PodCastle 786: Double Feature! Scales; My Custom Monster
By M. Stevenson
The boy stands at the edge of the forest, bare toes digging into the cold loam. Mist curls between the trees like the breath of a living thing. As if the woods are alive.
Monsters live in this forest, so it’s said. Demons of scales and teeth and fur, creatures that will rend a child asunder until only the smallest bones remain. The thought wraps chilly fingers of fear around the boy’s nape. It’s hard not to be afraid of what everyone says is real.
But there are other monsters too, monsters that he knows are real. He thinks of bared teeth and flying spittle, a face gone red with rage, a poker gone red from sitting in the hearth. The boy’s hand creeps to the shiny patches of skin on his bare forearm, scars where his flesh has thickened into silver scales. There are more on his legs, his back: places his clothes always cover. The monster grew more careful after the first time, when people noticed and she had to make excuses.
He was playing with the poker. He tripped and fell.
The boy said nothing then. He was too young.
When his mother gets home, he knows it in his bones: today, she will kill him. There is no escape from a monster within its own house. His only choice: face the monster he knows, or dare to face the ones who may exist.
He thinks of his sister, barely old enough to sit up in the cradle. Her skin pink and unblemished. A different father, his mother has said. A face to love, not to hate.
He hopes that never changes. He can’t protect her by staying.
The boy takes a deep breath, filling his skinny ribs.
He steps into the forest.
The trees’ embrace is as dark and cold as it looked from the edge.
The boy walks for a long time. Mist twines around his ankles with each step. The ground is damp, dark water seeping up from the moss each time his foot compresses the green growth. The forest echoes with sounds he doesn’t recognize: strange skitters, a distant wail, the groan of trees rubbing together. The sun might never have existed, and soon every direction looks the same.
In the distance echoes a howl of rage. A voice shrieking his name. His mother has discovered that he’s gone.
The boy keeps walking, trembling, and does not look back.
After a time, he sleeps, and when he wakes a monster is watching him.
The boy stays still, his breath shallow. He knows that monsters welcome provocation.
This one looks like the tales predicted: great moss-green eyes with slitted pupils, scales and claws and sinuous coils, a body large enough to entirely fill the boy’s house. (The monster’s house.)
And yet, it also looks nothing like the tales. The teeth are not bared, the claws not rending. The eyes are focused on the boy not with hunger, but with what the boy recognizes as curiosity.
Slowly, cautiously, the boy stands up. Skeleton leaves cling to his threadbare clothes as he faces the monster, only an arm’s length away.
The monster’s eyes narrow. Plumes of mist swirl from its nostrils, curl around the boy’s shivering body. The boy understands: this forest is the monster’s house.
Slowly, the boy reaches out his hand. He places his palm on the monster’s scaled skin, between the nares.
For a moment, as the boy and the monster consider one another, all is still.
Then the monster flicks out its tongue. Licks the boy’s forearm, where the burn scars shine.
A sensation of cold fire erupts down the boy’s skin where the creature’s saliva has touched him. For a moment he stands frozen, watching in fascination, as the places where the monster’s tongue made contact begin to ripple, writhe, change. Where once was scarred flesh, silver scales emerge, burned skin becoming something new.
Then the pain arrives, and the boy screams. He stumbles backwards, clutching his burning arm to his chest, and falls flat on his back in the loam.
The monster rears over him. It opens its mouth, and its tongue swipes over the boy from crown to foot. Its tongue brushes over his open eyes, and cold fire subsumes him.
This time the boy awakes as something new.
He is no longer a boy. Nor is he a monster. He is a creature of scales and teeth and tongue, a river of cold fire that flows through the forest. He moves without judgment, without fear.
And he is not alone. The monster who found him — Mother, he calls her, a word he remembers for monsters — leads him to the rest of their kin, who welcome him as if he has always been one of their kind. They twine around him, their bodies flowing like quicksilver. Mother joins, too, which makes the creature that was once a boy happy. They flow and dance and eat and be. Their scales shine in starlight, but it is a shine of newness, not of injury: a sheen that was born beautiful, one that has never needed mending.
They are the pack. The forest is their home.
For years, this is the boy’s existence. He forgets that anything else exists.
But the rest of the world does not forget about the boy.
One day, years later, a young woman enters the forest. She carries a sword, silver as a scar, and she is seeking a monster.
Monsters live in this forest, so she knows. Years ago, it was said, one of them stole
The woods are dark, but her purpose is her own light. The mist parts before her steps, fleeing the keenness of her blade. Her boots keep out the dampness of the moss she crushes with each step. The forest is quiet around her, as if holding its breath.
