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Cast of Wonders 292: Little Wonders 17 – True Selves

Show Notes

February is Women in Horror Month, an international initiative which encourages supporters to learn about and showcase the underrepresented work of women in the horror industries. Whether they are on the screen, behind the scenes, or contributing in their other various artistic ways, it is clear that women love, appreciate, and contribute to the horror genre. Check out the hashtag WiHM9 for plenty of suggestions. Or if you have the stomach for stronger fair, our sister show PseudoPod.

You can find all our own Women in Horror episodes here!

Silver Things

by Dagny Paul

The first time Leah turned into a fish, she had been small, maybe four, and she’d been sitting with her daddy on the rock that overlooked the lake. He had turned to her with his stubbled smile and his bright blue eyes and asked her if she’d wanted to dive. She didn’t know how to swim, she’d said, and he had said that’s okay, sweetheart, because we’ll be fish.

He’d stripped off his shirt and pulled her to her little feet, and before she’d even had time to think about it they had jumped. She’d never hesitated, never worried. He had never let her down.

Until now. (Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 289: Staff Picks 2017 – Blood and Water

Show Notes

Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.

Our final Staff Picks episode for 2017 is hosted by editor Marguerite Kenner.

Blood and Water

by Jason Kimble

The year we turned nineteen, the boy I loved disappeared under the waves of Lake Michigan, but he didn’t die. I never told anyone. That he was alive. That I loved him. That he

My fingertip goes white as I smash down on the delete key and the cursor devours my words.

The broken swimming trophy lies sideways on the kitchen table. I stare at it as I dial, ignore the cat mewling, exiled, on the other side of the door. I count the rings of the phone at my ear. Seven rings (for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone) before Mr. Gravere picks up.

“Why are you calling, Mike?” Gravere says.

“It’s about a book,” I say. “I … think that I loaned it to Andy, before–”

“That wasn’t his name.” I can’t decide if the ice sheathing Mr. Gravere’s voice is better or worse than his scalding anger at the funeral.

“It’s special. A first edition. Return of the King. My mother–”

“So special it took you five years to notice it missing?”

“It’s just … ” I turn the gilded swimmer in my hand.

“I told you when he died, Michael: you’re not welcome here. Live without the book. I’m living without a whole lot more.” Mr. Gravere hangs up. (Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 287: Staff Picks 2017 – Wished

Show Notes

Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.

This week’s episode is hosted by assistant editor Dani Daly.


by Amanda Helms

The wishing well discovered its meaning in existence only through a case of mistaken semantics. In point of fact, it started its existence not as a wishing well but as a decorative fountain. In point of another fact, it was sentient, all of which is most unusual for either a decorative fountain or a wishing well.

The way these three unusual things came to be is this:

On one summer solstice, a mother and her toddler stopped by the decorative fountain in the middle of Longview Mall, a middling shopping center located in a middling town in middling America.

(Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 286: Staff Picks 2017 – A Wish and a Hope and a Dream

Show Notes

Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.

This week’s episode is hosted by associate editor Susie Rodriguez.

A Wish and a Hope and a Dream

by M. Darusha Wehm

You have always been a princess.

When you are six years old, your hat is a cardboard cone covered in glitter glue with a cellophane veil. Your dress began life as a pillowcase in the free box at the Goodwill. Your best friend Ines has a store-bought costume, her gown soft and sky blue like Princess Karima’s. You aren’t envious, though. You love your pillowcase dress and hat that makes you almost as tall as your mother. (Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 284: Staff Picks 2017 – Old Teacups and Kitchen Witches

Show Notes

Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.

This week’s episode is hosted by associate editor Alexis Goble.

Old Teacups and Kitchen Witches

by Kate Baker

On the night my grandfather died, we all sat around his kitchen table and marveled at how he’d been able to raise six kids in such a tiny house. While creative with the cramped living space, one bathroom seemed to be enough despite the hustle to get to school and work in the mornings. Especially as children grew into teenagers and time preening before the mirror was at a premium.

There is chaos that comes with illness and death, yet despite piles of unopened mail and neglected dishes and floors, my eyes lingered on the subtle touches that made this house a home. Especially in this kitchen. A wooden hutch still held the “good” glass and dinnerware that my grandparents cherished and thought to protect. Pots and pans of every shape, size, and color hung from racks and peeked out from crowded cabinets. And despite a very thin layer of dust, the spice rack stood at the ready for whatever recipe came along.

(Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 283: Staff Picks 2017 – Single Parent

Show Notes

Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.

This week’s episode is hosted by audio producer Jeremy Carter.

Single Parent

By Sarah Gailey

The monster in my son’s closet is so fucking scary.

