Bourbon Penn 28


by Chris Kammerud

In the beginning, they had no names.

There was only a monster in the snow and a small girl in his arms. The two of them at the center of a dark wood in a park somewhere near the end of everything. A path of broken ice led from the monster’s feet to the shattered, bloody center of a frozen pond.

Steam curled from the monster’s skin, a dubious halo formed from the memory of his rushing plunge through the icy water. He held the girl close to his chest, hoping the hell-fired warmth of his hearts might help. She kept shivering, though, her delicate teeth rattling on against his ribs. He picked bits of tentacle from the small girl’s ankle. He cast them into the snow.

Cracked moonlight cast meandering shadows among the trees. It was hard to keep track of which shadows were real and which had simply lost their way. An owl perched on a nearby branch, blinking curiously at the unlikely pair.

Above and beyond the trees, there was the functioning ruin of a once indestructible city, its windows dark and many. Its streets fogged with the dreamy afterglow of its circling trains.

Anything might be waiting for them out there.

The monster didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t know, in fact, quite what he had done. Generally speaking, he did not make a habit of rescuing people. Generally speaking, he ate their hearts and sucked the marrow from their bones. Not as often as he once had, perhaps. But, still.

The monster looked down at the small girl. Such bright big brown eyes. Open for all the night to see.

He covered them with the tender curve of his claw.

“Keep calm, tiny one,” he said. “Don’t let the stars see you cry.”

• • •

The monster brought the small girl to an old sweet shop in the bottom corridor of his city. The shop consisted of two floors, one spun sugar staircase, and countless dark cabinets stacked full of countless drawers, inside of which there nestled various shapes and flavors of crinkle-wrapped candy. Each time he visited, Mira, the proprietor, would open one such drawer and remove one such candy and she would offer it to the monster as payment for the years that he watched over her.

“For your troubles,” she would say.

“You’re immortal,” he would say, “so it’s no trouble at all, really.”

“It means a lot to me,” Mira said, “whatever it costs you.”

Mira lived her life in a very particular fashion. This particular fashion was that she grew older and older and then younger and younger and then older and older and so on and so forth until, so far as anyone could tell, the end of everything.

It was not uncommon for Mira to forget, on any given day, the direction in which her life was headed. She could always recognize the day, though, when her life turned around. As could the monster, or anyone around her, because on those days when her life took a turn, whether she was very old or very young, she would always say the same thing.

“Oh,” she would say. “Here we go again.”

During the years in which Mira was quite small, she needed someone to look after her. A long time ago, it was someone else, but now it was the monster. One day, she presented him with the bliss of blood cinnamon chocolate and the offer of a deal. She would give to him whenever he visited the darkest and sweetest of delights in return for his care when she needed it most.

The monster accepted this arrangement only once he learned how very unlikely it was that he might hurt her. It brought him an inordinate amount of joy each time she made it out of his care alive.

He had never before asked Mira for anything more than she had ever seen fit to offer.

The monster put the small girl on the counter of the candy shop. Mira pushed a tidy bag of dark gold candy out of the girl’s reach. The small girl looked around at the staircase and the cabinets and the drawers and the creatures standing over her with a face struck clear of gravity.

Everything floated to pieces.

Her eyes wandered loose.

The monster looked at Mira looking at the child and then he looked at the child and its ungainly arms and scattered hair. He frowned.

“Look at her eyes,” Mira said.

“I know,” said Max.

One of the things the monster knew best about people is that, unlike Mira, they only ever lived in one direction. They only ever got one shot at things. All of them generally got broken somewhere along the way.

“Someone stole this kid’s dreams,” Mira said.

“I know,” said Max.

He did not like the small girl’s chances.

It seemed so early to already be so confused and scared.

“You can’t keep her, you know,” Mira said.

“I know.”

The small girl tried to fall off the front of the counter. The monster held her up.

“You’re not equipped to take care of anyone,” Mira said. “You can barely take care of yourself. And that’s almost entirely due to your being like me.”

“I know.”

The small girl tried falling off the back of the counter. The monster kept holding her.

“Mostly indestructible.”

“I know.”

“You can’t be seen with her. The humans will not like it.”

“I know.”