She walks deep into the woods, until at its heart, she finds a monster curled beneath a tree.
The monster is smaller than the girl expected, only the size of a man. Silver scales cover its body from nose to tail, the color of scars she once saw on a boy’s burned skin. The creature is sleeping, wrapped in its own coils, as if protecting itself from the world.
The girl raises her sword.
The monster awakens.
Eyes the green of an old bruise slide open, blink, focus on hers. The girl and the monster freeze as if touched by cold fire, their gazes locked together. The heavy sword, raised in both the young woman’s hands, begins to shake in her grasp.
The monster remembers.
Once he faced down a monster who wanted to kill him. Once a woman raised a poker, fire-bright and hissing with curls of smoke.
The monster uncurls and flees, whip-fast.
The girl recovers. She brings her sword down, and it slices into the tip of the monster’s tail.
The skin where the sword has touched begins to ripple, writhe, change. Like a wave in reverse, silver peels back from the monster’s flesh, scales vanishing like sand in the sea. Heat pours over him: burning, scalding, scarring. It leaves in its wake shivering human skin, unprotected by scales, except for a few places where scars shine silver.
The monster screams, but he is no longer a monster. He is no longer even a boy. Years have passed without his notice, and he is a man in a body he does not know.
The young woman lowers her sword, her eyes wide with shock. Her lips form a name the boy recognizes as a warning, the sign of a coming blow. He flinches, hearing it now.
But the girl does not strike him. She offers him her hand and tells him the name is his.
She explains to him, as she wraps her coat around him and leads him out of the forest. To a place she calls home.
For years she believed the forest’s monsters had stolen the boy. Taken him for food, left not even the bones. The girl was young; she remembered nothing different.
Then their mother died (Mother, the boy-turned-man remembers, a word for monster) and, dying, told her daughter the truth: she watched the boy vanish into the woods on his own. No monster took him. So the girl decided to bring him back — or if not her brother, then at least his bones. If she could not have her him, she would have vengeance.
The mist wraps around his legs as they near the forest’s edge, as if begging him to stay. In the distance, an eerie howl echoes.
Mother, thinks the boy.
The girl shivers and urges him to walk faster.
At the door of what she says is their home, he balks and will not go in. But the girl is patient with him. She takes his arm, waits until he consents to pass the lintel, and draws him gently towards the fire’s warmth, for he is trembling.
See? she tells him, as she chafes his chilled skin, her hands skipping over the silver patches on his arms and back. There are no monsters here.
The man lives with his sister, and slowly, he remembers how to be human. How hands grasp tools and teeth rend food. How clothes slide over skin, hiding the scars.
Sometimes, he hears the sound of a distant wind, like a river of silver fire flowing through the trees. Or a damp breeze comes from the forest, holding the cool kiss of moss over scaled skin. Or he lifts his head at a distant shriek, a cry of mourning, a mother’s call.
At those times, the man looks towards the forest with wild eyes. And only the touch of his sister’s hand on his arm makes him remember he has human skin at all.
But she whispers in his ear, and waits with him until he does remember. And then he stays. For one more day, or perhaps a lifetime.
For there are monsters everywhere. He bears a reminder: silver-bright patches that shine by fire and moonlight both, the scales that have made him what he is and what he has yet to become.
My Custom Monster
by Jo Miles
Thank you for your recent gift purchase from the Custom Monster Company. The monster you gave is now settling into your loved one’s home.
As a token of our appreciation, here’s a coupon for 20% off your next monster. Monsters make a terror-ific gift for people of all ages — or even for yourself!
Remember, there’s a little monster inside all of us.
I meant to unsubscribe. Just because I’d bought a monster for my niece didn’t mean I wanted to keep getting emails from the company forever. But instead I sat there, staring at the pictures of supposedly real customers posing with their hideous monsters. Staring for way too long.
They looked happy. Even the monsters. Why did pictures of happy people make me want to cry?
I called up my sister.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” she answered.
“Hello to you, too. I don’t only call when I’m in trouble, you know.”
“Sure.” She didn’t sound sure. “What’s up, then?”
“I was just wondering how Gemma’s liking her monster.”
Her voice warmed. “Oh, she loves it! She takes it everywhere, and get this — she hasn’t woken me up for a week! Seriously, I’ve never slept better.”
“I’m really glad.”
“She’d love to see you, though. We both would.”
“I know, I know. I’ll . . . figure out a time to visit.”
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see them. It was just a lot, planning a trip across the country. Planning, at all. And then making my family deal with me.
She must have heard it in my voice. “Are you having a rough time again?”
“Have you seen the news? The whole world’s having a rough time these days. I’m fine.”