Here’s what happened: Jack screamed in the middle of the night and I came running because I’m his dad and that’s what dads are for. He’s been doing that for a month — screaming like someone’s in his room murdering him with a screwdriver. And even though there’s never, not even once been anyone murdering him, I couldn’t just let him scream his little head off all night. If I didn’t come running, his mom would have risen from the grave just to come and slap me upside the head.

I know what you’re thinking, but the monster in the closet is not his mom. It is not my dead wife, come back to watch over him and protect him. This isn’t that kind of a story. It’s a fucking monster, okay? (Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 280: Cateye Gleaming in the Dark

Cateye Gleaming In The Dark

by David M. Hoenig


James Riordan thinks that eighty four is a pretty fine number. It’s round, for one thing. It’s made up of what should be a lucky seven of dozens, for another. And he’s had time to get used to it, since it doesn’t look like he’s going to get around to eighty five.

The watery light of a cold February morning enters tentatively, as if unsure of its welcome. It rises slowly from the floor, up the starched white linens of his bed and creeps onto the homey red and blue quilt which insulates his thin frame. Even though he watched its hesitant approach the whole time, he seems surprised when it’s finally there, because he’s had to split his attention between it and breathing. The effort clearly tires him, because his eyes drift closed.

He wrestles his hand from under the sheets and up to his chest where he takes weak hold of a small leather bag which hangs on a thong from his neck. While he still has to strive for breath- oxygen supplemented by the twin-pronged, plastic life-giver across his upper lip- a smile settles across his achingly exhausted features.

He was not always so.

(Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 279: Random Play All and the League of Awesome

Random Play All and the League of Awesome

by Shane Halbach

Cyrus sat on the couch and crunched on a bowl of frosted wheat. Normally he would have sat at the table, but the table was currently covered with papers, folders and charts. His mom was finalizing her budget with her new business partner, Herman. There wasn’t much room in the one bedroom condo, so Cyrus was bumped to the couch.

He was sick to death of business plans and marketing and how much will it cost, so he put in his ear buds and switched his mp3 player on. He hit next to get a random song.

Can’t trust me but it’s not about trust
I make no sense, I am the walrus

Cyrus sprayed milk all over the coffee table.

He had been looking directly at Herman when that line played. He always though Herman looked like a walrus, with his droopy mustache and big belly.

(Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 278: Strong as Stone

Show Notes

The Sword and Sonnet Kickstarter is running now!

Strong as Stone

by Effie Seiberg

I thought Halloween would be different. The one day where I could go out and run around with kids my age, and be myself – truly myself, with nothing to hide. I was right, but not in the way that I thought.

For you see, I’m made of stone. My skin is rough granite, my teeth are like river-washed pebbles, my hair crystalline gypsum. I’m streaked in grays and whites and browns. All the races of the world shoot through my palms and ankles and stomach. I am the melting pot, where the stones of the earth liquefy and boil together. (Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 265: A Wish and a Hope and a Dream

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.

A Wish and a Hope and a Dream

by M. Darusha Wehm


You have always been a princess.

When you are six years old, your hat is a cardboard cone covered in glitter glue with a cellophane veil. Your dress began life as a pillowcase in the free box at the Goodwill. Your best friend Ines has a store-bought costume, her gown soft and sky blue like Princess Karima’s. You aren’t envious, though. You love your pillowcase dress and hat that makes you almost as tall as your mother.

Ines twirls around and around until she nearly falls over, clutching you to stay upright. “Ooh, I’ll never get used to riding a magic carpet.”

You giggle and say, “That’s why I ride in a carriage pulled by eight golden ponies.”

“Can I come to the ball with you, then?” Ines sinks to the ground, her skirt billowing around her like a cloud.

“Aren’t they adorable?” Ines’s father says, his eyes crinkling.

“Yeah,” your mother says, “off in their own little world.”

“Come on,” Mr. Solano says, “that’s one of the great things about being a kid. All that imagination, all those dreams.” He looks at you then his eyes dart back to your mother. “They can be anything they want at this age. Might as well let them enjoy it.”

“You’re right,” your mother says, handing him an old ice cream bucket. “Thanks for taking them. I can really use the rest.”

“It’s no trouble,” he says, then kneels down to where you and Ines are sitting, playing with the material of her dress. “Come on, my two little princesses, let’s go get some candy.”

You get up and your mother adjusts the sash on your dress. “Only two pieces on the way home,” she says. “You want it to last until Christmas, okay?”

You nod, excited about the prospect of even two pieces of candy. It’s been forever since you’ve had candy.