The small girl gave up. She stood. The monster let go. She didn’t appear to be going anywhere. He tried relaxing. Maybe it would be okay.

“But,” the monster said, “what if one of her people did this to her?”

Mira wrinkled her nose. She picked up the bag of sweets. She turned it over in her hand. She put it back down.

“It’s not your job, Max, to protect people from themselves.”

“I know.”

Something in the night cried out for help. It was probably just the wind. The wind was always going on about things in those days.

“You know a lot for someone doing something stupid,” Mira said.

“I haven’t done anything yet,” the monster said.

The small girl turned. She walked to the end of the counter, turned, and walked back. She walked back and forth in this manner several times. It seemed to calm her. The monster walked with her, his arms open just in case.

“She’s cute, isn’t she?” the monster said.

“Cuter than me when I’m that age?” Mira said.

“Are you jealous?”

The small girl got bored of having nowhere to go. She sat down again. She grabbed the monster’s thumb. The monster wasn’t paying enough attention. She scratched her cheek with his claw.

A tear of blood formed under the small girl’s eye. The monster wiped it away.

“You’ll just end up hurting her, of course,” Mira said.

The small girl reached for the bag of candy near Mira.

“No, child,” Mira said. “That is not for you.”

She slipped away from the small girl the bag of golden hard sweetness and replaced it with a single square of nutty chocolate. She tucked the bag away on the top of a tall shelf.

“For the sacrifices?” the monster said.

“A sweet end,” Mira said, “for far too short a life.”

“You provide a valuable service to the community,” the monster said.

“As do you,” Mira said.

The small girl chewed her square of nutty chocolate. She smiled an orbit of happiness around the two creatures looking down at her.

“You have to take her back,” Mira said.

“I know.”

• • •

One afternoon a few years later, the monster—patrolling his city in his old Buick, accidentally listening to some new slice of neon pop—recognized the girl on a street corner, sitting on a small suitcase, staring at the sky. She held her thumb out as if trying to hitch a ride from a passing cloud. There were quite a few clouds to choose from on this particular day. All steely dark and bundled up like winter coats.

The monster considered ignoring her, but then the sky fell apart and it began to rain. He pulled up next to her.

“Where you headed?” he said.

The girl pulled her thumb out of the sky. She looked at him for a long time. “Nowhere,” she said. Her bangs stuck wet to her forehead.

“Well,” he said. “I can’t promise to take you that far. How about the edge of nowhere?”

The girl said, “I’m not supposed to accept rides from strangers. Or monsters.”

The monster said, “I’m not a stranger.”

“Maybe,” the girl said.

“Do you do everything your parents tell you?” the monster said.

The girl looked over her shoulder. She wiped the hair out of her eyes. The rain splashed off her shoulders. “No,” she said. She sounded guilty. She got in anyway. She threw her suitcase in the back. She pulled her knees up to her chest. She rubbed her legs. She said, “I’m sorry I smell so much like pineapples. That’s all we have to eat right now.”

“I don’t think pineapples smell like how you smell,” the monster said.

The small girl rubbed her face dry.

“Have you been crying?” the monster said.

“Not about anything I can remember,” she said. “I just cry sometimes. It doesn’t mean anything.”

The neon pop song slid into an ancient hymn about taking a walk.

The rain paused. The sky turned blue.

“I’m sorry,” Max said. “I don’t have any seat belts.”

“That’s okay,” the girl said. “Don’t be sorry.” She sat up straight. “I know how to survive a crash.”

“How’s that?”

“You just relax every part of your body. Like this.”

The girl demonstrated her ability to relax.

“That amount of relaxation looks stressful,” the monster said.

The girl laughed and pulled herself back together.

“Hey,” she said.

“Yes,” he said.

“I have a question.”


She said, “Did you rescue me from a sea monster once?”

A rainbow carved off a piece of sky. The monster looked at it. He thought about how rainbows were really just bright scars on the edge of nowhere. And then he looked at her. He remembered her small ankle and the curl of tentacle, and he remembered what it felt like to hold and to be held.

“It was more of a pond creature, really,” he said. “A little one at that.”

The small girl nodded. She tapped a rhythm on her knee. It started raining again. The monster pulled out into the storm.

“Hey,” the small girl said.

