that it was just the spikes bursting out from my chest, glistening wet with blood under a moon just as red.

When I saw that glimmer of metallic freedom through the trees, it was like all the concrete of the cul-de-sac cracked into a million pieces, and the dust carried me all the way up to heaven on the wings of a dream. I was so close now . . . Finally, after all these years . . .

The bones in my leg gave out with a hideous, night-splitting ‘crack,’ and I knew I’d have to crawl the rest of the way across the football field, leaving a trail of even more blood in my wake, but none of it mattered: The abandoned satellite dish was so close I could taste the metal with every scream. The barbs of my tail dragged unceremoniously through the dirt, tearing the grass up in clumps, as I finally clawed my way through the dead leaves on the edge of the forest and into its glorious shadow.

There it was: A forgotten testament to world domination and American superiority, abandoned not long after the Cold War, along with the underground facilities that stole its power. Grandpa used to work down there, I realized with a shudder, my six yellow eyes squinting shut all at once to block out the sight of that awful metal door on the forest floor. Only the sight of that glorious, glimmering metal specter could lick clean those wounds: I loved how there was something weird about the coating on it, something wrong as it slowly peeled back from years of neglect and relentless Seattle rain. Like me, it was hiding something truly undefinable lurking just beneath its hideous surface—a smoothly glistening, wildly-gleaming mirror, nearly blinding in the starlight.

The grinding wafting up from underground was so impossibly loud now that it felt like my ears would start bleeding at any second, but no, I realized—they were simply changing into sharp, peaked, fur-covered appendages made for light-speed echolocation rather than absorbing abuse from high school girls. 

They were beautiful, and twisted, and finally mine—but despite all that, they still fell victim to the unbearable, screeching beep of the text message alert on my phone as they had so many times before. I fumbled for it with hands that were claws, claws that were hands, and somehow managed to unlock the now-cracked screen to find a message from my mom:

“Honey where are you?? the police came to Craig’s house. Seems v serious.”

“Sorry, Devi . . .” I growled, breaking the phone against the metal door to the crypt below. But as I reveled in the beauty of its exposed circuits, its thousand splintered hearts, I added, “But not you, mom.”

I could feel the last of my human skin slipping off and melting away, now, exposing purple scales tougher than bone. My teeth were falling out as my fangs grew in, but there was still something weird stuck between them … Something not too different from the skin that now rested at my feet like fat skimmed off from the top of a boiling pot of soup. Tasted like grandad…

My legs were working again, now, permanently bent and capped with cloven hooves, but I collapsed against the base of the satellite dish to stare up at the red moon all the same. As the barbs kept flaring up and down my arms, and the wings continued their horrific journey out from the sides of my spine, spinning electric neurons through broken bone, it ached far less than other pains I’d felt in my old life. These were the finishing touches of my glorious transformation . . . These were the moments I’d carry with me to the stars and back.

When I stood to my full height of over fifteen feet and looked in the mirror, I shed acid tears of joy: For my lips were as black as I’d always painted them, but now, no one could ever wipe them off.

It was gone. It was done. My shredded clothes rested at my feet, strewn out amongst empty pill bottles and my broken phone, and at last I could unfurl my thousand-peaked black wings and hit the skies.

A ravenous gust tore through the forest as I took off, and branches snapped from the downdraft as within seconds I hovered far above the trees, bathed in starlight.

“Thank you, Devi . . . This is for you!” I projected psychically off into the soft black night. My human voice was gone now: It was all echolocation as I soared off towards the town on wild and loathsome wings. No matter what irreparable, blood-curdling changes had torn through my body, I could still feel her inside of me. “Always us . . . Eric and Dylan, Euro and Dead . . . My corpse-paint Edward Scissorhands, forever.”

I soared past the school, and then Devi’s house, and then my own, drawn towards the center of town just as I always knew I’d be when the transformation was complete. I’d played it out a thousand times in my head, but never dreamed it would be my reality instead of some twisted fever dream of freedom. Raising a ten-clawed hand, palm upturned, the fun began: The video store far below went up in an explosion of toxic purple flame, and next, the church. It was the middle of the night, so there weren’t that many people around, but it was still enough that the screams drifting up from the blazing hellscape were a symphony of bliss and joy unparalleled.

“I told you I was turning into a monster, but you didn’t believe me . . .” I echoed in a language not formed for human ears as I made my way towards the south side of town, towards Craig’s house. Far below, smaller than ants, I could see all those strangers I’d known for all my lives, watching my reign unfold in terror.

I paused over the sprawling pre-fab with a red tin roof that my mom had chosen over me. There were countless cop cars swarmed outside, but their blaring sirens couldn’t compete with the shriek I threw off, shattering the windows of all the nearby houses. Even as the entire block went up in noxious violet smoke, I could still hear her accusatory, anxious voice chiming, “You better not be playing that game again.”

Blind, stupid bitch. The game was everywhere, and she was always playing it too. It could be something as small as her refusing to accept that Devi was more than “just a friend” no matter how many times I explained it, or something as big as how she forced me to sit across from grandpa for six Thanksgivings in a row before I finally ripped out his throat, even though she knew what happened.

It was woven between every lie I spun in my entire life for the comfort of her, and all the other people I hated, just so they could spit all over my dignity and spin their own lies back.

And there between the pillars of smoke from the dying town, blocking out what was left of the moon with my huge black wings, it all suddenly clicked into place. I finally realized why my little game always made them so uncomfortable. I finally understood why the few lucky ones with unscorched lungs were determined to die screaming in fear.

It was because they saw themselves in me: Deep down, they were sharp enough to know we were all playing the same game, even though our strategies were completely different.

They played by putting on a different skin for the world, pretending to be someone they weren’t at work, and school, and even when jerking off to their exes or the girls who beat them up, and I played mine by rejecting that skin and ripping it off—bit by bit, year by year, until finally I peeled the entire suit off forever.

Turns out they only realized how terrifying their own game was when they saw it inside-out on someone else.

Bones illustration by Kristian Strange

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