Your family has been eating spaghetti with ketchup for days. You love spaghetti and ketchup, not realizing that it’s just what’s left at the end of the Food Bank hamper. You also don’t know that your mother lost her job, which is why she is there when you get home from school and has had time to make your costume. You know your father is working double shifts, though. That’s why he isn’t there to see you in your pretty dress. Your mom goes to take a photo as you and Ines stand together, grinning at each other while she fumbles with her old phone.

“Come on,” Ines says, grabbing your hand. “We need to hurry if we’re going to get to the ball on time.”



When you are nine, both your parents are working. You get the official Princess app for your birthday and each day after school you and Ines lie on the Lady Dawn Pink™ comforter she’s had on her bed since you were little, looking at the latest photoshoots and reading about the princesses.

“Did you see that Cheyenne just got back from a trip to New Zealand,” you say, paging through the latest updates. “They wouldn’t let her bring Wolf into the country with her. Isn’t that awful? It’s not as if he’s some ordinary dog. He’s, like, partially part of her.”

“It’s like last year,” Ines says, “when that one country wouldn’t let Princess Karima travel on her flying carpet within their border.”

“I know, how dumb. What’s airspace security anyway?” you say, rolling your eyes. You both go back to the pictures.

“I can’t decide if Karima or Cheyenne is my favourite,” Ines says a few minutes later.

“Rhona,” you say, your fingers tracing the flowing curls of her beautiful red hair.

“Rhona?! But she doesn’t even look like you. She’s so… pale.”

You don’t look like any of them, with your skinny legs and bitten fingernails. You shrug.

“She’s beautiful.”

“They’re all beautiful,” Ines says, her forehead wrinkling. “When I’m ten, mom says I can get my hair cut like Karima’s.” She holds up the ends of her long, black hair, effecting a makeshift bob. “She said no to the eyeliner, though.” Ines lets her hair fall back down. “How about you?”

You don’t know what to do with makeup. Your mother wears little, but one afternoon when both your parents were at work you spent an hour in the bathroom with her eyeshadow, blush and lipstick. The best you could do was make yourself look like a clown. You can tell that Ines would never look like a clown. But she’s pretty to begin with, everyone says so. You are clever. Or strong. Never pretty.

“My hair’s okay the way it is,” you say, running your fingers though the short cut. “I’d look dumb with long hair.”

Ines shrugs and the two of you look at pictures of her with with different haircuts until it’s time for you to go home.

At night, when you can’t sleep, you imagine you are Rhona, with a gown of green velvet, a mind sharp enough to trick a wizard, a face pretty enough to bewitch an entire kingdom and a long trail of flaming red hair.



When you are twelve, Ines gets weird. All she wants to talk about is romance. You think it’s because of Princess Mei Ling’s wedding last month.

“Don’t you think Cheyenne’s prince is better-looking than Mei Ling’s prince?” Ines asks. You don’t know what to say. You don’t care about the princes.

“I mean, I know he’s older,” she says, not waiting for you to answer, “but I think he looks distinguished. That silver hair at his temples makes him look, I dunno, classy, like one of those actors in a black and white movie.” She flicks through the images on her phone. She bought the Princes app with her first babysitting money and now you sit apart in her room, each looking at your own pictures on your own phones.

“Do you ever dream about your wedding? I think about it all the time. Mei Ling’s was so beautiful,” Ines says, not seeming to notice that you haven’t said a word, “I want gold leaf on my wedding cake. And a dress like hers, but with blue accents, not pink. And what did you think about her prince’s uniform? Guys look great in uniforms.” She stops talking and looks over at you. “Want to watch the video again on the big screen?”

The Solanos have a big tv in their living room, and you often go over to watch movies. You nod, even though you think the wedding was kind of boring. But all the Princesses were there and Rhona looked incredible in her formal gown. You watch it all again for the millionth time, impatiently sitting through the wedding part to get to the ball. When Mei Ling enters the main salon on a flying horse, you gasp with delight as if you’d never seen it before. When Rhona dances with her prince, time stops.

That night, you dream that instead of Rhona’s prince, it is you she dances with, your arm around her waist, her head on your shoulder. You twirl around the ballroom, your feet not quite touching the floor, her hair flying behind you both in a trail of auburn curls.



When you are seventeen, you work part-time in a bakery. Your alarm goes off at 5:30 in the morning, Rhona’s voice singing her theme song sweetly in your ear. It almost makes waking in the dark bearable. You spend two hours each morning decorating the elaborate fairy cakes that each cost more than you’ll be paid that week, then you go to school and try to stay awake in class.

Ines texts you in history:

> new p movie opens 2moro lets go!