“Yes?” the monster said.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

• • •

It became something of a thing. The girl on the corner, sitting on her suitcase. Her thumb in the sky. Waiting for the monster in the Buick to come and collect her and take her along the edge of nowhere. Always a static of music. Always the smell of pineapples and blood and stale coffee. In the summer, the sticky sound of their legs on the seat’s leather. In the winter, the broken hope of the car’s recalcitrant heating system.

In the girl’s suitcase, at various times over the years: tinned pineapples, a can of cola, stone dolls, dirty ribbons, tiny balls of yarn.

The monster did not care much for the ribbons or yarn or dolls or pineapples. He did enjoy the cola.

“I like the acid,” the monster said.

The small girl nodded.

“Does your family know you’re here?” he said.

“Does it matter?” she said.

“Well. I don’t much want to get hunted down by a mob of concerned citizens.”

“You protect them. They worship you. You’re fine.”

“That’s not exactly how this works,” the monster said.

“People are stupid, anyway,” the girl said.

“Most everything is stupid,” the monster said. “I’m pretty sure it’s a side effect of being any kind of thing at all.”

• • •

They drove around the city until it belonged to them. They learned each other’s names.

Max killed things now and then.

The first time he told her not to look.

“Is that man trying to eat that other man?” Abigail said.

“It’s not a man,” Max said.

“Which one?” she said.

After taking care of business, Max folded himself back into the driver’s seat. He yanked the car into gear. He tried another gear when his first choice didn’t take. He apologized for the smell. “It was a mess out there.” He drove on. The road bumped along under them. He tried punching at the radio. Rollicking nonsense and guitars stacked on top of each other. He said, “I’m sorry you had to see that.” He wiped blood from his nose.

“It’s okay,” the girl said.

“I don’t know about that,” he said. He drove so carefully he almost forgot where he was going.

“I’d understand if you never wanted to see anything like that again,” he said.

“I’ve seen worse.”

“I don’t know about that,” he said.

She smiled a flat sort of smile. “I do,” she said.

• • •

They drove out once to the ocean. This was not long after Abigail turned fourteen. On the way, they stopped at an intersection to let a train pass. It ran blue across the afternoon, leaving in its wake a cloud of wonder and regret. It settled over the Buick and cut in through the heat so that Max and Abigail filled their lungs with the breath of longing.

The trains in this city ran on dreams. So did the lights and kettles and televisions and electric blankets. Dreams are the most renewable of resources. People keep having them no matter what happens to them or to the world. Whenever a train rattled past behind or beside or in front of them, Max remembered the long ago look in the small girl’s eyes. The look of someone whose dreams had been stolen.

He never talked to her about this sort of thing.

And he didn’t now.

He drove on to the ocean. He parked next to a gazebo. They got out and stood safe from the screaming winds. He lit a cigarette. He walked out to the edge of the things. He dug his thick toes into the sand.

Abigail sat on a bench, kicking her feet at nothing. She wore a coat that was much too big for her, but it suited her anyway. Max asked her where it came from.

“It belonged to my mom,” Abigail said. “She gave it to me for my birthday.”

He blew smoke rings. Lightning lit the tips of distant waves pink. They watched the rain fall into the sea for a while. Max wondered how her mother could afford to give up such a coat. He supposed that’s what it meant to care for something. To give up what one couldn’t afford to lose.

“Hey,” Abigail said.

“Yes,” Max said.

“I’ve got a question.”


“You know how there’s those names for groups of things? Like a congregation of owls, or a medley of pigeons?”

Max nodded. He stared on at the sea.

“I keep wondering why there aren’t words for groups of people.”

Max tossed his cigarette on the beach. He turned. “Well,” he said. “There’s mob. You know. A mob of people.”

Abigail shook her head.

Max came and sat beside her. The rain moved closer. The lightning flashed brighter.

“Do you remember your parents?” Abigail said.

Max pulled from the pocket of his jacket a can of RC Cola. He drank. He lit another cigarette.

He wondered sometimes if she knew. He wondered how she would know. He wondered if her parents owed someone something more than they could pay. He wondered why anyone would steal the dreams of a child. He wondered how it would feel if they thought it was their only choice. That somehow it was for the best.