“I wish we were closer to you. Maybe . . .” I thought she was going to suggest they come visit me, but she surprised me. “Maybe you should try one of these custom monsters for yourself.”
“To cure me of my fear of monsters under the bed? It’s been a few years since I worried about that.”
“They’re not just for kids.” She suddenly sounded extra-earnest, as if she’d thought a lot about this. “I’ve been reading about it in my monster-parent group. They help adults, too. Lots of people. You should think about it.”
“I mean it.”
Have you ever owned a cat or a dog? Put aside your preconceptions, because caring for a monster is different.
Monsters feed themselves, and they don’t poop — that would be ridiculous — so there’s no annoying cleanup. But more importantly, you don’t “own” a monster. Unlike pets, monsters are avatars of primeval forces and can’t be owned by mortals. Instead, you bond with your monster. It takes work on both sides, but a strong connection with a monster will last a lifetime.
I really hadn’t meant to consider it. But the idea wouldn’t leave my head. I looked up the monster creation form, and then looked again. I kept it open in a browser tab for a week, thinking about how I’d answer the questions if I ordered a monster. Which I wasn’t going to.
I read every case study, every section of the FAQ. I read the return policy — not allowed, of course. There was no “trying out” a monster for a couple months. A monster was a commitment, and that was a deal-breaker.
“I don’t know why she even suggested it,” I told my therapist. “It’s just a fad, right?”
“It’s certainly trendy right now, but there haven’t been any studies yet on its effectiveness.”
“See? It’s ridiculous.”
“That’s not what I said. A couple of my patients have found their monsters quite therapeutic.”
That wasn’t what I’d wanted him to say. “But I couldn’t do it,” I said, and explained all the reasons it was a bad idea. It was enough of a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. Putting on real clothes and making food that wasn’t cereal were some-days activities. I couldn’t be responsible for a living monster.
“If you’ve already decided not to do it,” he said when I’d finished, “then why are we talking about this more than a week after your sister suggested it?”
He had a point. I hated that he had a point.
Rank the following monster types from most to least frightening:
A warm, stinky breath on the back of your neck
Slithering sounds outside your door at night
The clasp of tentacles around your ankles
A many-legged creature moving in the shadows
A chill of dread with no apparent source
Monsters are self-sufficient hunters and rarely need to be fed by their humans. What are the most abundant sources of monster food in your home? (Choose all that apply.)
Mice and other vermin
Forgotten, decaying food in the back of your fridge
Fear of making an irrevocable error
Feelings of inadequacy and despair
It took three days, but I finally squelched my doubts long enough to place my order.
For the next two weeks, five times a day, I checked my order status. Even though I knew the scheduled delivery date, I needed to see the updates: Order received! Questionnaire analysis in progress! Your monster is being built!
Anticipation got me out of bed in the mornings. Preparing a lair forced me out of the house to run errands. Each night, I stayed up too late re-reading the monster caretaker’s manual.
The delivery truck came on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, which seemed appropriate. I’d put on unwrinkled jeans, a clean shirt, and an actual bra for the occasion. A Custom Monster Company bonding specialist brought a crate to the door, a crate that had my monster in it. I let him in, clumsily, hands shaking. What if this was an awful mistake? What if my monster hated me?
“Can I see it?” My voice cracked. The crate was heavy wood, with air holes too small for me to see inside. The company logo, with its red cartoon mascot, was stamped on the lid.
“Not yet. This is your monster, and you should be alone when you meet it. It’s best to leave it in its crate for an hour or two, so it can get used to the scent of your house, before you let it out.”
He toured the house with me, pointing out places the monster might want to hide, delicate objects it might want to knock off shelves. So many things I hadn’t thought of. By the time he suggested improvements to the lair I’d built, I was on the verge of tears.
“I’m sorry, I really don’t know what I’m doing.”
He must have seen reactions like mine a lot, because he didn’t look at all concerned. “Don’t worry! You’re doing great already, and remember, monsters are tough. That’s part of what makes them monsters. You two will be fine.”
Then he left, and I was alone with the crate.
I sat cross-legged on the floor, my back against the opposite wall, watching it. Every so often it made soft snuffling noises, or scratched the box. For the next hour, I roller-coastered between excitement and dread, and when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I undid the clasps and lifted off the lid to see my monster.
He was covered in stiff, wiry fur that stood out at odd angles, fur in every color you can imagine. Calling him a rainbow makes him sound pretty, but he was like a rainbow in the way grunge rock is like opera. All the colors clashed, pumpkin orange next to neon green dotted with a sickly yellowish-gray. He had lumpy horns on his head, a snout like an alligator, a tail like a rat. He was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen.