You’ve been saving all your bakery money and summer job wages in a college fund. You know now that your parents can barely keep up with their debts and won’t be able to help, and you don’t have the grades for a scholarship. Your father has steady work in construction, but it was never enough when your mother couldn’t find work. Your mother went to college and she’s always told you that an education is the most important thing. “Wishing for something won’t make it so,” she says. “You have to put yourself out to get anywhere in this world.”

She says that it was her degree which got her the job she has now, assistant to a junior manager at a big firm downtown. “Who would you hire?” she asks you, “someone just out of high school or someone who’s been to college? You can’t just expect to get a good job without it anymore.” Sometimes you feel like you want to scream whenever you hear the word college.

But you know your mother is right. Your parents seem to work all the time–you can’t remember the last time the three of you did something together that wasn’t a hasty meal or a half hour in front of the second-hand, tiny tv. Between school and the bakery, it feels like you work all the time, too.

You text Ines back.

> k

You get to the theater two hours early and still barely get in. The audience is mostly teens and college age women, a few boyfriends and just a smattering of guys there of their own accord. But there are hardly any little kids–this isn’t one of those origin story films. It’s a grown-up story about post-princess life, featuring Bianca–the first of the princesses, a stately matron now–and Lianne, who became a princess when you were a kid. The story begins as Lianne arrives at Bianca’s castle in her carriage, glorious and shining with her footmen bustling about. She enters the Great Hall to find a table groaning under a feast of delights.

Ines elbows you and whispers, “Those are the fairy cakes you make.”

It’s true, the bakery where you work specializes in replica royal sweets. Being around such beautiful things is the main appeal of the job. You nod and shush her.

Over the next ninety minutes, you are transported to a magic world that you can barely believe exists in the same universe as your own life. Glorious silken gowns transformed from ordinary box-store dresses. Flying chariots whisking the princesses to fabulous balls or feasts laden with luscious food no one eats. Lives of glamour and leisure. For a moment, you wonder if it is even real.

Then comes the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Everyone has been talking about the rumour that a new princess would be revealed in the film. Your breath catches in your throat when you see her for the first time. You know it’s her: she is too radiant, too perfect to be working in some grimy urban store. Bianca and Lianne have gotten lost on their way back to Lianne’s château, and walk into a small Korean grocery in some nameless city, looking for directions. The girl behind the counter must be about your age, but her days of worrying about grades and college are over. The princesses recognize her true nature immediately and take her away with them. No one objects. It is as if it were ordained in the stars.

They say that the movie story is based on her real life, that she really was discovered in some store just like that last year. Seo-yeon, an urban princess, elevated from the streets to a castle in the clouds. Your eyes fill with tears. You can’t count the number of times you’ve wished for that moment. To have what you’ve known all your life finally be reflected in someone else’s eyes. That you, too, are more than you appear to be.

If Seo-yeon could be plucked like a flower from her life of toil, surely it could happen to anyone? Even to you?



When you are twenty-two, you pull a crumpled bill from your pocket. It’s enough for a draft beer at the campus bar and you’ve earned one. You are thirty thousand dollars in debt, you can’t remember the last time you slept more than five hours in a night, but tomorrow you will walk onstage with hundreds of other people and walk off with a degree.

The bartender slides the beer toward you and takes your money, her dark eyes lingering on you for a moment. You’re not in the mood to talk, so you take your beer to a quiet table near the back. You sip and look around. There aren’t as many people in the place as there would be on a Friday night, but at three in the afternoon on the day before graduation, it’s crowded enough. You recognize the students’ uniform of thrift store coats, broken book bags and five-year-old phones.

You notice a guy from your post-structural economics class a couple of tables over; he gives you the eye-contact-and-nod then goes back to his animated conversation. He’s wearing a pale yellow t-shirt with a faded image of Princess Bonita printed on it. You know he’s wearing it ironically, but you had that exact shirt when you were a kid.

You remember working with whatshisname–Charlie, Carl, something like that–on a class project. You made this infographic that showed how many people out of a hundred ever got out of the economic class where they were born. It was a good chart. You got an A minus.

Your phone buzzes and you flip it over. Ines. You haven’t seen her since Christmas, when you were both home and her engagement news overshadowed the holiday. She found her prince.

> going home after grad lets get 2gether

^ ill be back this wkend

^ coffee?

> yah

> wanna ask u about cakes!!!

You wonder how she and Mikhail can afford a fairy cake for their wedding. They are both going to be paying off their student loans as long as you are, and neither has a job lined up after graduation. Your mother told you that they think they will have to live with Ines’s parents after they get married.

“It’s no coincidence,” Carl or Charlie’s slurred voice interrupts your thoughts from across the bar. “We’re living in a new feudalism, ruled by unrealistic hopes to join an unattainable elite. Statistically, the rags to riches dream isn’t real, but we think if we just work hard enough, it’ll happen for us. We all think we’re kings in peasant’s clothes, but we’re just children playing make-believe. It’s time we decided to live in the real world.” Other voices rise to join his in belligerent agreement and you recognize arguments you’ve heard yourself make on other afternoons like this one.