He didn’t say anything for so long that Abigail felt sure he had forgotten her question.


“I don’t know where I came from,” he said. “I don’t even remember my first cigarette.”

Abigail nodded.

“I’m old,” he said.

She said, “You are a mystery to yourself.”

“Sure,” Max said. He drank the rest of his cola. “I guess.”

The rain arrived and fell on the canopy. It drummed and drummed. The wind grew cold. Max crushed the empty can against his knee. He threw it as far as he could. It landed in the sea far, far, away.

He turned.

“What would you call a group of parents?” he said.

“I don’t know,” she said. She scooted closer. Max scooted further away. “I try not to think about them.”

“What do you think about?” Max said.

“Me,” said Abigail.

She grabbed his hand. She said, “You’re so warm.”

Max pulled his hand away. He tried not to run as far from her as possible. He succeeded. He stayed with her. She didn’t reach for his hand again.

He thought a long time about things.

He said, “Loneliness”

Abigail said, “What?”

He said, “That’s what I would call it, I think. A loneliness of parents.”

• • •

Max made his home in an abandoned building not far from the river. Three stories. Tall, moldy windows. Dusty radiators that filled the rooms in winter with the scent of time.

Max populated his rooms with an assortment of furniture collected from the lives discarded by those people who’d fled the city at the beginning of the end of things. A patched sofa. A precarious chair. A table made out of a massive door laid flat on the ground, three tattered blue cushions surrounding it.

Max liked to imagine a future in which someone visited him for tea. He had seen this on television once. Max enjoyed television. He did not enjoy tea all that much.

Once, he saw a movie on television about a monster discovering the love of a scientist. This film inspired a not small amount of unfortunate hope in him, but, that’s another story.

Max planted around his home many pictures of plants. He put pictures of ferns in the tall, moldy windows. He put pictures of roses in the center of the massive door. He decorated his refrigerator with pictures of creeping vines. Inside the refrigerator, he planted a collection of postcards depicting various varieties of succulent.

One morning, Abigail showed up unannounced at his front door. She pushed past him and into his kitchen and knocked across his table with her heels.

She went around opening his cabinets. Max followed after, slamming them closed. She peered in his refrigerator. She sighed. She turned.

“Why don’t you have any food?” she said.

“Because I don’t eat food,” he said.

“What do you eat?”

Max slammed shut the refrigerator. A picture fell off. He stuck it back.

“The hearts of virgins like you,” he said.

Abigail walked over to the sink. She tried the tap. Nothing came out. She pulled a sleeve over her hand. She stood on her tiptoes. She wiped at the window. She stared out.

“What’s that like?” she said. “Eating virgin hearts?

Max roared. He had never done this before in her presence.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Abigail turned from the window.

“What are you doing here?” he said.

She toed a tattered blue cushion. “I was hungry,” she said. She sat down.

Max sat down next her.

“It’s my birthday,” she said.

“I don’t have anything for you,” he said.

Abigail slid over onto the massive door that served as a table. She lay back. She stared at the ceiling

“I know, Max,” she said. “I know.”

• • •

They never stayed out past sunset. It wasn’t safe. There were so many things that could eat you in a city like this. Also, her parents might worry. Her people might grow concerned. They might set out with pitchforks and torches. They might punish her. They might steal more of her dreams.

One afternoon, Max and Abigail fell together back across the hood of the old Buick, listening to an old cassette of cosmic punk, heads side by side, feet dangling free on opposite sides.

“Hey, Max.”

“Yes, Abigail.”

“I’ve got a question.”


They were parked on a quiet street in the bottom corridor of the city. Towers loomed. Windows shadowed with sunlight. Streetlamps ran down along either side of the avenue. Every so often, a train rumbled down along somewhere and rattled the world.

“Do you love me?” Abigail said. “Or do you just feel responsible for me because once you saved my life?”

“That’s quite a question,” Max said.

“I don’t think love is supposed to feel like a responsibility.”

“Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Love shouldn’t be a choice,” she said. “It should be something you can’t not do. Like if you didn’t do it, then you would die. I don’t think you can rely on people to do things they don’t have to do.”

“So,” Max said. “Love should be like hunger? Or like breathing?”

“Actual love,” Abigail said. “Yes. I think so. I think it should be like hunger and breathing and swallows.”