I knew right then, I would die for him.
“Hi there, monster friend,” I whispered. “You’re awful, aren’t you? I’m awful too. But don’t worry, I’ll try to be less awful for you.”
He growled softly at me and curled up at the back of his box.
Bonding with your monster can take several days, or up to a week. Give your monster space while it explores your home, but discipline it promptly (as described above) if it shows any destructive tendencies such as scratching furniture, spitting acid, or opening hell-portals.
I rolled out of bed early the next morning, anxious and eager for my first full day with my monster. But I couldn’t find him.
“Monster?” I called, and then, “Grumph?” That was the name I’d given him, because he seemed like a Grumph. But he didn’t answer to it yet.
I searched everywhere: under the bed, the back corners of closets, the cobwebbed gaps behind bookshelves. Nothing. I checked the manual. It talked about learning your monster’s favorite hiding places, but it didn’t say what to do if your monster disappeared.
Had he gotten stuck somewhere? Gotten in trouble? What if he’d run away?
What if he’d run away because he didn’t want to be my monster?
I picked up my phone to call Caretaker Services, but stopped. They might tell me I was overreacting — people told me that a lot — or they might decide I was a bad caretaker. What sort of person loses their monster the very first night?
This was all a mistake. I wasn’t cut out for this, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t want to fail before I’d begun.
“Please, monster. Please, Grumph, come back. I suck at this, I know, but won’t you give me a chance? I’m not that bad.” I couldn’t be that bad. I couldn’t be as awful as I felt.
There was a rustling behind me, and when I turned, Grumph was sitting there in the middle of the living room, giving me a puzzled look, as if I was the strangest human he’d ever met.
“Rawr?” he said.
“Oh, thank goodness. Where were you?” I rushed forward without thinking to give him a hug. He growled and sped away in a blur of colors, leaving scratches on the wood floor.
Watch your monster’s eating habits to discover its favorite foods. Most monsters prefer to feed on negative human emotions, but keep an eye out for mouse carcasses and regurgitated human-food.
Don’t worry about giving your monster exercise. It’ll do that on its own.
For the next few days, I tried hard, and it seemed to be working. Grumph would appear at odd times, then go hide again, and I watched for him all day and too much of the night. I learned he liked hiding behind the books in my bookshelf, and he’d dig through the trash if I let him. Clumps of bright-colored fur started showing up in the bathtub, but I didn’t have the energy to clean and he didn’t seem to care.
He liked to sit in the window and hiss when neighbors walked their dogs by, and I swear, he laughed when they got startled.
“You’re horrible,” I told him fondly, and he growled his pleased growl. But he still didn’t let me near him. My therapist told me to give it time.
Then . . . I hit a funk.
Understand that when someone with depression calls it a “funk,” it’s a euphemism, because that’s less scary than using the right words to describe it. There’s not always a reason for the funk. Sometimes you’ll be trudging along, feeling down but coping. Still managing to feed yourself and shower and do your job. Maybe you’ll even have a good day, where you take a walk in the sunshine and then watch sappy movies with your monster crouching gargoyle-like on the opposite end of the couch. Then the next day, wham! The world is all shades of gray. There’s no hope in your heart, and you know you should get out of bed but it’s too hard to remember why.
I lay there for hours, awake but not moving, watching light from the gaps in the blinds make its way up the wall. For a while, I scrolled on my phone, but even that took too much effort. It was hunger, eventually, that forced me out of bed, though not until I’d spent a long time wondering what to do about the pain in my stomach. But I knew from experience that if I didn’t eat, I’d spiral to a much worse place.
I dragged myself to the kitchen and stood in front of the fridge. Making choices felt impossible, but there was a sticky-note from my past self that read: Peanut Butter Sandwich. That, I could manage even on my worst days.
While I spread the peanut butter on bread, Grumph appeared and started rummaging through the fridge. He pulled out a Chinese food container, leftovers so old I didn’t remember the meal and so moldy I could smell it from across the room. He gave me a lopsided, pleading look, and despite everything, I laughed.
“Knock yourself out.”
He ate the moldy leftovers, and I ate my sandwich, and for lack of anything better to do, I went back to bed, glad that Grumph could take care of himself. I was in no state to take care of a living creature.
But this time, Grumph followed me. He sat at the food of the bed, and after a while, the bed creaked as he climbed up. Bristly fur pressed against my back. Breath from a long, damp snout tickled my neck, and a skinny tail curled around my waist.
I started to cry.
I rolled over and buried my face in his fur. He smelled, something between earthy and fetid, and it shouldn’t have been pleasant — not a smell I wanted on my sheets — but it was weirdly comforting.