Maybe Ines has it right–buy an expensive cake, have a fairytale wedding day. What’s another few thousand dollars? At least then you’d have something to remember, one moment when you were someone’s princess. But it’s so hard to let the dream go.

You don’t feel like a peasant, you never have. But you know if you keep pretending that one day you’ll meet your fairy godmother, she’ll wave her wand and suddenly everything will all be fine, that you’ll spend your life being a servant to a fantasy.

You finish your beer, thinking of those days when all it took for a magical transformation was a rolled up piece of cardboard and a pillowcase dress. You flick your finger over your phone, Rhona’s beautiful face filling the screen. Those blue eyes. That red hair. Can’t you live in your imagination with her just a little longer?

After all, you’ve always been a princess. Haven’t you?

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Cast of Wonders 258: Victory Music

Show Notes

Mermaid UK:
The Trevor Project:

Theme music “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.

Victory Music

by Daniel José Older

One of my favorite moments ever was when the boy called me an Arab and you said, “She’s Sikh, fucknut” and then when he said “Oh, like hide and go-“ you broke his nose. I heard music playing, I swear to God, and it was victory music, your music: A dusty, unflinching beat, lowdown and grinding. It didn’t matter that my family’s not even technically Sikh anymore since my parents went born-again and I’m just whatever. I smiled for days after that moment, Krys. Days.

(Continue Reading…)

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Episode 253: Single Parent by Sarah Gailey

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.

Single Parent

By Sarah Gailey


The monster in my son’s closet is so fucking scary.

Here’s what happened: Jack screamed in the middle of the night and I came running because I’m his dad and that’s what dads are for. He’s been doing that for a month — screaming like someone’s in his room murdering him with a screwdriver. And even though there’s never, not even once been anyone murdering him, I couldn’t just let him scream his little head off all night. If I didn’t come running, his mom would have risen from the grave just to come and slap me upside the head.

I know what you’re thinking, but the monster in the closet is not his mom. It is not my dead wife, come back to watch over him and protect him. This isn’t that kind of a story. It’s a fucking monster, okay?

Anyway, he screamed like he’s screamed every night since we watched Denise go into the ground. I came running like I’ve come running every night since we threw dirt at her coffin, which seems like it’s supposed to be important and respectful but really just felt like throwing dirt at my wife’s corpse. He was sitting up in bed, sweating and crying and smelling like little-kid-piss and I remember thinking that this was the last straw — that tonight I would be Tough Dad and tell him I wasn’t going to put up with the screaming anymore.

I didn’t end up doing that, though. I’ve never been a tough guy. Denise was always the tough guy, but she’s being tough on Abraham up in heaven somewhere and I’m down here sitting on my kid’s wet bedsheets.

Anyway, I burst into his room and put my arms around him. I kissed his sweaty head and told him that everything would be okay. I asked which nightmare had woken him up this time. Usually they’re nightmares about his mom coming back, which breaks my heart to hear, but the therapist said I have to listen. So I braced myself, and tried to be ready to hear him talk about how Denise’s face is melting off in his subconscious.

Only this time, he shook his head. Not a nightmare. A monster.

I am a bad father because I was relieved. That’s how you know you’re a bad father: your kid is trembling and terrified and you breathe a sigh of relief because it’s only his worst fear and not yours.

The thing is, I thought I knew how to handle the monster situation. From experience. For six months or so before Denise died, Jack had this thing about a monster in his closet. The therapist said that he was processing her sickness through a proxy – that he couldn’t quite understand what was coming, that he couldn’t know what “terminal” meant, so his little-boy brain just decided “there’s scary shit on the way” and invented a monster that was always getting ready to eat him. That’s how I felt for the entire time she was dying. And sure enough, once she died, he stopped having the thing about the monster.

So I did what I had done every other time that Jack had woken up screaming about the monster: I checked the closet. That’s what you do, right? Your kid says “oh god there’s something scary” and you say “I’ll go look at it for you” and then you look, and there’s nothing there, and you tell the kid that nothing is there, and everyone goes back to bed.

Except that’s not what happened.

Look, there’s never been a monster in there before. I can deal with a lot of stuff. I’m a bedtime champion and a dang master at after-school-talks about feelings. I can re-shingle a roof and I’m even okay at plumbing, if the water’s shut off right. I can handle myself, is what I’m saying. But a monster? I had no game plan for there actually being a monster. My game plan was oriented towards getting the kid back to sleep. It’s a fifteen-minute plan at the most. The point is, who prepares for the eventuality that a six-year-old is right about something at two in the morning?