“Yeah. Have you ever noticed them down in the old buildings by the sea? How they all take off at the same time? And then they all fly together. And when they turn, it’s all at once? Like they were telepathically connected? Love should be like that, too.”

Max laughed.

Abigail held her breath.

“Don’t laugh at me, Max.”

Max stopped laughing.

“You think I’m a silly little human.”

“I think that you’ve described love as something impossible, inevitable, and vaguely magical.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Love isn’t magic. It’s a verb. It’s a thing you do. Over and over again. Every single day.”

Abigail groaned.

“If you didn’t have to make a choice,” Max said, “it would be meaningless.”

Abigail turned. She touched his horns. Max swatted her hand away.

She looked like she might cry.

She said, “Flowers don’t make any choices, Max. Are you saying that flowers are meaningless?”

Max sat up. He said, “No, Abigail. Of course not. Flowers are the most meaningful thing in the universe.”

Abigail said, “You’re making fun of me.”

“Only a little bit,” Max said.

• • •

Abigail cried a lot over the next few days. She didn’t tell him why. She drew her sadness across the city walls. Dark blue swirls done in crayon. One after the other. Around and around. Like she was trying to bore through to another world. She rode around in the Buick. She punched around on the radio. She flapped the vents opened and closed. She sat quietly and stared out at everything.

Once, he pulled over and roared at her. He cursed her tears. He told her that fifteen years was not nearly long enough to have amassed such sadness.

This had a surprising result. The surprising result was not that Abigail stopped being sad but that she tried to feed herself to him.

“Stop that,” Max said.

Abigail tried to climb into his face. She tried to impale herself on his claws. He swatted her away.

She said, “This way I’ll always be a part of you.”

She said, “This way I’ll always be safe.”

Max stopped fighting. She pressed her fist at his closed mouth. She pushed at his lips. She revealed one long tooth. “Let me in, Max” she said.

He didn’t.

She pulled her hand away.

“Get in the car,” Max said.

Max wondered if it was him, or the missing dreams. He didn’t know what to do with her when she was sad. He drove her to the beach. He drove her to the park. He drove her to an abandoned ice rink that a group of industrious humans turned into a flea market.

She sat and dug patterns in the dirt with a stick. Sometimes she couldn’t find a stick and used her fingers. Sometimes she gave up on the patterns and just dug a hole into which she buried rocks and twigs and grass and flowers and empty cans of RC Cola.

“Time turns everything into a treasure,” she told him once. “That’s what my dad says. He tried to bury me once as a joke. I don’t know why he thought it was so funny.”

He drove her to the graveyard. It wasn’t Thursday. There were no owls around. The graveyard sat on the edge of his territory. Sometimes there was another monster there named Bartholomew. He was there today, sitting atop the eastern wall of the graveyard. He was whittling a small toy. He raised his hat to the two of them with an arm unfolded from behind his back.

“Are you taking your sacrifices out on dates these days?’ Bartholomew said.

He smiled.

“Don’t worry about him,” Max said. “He’s just being friendly.”

“Is he your friend?” Abigail said.

“We haven’t killed each other yet,” Max said.

Abigail sat on the grave of a bank teller named Edward Middleton. Dead at 73. “A loving banker and cruel husband.”

She drew patterns in the dirt.

Max couldn’t tell if the patterns were maps or mazes or both. He asked. She said, “It’s a map of tomorrow.”

Bartholomew jumped down beside them. He scratched his ears with one of his many hands.

“Tomorrow has a lot of dead ends,” he said.

He laughed.

Max frowned.

Abigail wiped it all away. “It’s stupid,” she said. “Forget it.”

• • •

Max walked alone one night across the starlit winter streets, smoking cigarette after cigarette, passing through small pockets of light from markets and clubs and restaurants. He looked in at the people and the beautiful creatures and he felt a familiar and happy ache blossoming like a bruise between his shoulders. He had dropped off Abigail some time ago.

He tried to shake off the feeling of holding the small girl against his chest.

An old phoenix landed on a lamppost. The phoenix said, “Got a light, buddy?”

Max held a lighter up to the phoenix. The bird caught fire and with a nod flew away to start a new life.