“Thanks,” I mumbled, sniffling, and he growled quietly. He was still growling to himself, or maybe to me, when I fell asleep.
When I woke again, the room was brighter. Inside my heart, everything was still gray, but my monster was still there, my own personal hideous rainbow. Staying with me.
When I first got my monster, I didn’t really get why I needed him. But over the past months, I’ve come to understand: your monster loves you in a way no one else can.
When you’re depressed, some days it helps to be told that you’re a good person. Some days it helps to do positive self-talk and all that. But sometimes, on the days when you can’t shut up the voice that says you’re horrible, what you really need is someone who doesn’t care how good you are. Someone who doesn’t expect you to be anything but what you are, even when what you are is a mess.
Someone who’s a bit of a monster themselves.
Grumph has taught me that we’re all part monster sometimes, and that’s okay.
Jo sent this apropos reminder in alongside their story: “The Custom Monster Company may be fictional, but depression is very real. If you’re depressed, no matter whether it’s mild or severe or in between, you deserve help. If you need talk to someone, and you’re in the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and get support 24/7. If you’re trans, nonbinary or questioning, you can call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860 to get support from a trans peer.”
Thank you Jo, for that note, and for the story, and a note from us that similar resources are available in most countries. Reaching out can seem an impossible step, we know, but you do deserve help, and the world is undoubtedly a better place for having you, with all your unique flaws and thoughts and hopes and experiences. Text a friend, or call a helpline if a stranger is easier. There are always people willing to help.
Thank you, too, to Marina for her story, and the reminder that monsters are not always so easy to see and know. These stories very much complement each other, even as they broach different difficult topics, and I think what binds them is the acknowledgement that it is okay to go through negative emotions in response to life. Negative emotions are even healthy, because to ignore them, to bottle them up and pretend they’re not there, is actively unhealthy. They are an essential aspect of the human experience, and whilst we should take care not to overindulge them, it is important that we allow them to flow through us at whatever pace is necessary. Toxic positivity is, well, a toxin that will build up inside and harm you in the long run, and whilst being able to reframe our perspectives and experiences is an important mental health tool, we have to be careful not to lie to ourselves, too. It is okay to acknowledge that some days, you are a bit of a monster yourself, and you are a mess, and that those things are not mortal sins. Allowing yourself to sit with that, or sit with grief or sadness or regret or whatever else your heart feels, can be healing, and in time the scales will fall away and you will be yourself again.
As part of our 15th anniversary celebrations, we’re asking you, our loyal audience, for recommendations from our archives. If you want to highlight an old episode for others to check out, go to
and look for the pinned post up top with instructions. This week, Vanamonde is recommending episode 29, Dead Languages by Merrie Haskell; he says: “It’s fun. A cynical, almost 30 year old woman gets transformed by a Roman curse into a Vampire hunter, and the curse also creates enemies for her to subdue. I love the character and her world weariness as she comes to terms with her transformation. A Podcastle episode that I keep coming back too.” Thank you, Vanamonde!
About the Authors
Jo Miles writes optimistic science fiction and fantasy, and has stories in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and more. Jo lives in Maryland, where they help nonprofits use the internet to save the world, but mostly serve the whims of their two cats.
M. Stevenson (she/her) is a writer, educator, and naturalist with degrees from Brown University (B.A., Geology-Biology) and the University of Idaho (M.Ed., Environmental Education). Her publications include poetry and prose in Phantom House Press, Barely South Review, Tiny Seed Literary Journal, Poets Reading the News, and others. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @mstevensonbooks.
About the Narrators
Valerie Valdes lives in an elaborate meme palace with her husband and kids, where she writes, edits and moonlights as a muse. She enjoys crafting bespoke artisanal curses, playing with swords, and admiring the outdoors from the safety of her living room. Her debut novel Chilling Effect was shortlisted for the 2021 Arthur C. Clarke Award, and was also named one of Library Journal’s best SF/fantasy novels of 2019. Her short fiction and poetry have been featured in Uncanny Magazine, Time Travel Short Stories and Nightmare Magazine.
Join her in opining about books, video games and parenting on Twitter @valerievaldes or find links to her work at http://candleinsunshine.com/.
Andrew K. Hoe
Andrew K. Hoe practices Choy Li Fut Kung Fu and Tai Chi in Southern California, where he also writes speculative YA fiction. He has been a high school English teacher, an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan, and is now a college professor. He is an Assistant Editor for Cast of Wonders. His stories appear or are forthcoming in Cast of Wonders, Diabolical Plots, Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, Highlights for Children, and elsewhere. Follow him online or on Twitter.