Not me, I guess.

So I told Jack-o I would look in the closet, and I did. I opened the closet door, and then I shut it again very quickly, because guess what? There was a monster in there.

You’ll want to know what the monster looked like. I was too busy clenching to retain details, but here was my general impression: teeth, claws, tentacles. I didn’t know that tentacles could have claws, but apparently the limits of my imagination do not encompass the fullness of God’s creation, so what do you want? Also, eyes — so many eyes, like a spider with a lot of little spiders on top of it. All of them were looking at me.

It was without a doubt the scariest thing I have ever seen in my ever-loving life, and I’ve seen a doctor’s face when he’s about to say the phrase “six months left”, so I know from scary.

I opened the closet door again. The monster made a noise like a percolating coffee maker. I shut the door.

And now I’m sitting in my son’s bed, not minding the piss smell so much, and I’m trying to figure out how to tell him that the monster in the closet is real.



It’s not fair to Jack, is the thing. It’s not fair that he already had to find out that moms can die and dads can’t stop it – now monsters? In his closet? And I can’t spin this as maybe it’s a nice monster because it’s a monster and monsters are by definition not nice, and something with that many eyes eats little boys. It’s just a fact.

He’s looking at me and his little pink lip is quivering and he’s shaking like he runs on batteries, but he’s setting his jaw like his mom used to. Christ. He’s being brave.

He rubs the back of his head, foofing out his duckling hair, and I realize that it’s a motion he’s learned from me. I do that all the time. I’m doing it right now.

“Well, buddy. What are we gonna do about that thing?”

He shrugs in that little-kid way. When a teenager shrugs, it means “I don’t give a crap, what do you know? Leave me alone, I’ll never get old, I’ll always like this kind of music.” When a little kid shrugs, it’s so honest — a little-kid shrug just means “I got no goddamn idea, pops.” I love the hell out of him when he shrugs at me.

“When did the monster come out?”

The kiddo looks at me like I’m an idiot. “When I let my feet stick out from under the covers.” Of course. His feet are well and fully tucked in now. I lift the corner of one of the blankets just an inch, and sure enough, the doorknob on the closet starts turning. I put the corner of the blanket back down fast and the door stays shut.

“Well, we can’t have it coming out of there.” He agrees with me, nodding gravely. “‘Cause kiddo, I don’t know how to tell you this, but… I’m, like, one hundred and ten percent certain that it’ll eat us.” He nods again, Duh, Dad. Kid already knows this stuff, I don’t need to tell him. He doesn’t look so scared anymore, and I realize that it’s because I’m here. His work is done — he called in the big guns, and now, the situation in the closet will be resolved by someone who knows what to do about situations in closets.

He thinks I can fix it. He thinks I can fix anything. Even after I couldn’t fix the one thing that mattered most, he still thinks I know all the answers.

We sit on the bed, talking over our options. We could nail the door shut, but then he wouldn’t be able to get any of his shoes or his pants, and he needs those for school on Monday and all. Plus the monster can probably dissolve nails with acid or something. From our combined understanding of monsters, it’s probably allergic to something dumb like mustard or broccoli or spider-man band-aids, but we don’t have time to experiment. I don’t have a gun, because I live in a house with a six-year-old. I’m proud to say that the idea of a gun doesn’t even occur to him until I mention it. What a guy.

We sit in his rocketship bed, trying to figure out what to do about the monster. He doesn’t want to kill it, because he’s six and he’s the best person in the world. I want more than anything to kill it, but I’m pretty aware of my own limitations and frankly, I don’t think I could take that thing on. I take Jack out for ice cream if there’s a spider in the kitchen, okay? Denise was always the one who dealt with those, and I never saw her take out a spider the size of my kid’s closet. This thing — it’s big. And it’s a monster. And did I tell you about the tentacles already?

After a long time spent discussing the merits of just burning the house down – and let me tell  you, spend an hour trying to explain fire insurance to a six-year-old and you’ll feel eager to face a monster – we notice that it’s getting light out. When it’s definitely morning – birds are chirping, sun is shining, the whole magilla – we decide to see if the monster is still there. Maybe it’s only there at night, you know?

My son lifts up a corner of the bedsheets.

Nothing happens.

He pushes the bedsheets down until they’re just covering his feet to the ankles.

Nothing happens.

He takes a deep breath, my brave boy, and whips his feet out from under the covers like the he’s fastest gun in the West winning a shootout. We watch the closet door, eyes wide, hearts pounding.