Max watched him burn away into the distance.

Everything was scary, Max reminded himself, and everybody wanted to feel safe. People hired monsters to protect them from other monsters. They paid for these monsters by making sacrifices. And the monsters who accepted these sacrifices, of course, made sacrifices of their own—such as not hunting after every last heart or stealing, on a whim, certain of their daughters away.

That is how sacrifice works.

You cannot accept what someone gives you without giving up something of yourself in return.

Max paused at an intersection to let a train clatter past. It left behind it a memory of light and a cloud of ashen dreams. Max breathed in a lungful of numinous hope and regret. It was so much better than a cigarette.

Max stopped in at a bar. He ordered a skin-soaked bourbon. A beautiful devil curled his tail in Max’s direction.

The devil smiled.

Max turned away.

He spotted Bartholomew folded over a small table in the corner. He nodded at his sometimes friend. Bartholomew doffed his cap with one of his many hidden arms. Max joined him. Bartholomew began talking about the most recent sacrifice he received. A very fine boy. Delicate cheeks. Tender heart. Very tasty.

“What is it about fifteen-year-old virgins that does it for you?” he said.

“You’ve asked me this many times before,” Max said.

“And you never give me a straight answer.”

“That’s because I’m not that picky.”


Max paused. He drank.

He said, “I never told them what to sacrifice.”

He said, “What business is it of mine what story they tell themselves?”

He looked over his shoulder at the beautiful devil laughing at the bar. He wondered why he was here, with a refined and heartless creature like Bartholomew, and not there, being menaced by that slender and muscular tail.

“You look perturbed,” Bartholomew said.

“I’m fine,” Max said.

“You seem a bit sulky actually,” Bartholomew said. He smoothed his hair back. He took a drink. He pulled a cigarette out of one of the many pockets of his very long coat.

He did all this at the same time.

Max wondered what things Bartholomew might be holding in the hands tucked tight behind his back.

Bartholomew lit his cigarette and offered one to Max.

Max took the cigarette.

“Have you ever saved someone?” Max said.

Bartholomew curled his lips under his teeth. “I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure, no.” He tapped ash into his empty glass. “I earn my hearts good as the next, though.”

Max thought something then that he did not want to think. He thought of Abigail and how many bites it might take Bartholomew to reach the soft walls of her heart. He wondered if it would take him any less. He looked away at his small glass and reassured himself that Abigail would grow up big and strong as girls sometimes do. At least the ones who weren’t sacrificed to monsters like him.

Bartholomew said, “You look like the sort of creature that needs very badly to murder something beautiful.”

Max finished his bourbon. He wished Bartholomew well. He stumbled home under the broken moon.

• • •

“Hey, Max.”

“Yes, Abigail.”

“I’ve got a question for you.”


Abigail raised her fist and unfolded from it the shape of a gun. She took aim at one of Max’s many hearts.

“It’s a tough one,” she said.

“I am mostly indestructible,” he said. He turned back to the road. “I think I’ll survive.”

The two of them were slouched low in Max’s old Buick. One of Max’s horns scraped against the ceiling whenever he turned to look for danger. Dirty sunlight cut across their shoulders. A fox scuttled across the street, a shred of blue caught in its teeth.

“Okay,” Abigail said. “Here goes.”

“I’m ready,” Max said. He held tight to the steering wheel, his dark eyes wide open to the possibility of terror.

Abigail tilted her head and squinted her left eye. She cocked her thumb.

“How do you not be a virgin?” she said.

Max loosened his grip on the steering wheel. He fussed with the cracked leather. “Um,” he said.

“Like,” she said. “I mean. I know. Obviously. Basically. But. What are the rules? The technicalities? The nitty gritty? If you catch me.”

Max let go of the wheel completely. He turned.

“Abigail,” he said.

Abigail frowned. “Max,” she said, rolling her eyes, waving her fist of a gun about, approximating his concerned baritone with surprising accuracy.

“What are we talking about here?” Max said.

Abigail shifted around in her seat, keeping her sights on him. “Well, for example,” she said. “Does masturbating count?”

Max blinked.

He sighed.

He scratched between his horns.

“What about kissing?” she said.

Abigail watched him fidget. And then she began to laugh. The sound of it full and dark and broken as the new moon.