He looks at me and I look at him and we both know that one of us has to look in the closet. He whispers, “Maybe it’s sleeping. Maybe it’s nocturnal.”

I squint at him. “When did you learn ‘nocturnal’?”

He rolls his eyes and I realize that someday this kid is going to be a teenager, and I look at the closet door, hoping the monster will come out and eat us both before that happens.

“Okay. Okay, buddy, here’s what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna go shut yourself in Daddy’s bedroom, okay? You’re gonna lock the door-”

“I’m not supposed to lock the door.”

“I know, but just this once, you’re gonna lock the door and -”

“But I’m not supposed to lock the door because -”

I rest a hand on his head and deploy the Dad Stare, which is basically the only weapon in my arsenal. He’s polite enough to pretend it’s intimidating.

“You’re gonna lock the door. And then I’ll take a look and see if the monster is sleeping, and then we’ll figure out what to do, alright?”

He nods. His eyes are huge, but his jaw is still set in that Denise kind of way. I put my arms around him and I hug him, I hug my son so tight that I’m sure I’m hurting him, but he hugs me back anyway because he’s the best damned kid there ever was.

“If anything happens to me, you take my cell phone from my nightstand and you call Grandma Irene, okay?” His answer is muffled because I’m jamming his face into my chest. I pull back to let him breathe. His face looks like he has a lot of objections to this plan, but he just says “I love you, Dad,” and I don’t know if I can keep it together much longer so I push him out the door.

I sit on his rocket bed and listen to his little feet pad down the hallway. I hear him go into my bedroom with the one empty nightstand, and I hear him close the door, and God bless his six-year-old heart, I hear him turn the lock.

I don’t want to waste any time, because my son is probably terrified in there. He’s scared and alone, wondering if his dad is about to get eaten by a monster.

I have to open the closet door.

I can’t just sit here and wait – it’ll be the same thing in there no matter when I do it. I have to get up and walk across the room and open the door to my boy’s closet.

I wish Denise were here. I always wish she was here – that hasn’t stopped, not once since she died – but right now I really, really wish she was here, because she would be the one to look in the closet. She would get right up and march on over and yank the closet door open. She would grab the monster by one of those frilly things around its primary eyeballs and she’d drag it out to the front yard and make it feel ashamed of itself.

But I’m not Denise, and I’m just sitting on the rocket bed with my head in my hands because I can’t take on a monster. It’s too hard, and it’s not fair, and I don’t know how. I’m not her. Looking in the closet to confirm that there’s no monster is right in my wheelhouse, but dealing with the monster when it’s real — that’s Denise stuff.

Something tickles between my ears.

Denise stuff. This is a Denise job.

The tickle fades, but then returns again, brighter. Denise stuff. Denise stuff. Why does this feel so important?

And then I remember.

I was six. My ma came into my bedroom because I was screaming at the top of my lungs. She looked in my closet and then she said ‘oh no, no sir. This is Reggie Stuff,’ and then my pop came in and he looked in my closet, and then he sent me out of my own room. I remember I sat in my parent’s bedroom with my ma. We shut the door and put a chair in front of it and then she taught me how to play poker for a few hours.

Of course. Of course it was him.

I run down the hall to my bedroom. The door is shut – locked, of course, damn it, Jack locked it because I told him to. I’m about to pound on the door, about to yell for him to let me in, but then I think better of it. I tap on the door with the pad of my index finger.

“Hey buddy, can you let me in? It’s your dad.”

There’s a long pause, so long I almost tap again, before I he answers. I can barely hear him.

“How do I know you’re not the monster?”

Oh, Jesus, how do I answer that one?

“Kiddo, it’s really me. I… huh. How would you know if I was the monster?”

Another long pause. The sound of the lock clicking open. He eases the door open a crack, peeks out at me with one eyeball. I kneel down to look through the crack at him.

“Buddy, it’s me, I promise. But if you’re scared, you can just grab my phone from my nightstand and slide it through to me, okay? I have to make a really important phone call.”

The door shuts, locks again. Smart kid. A minute later, my phone slides under the door.

“Thanks, Jack-o. I promise I’m not mad at you for not letting me in, okay?”

No response. I tap on the door with with my pinky finger, soft as I can, wishing I could rest my hand on his fine blond hair; wishing I could give my frightened little boy a hug.

“I mean it. I’m not mad at you. You’re a smart guy, and you did the right thing. I love you.”

There’s a sniffle from the other side of the door. “I love you too, Dad.”

There’s a sniffle from my side of the door. I wipe my eyes on the sleeve of my t-shirt, and head back to the bedroom before he can hear me crying, because what’s scarier to a six-year-old boy than hearing his dad cry?

I make the phone call, and after that, it’s only ten minutes or so before Grandma Irene arrives.

I’m not supposed to call her Grandma Irene – I’m supposed to call her Irene, or Mrs. Hart if she’s mad at me about something. But to Jack, she’s Grandma Irene, so it’s in my head now. You know how that goes. She’s the only grandparent the kid has, what with my ma and pop dead and Denise’s dad having run off way back when. Jack loves her.

“So, what’s the big emergency?”

I don’t know how to tell her, so I just point upstairs. We go into Jack’s room. Her eyes fall on the empty rocket bed.

“Where’s Jack? Is he alright?” Her face is white and she’s gripping my arm with such incredible strength that I know I was right to call her.

“Jack’s fine, Irene. He’s in my bedroom. I – I need your help.”

She’s searching my face, and just like that, she knows. Her head swivels until she’s looking at the closet door. She definitely knows. But she asks me anyway.

“Why did you call me?”

I clear my throat. I’m embarrassed. Wouldn’t you be? Calling Grandma to come help out? Admitting that since your wife died there are some things you just don’t know how to do? Some things you just aren’t ready to take on yet, because you can’t accept that she’s not there to help with them anymore?

“There’s a monster.”

“What? Speak up, I can’t hear you.”

I clear my throat again. I try to make eye contact with her but I can’t, so I settle on looking at her chin.

“There’s a monster. In the closet.”

She ducks her head to look in my eyes, and the way she does it is so Denise that I well up.

She nods. “What kind of monster?”

I am at a loss. What kind? How should I know?

“Uh, tentacles? Teeth, claws, eyes. Frilly things.” I wiggle my fingers around my temples like that’ll clear up the meaning of ‘frilly things.’

Irene looks at the closet, and it looks like she’s doing math in her head. She nods again.

“That’s Irene stuff, alright. Take Jack to the park and play catch. Don’t just look at me with your mouth open, Donovan, do as I say. Go to the park with him and play catch and then come back.” She calls me Donovan instead of Donny and that’s how I know she means business. And I want to take Jack to the park. But even this I can’t do on my own.

“…He won’t come out of my room. He wants me to prove that I’m not the monster, and I – I don’t really know how to do that.”

She stares at me for a long moment, then smiles. “He’s such a smart boy.”

She strides down the hall to my bedroom, raps on the door, and calls to Jack. “Jack, you come out of here right this instant. It’s Grandma Irene. I’m taking care of the monster; you and your father are going to go play catch in your pajamas.” She sounds so much like Denise that I want to curl up on the floor and bite my knees. Her tone is one hundred percent Irene, and I feel a pang of sympathy for what the monster is about to go through. Jack comes out of my bedroom. His eyes are all puffy. Grandma Irene gives him a quick hug and then pushes him towards me.

We go to the park and we play catch. Actually, we’ve never played catch before, so it’s kind of weird – us in our bare feet in the dewy grass, me teaching my kid how to throw a baseball. He’s good at it. I’m good at teaching him.

When we get home a few hours later, there are three big garbage bags piled up on the curbside for pickup. I set Jack up in the kitchen with a bagel and some peanut butter, then head upstairs. Irene’s jacket is draped across the fin of Jack’s rocketship bed, and the water is running in the hall bathroom. I knock on the door.

“Irene? Is everything okay?”

She cracks the door and peers out at me, exactly the way that Jack did when he wanted me to prove I wasn’t the monster.

“Everything is fine, Donovan. I’m taking a shower. Would you be a dear and throw this out for me?” She passes out what remains of her smart pantsuit – it is a wad of pastel shreds, held together by green ooze. “And would you loan me something to wear?”

I haven’t thrown out any of Denise’s clothes yet, and in her side of the dresser I find a set of her pajamas that look like they’ll fit Irene. I pull them out, run a thumb over the penguins on the pajama bottoms. They’re surfing. The penguins, not the pajama bottoms.

How do I do any of this without her? How do I do it alone?

But then, I’m not alone, I guess. I’ve got Irene. And I’ve got Jack. And I know that eventually, I’ll learn to do the Denise stuff. When I’m done looking at the empty places where she should be. When the fact that they’re empty stops being something I need to stare at in order to understand the contours of my loss.

I hear the water in the hall bathroom turn off, and I know Irene’ll be needing these surfing penguins in a minute. I crack the door open just enough to slide the pajamas through, then close it again as quietly as I can.

I walk downstairs, bracing myself for the peanut butter explosion that inevitably awaits me in the breakfast nook – but when I get down there, there’s no peanut butter explosion. My boy has pulled his chair up to the sink, and he’s standing on it so he can reach to wash his own plate. Getting soap everywhere, but still. He’s trying to pull his weight.

What a guy.