And then she pulled the trigger.

“Bang,” she said. “How dead are you right now?”

• • •

One day, they decided to pretend everything would be okay and no one would ever get hurt.

It was a very good day.

They saw many beautiful things.

They ate many kinds of delicious food.

They imagined visiting all kinds of oceans.

They counted the rays of sunlight breaking free of the clouds.

They counted the broken windows of very tall buildings.

Abigail counted the battered horns atop Max’s head. He didn’t push her hand away.

“One horn, two horns, three horns, four,” she sang. “What if at the bottom of every single heart there stands a locked and secret door?”

“Five horns, six horns, seven horns, eight,” she sang. “What if when it came to certain kinds of love it could never ever be too late?”

She counted and recounted.

She sang and she sang.

Max said, “I only have seven horns, you know.”

Abigail said, “There’s an extra one just there.” She pressed a bare patch of his scalp with her thumb. “You can’t see it because you lost it when you were too small to remember.”

“And how did you ever discover such a thing about me?” Max said.

“I lied,” Abigail sighed. “That’s the trick to everything. I lied with my whole heart.”

• • •

Max received a visit one morning from a phoenix. The phoenix said his name was Cleveland.

Cleveland said, “They’ve asked Bartholomew to kill you.”


“You know who.”

Max grunted. He imagined a mob cheering Bartholomew on. He said, “Why are you telling me this?”

Cleveland tilted his head. He said, “You killed me once when I needed it most. Not everyone is so kind.”

Max said, “Right.” He scrounged around for his cigarettes. He lit one. “Come in,” he said.

Cleveland hopped in through the window. He perched at the end of Max’s bed. Max pulled a can of RC Cola from under his bed. He popped it open. He said, “How long do I have?”

Cleveland shrugged. “How should I know?”

• • •

Max sat under a willow tree, drinking a cola. Abigail stood a little ways away, crunching back and forth through heaps of fallen leaves, carrying a slice of rebar. She wore a big brown jacket with a fluffy collar. She had very recently turned fifteen years old. Her eyes were smudged with actual ash. It was the fashion in those days for things to be actual. She still looked so young to Max. He worried about her all the time. He worried about what he would do when she left him for actual real life. He worried that he would never have enough good answers for her questions.

“Where did you get that?” Max said.

“Found it,” Abigail said.

“I have a piece of rebar like that,” Max said.

“How ‘bout that,” Abigail said.

They were in the park where they first met. The sky dimmed over them. Luminous mole birds hopped out of the ground. Abigail tried to hit them with the rebar.

“You’re going to hurt yourself,” Max called out.

“Shut up,” Abigail said.

A bright, beautiful thing shot up to her right. She turned and swung and missed. “Fuck,” she said. There went another. She tried to swing but couldn’t.

“Let go, Max,” she said.

Max did not let go. He took the pipe from her. He said, “What did the mole birds ever do to you?”

Abigail sat on the ground. The mole birds rose and fell around her.

She said, “I wanted to kill something innocent.”

Max threw the rebar far off into the dusk. He stood over Abigail. He offered her his hand.

She didn’t take it. She drew a maze in the dirt.

Max said, “Hey.”

Abigail said, “Yes?”

“I’ve got a question.”

“Well ask it already.”

Max said, “Do you know what the heart of a virgin tastes like?”

Abigail said, “You tell me.”

“Same as any other heart,” Max said.

• • •

On the way back to the corner, they stopped to let a train pass. A fog of dreams fell over them. Abigail punched around on the radio. Max lit another cigarette. Abigail said, “What if you told them no?”

Max roared a very quiet roar. And then he sighed.

He said, “You won’t be chosen.”

Abigail said, “I might.”

Max said, “The odds are low.”

Abigail said, “The world is full of the worst kind of magic. You don’t know what might happen.”

Max said, “I know.”

He drove over the train tracks.

He said, “I’m sorry.”

She said, “Don’t be sorry.”

Something landed on the roof. An arm crashed through the driver’s side window and pulled Max out. Abigail screamed. Max and Bartholomew fought on the roof and rolled across the street and Max tore off one arm after another until Bartholomew didn’t have a hand left to wave hello. Max tore off the head of his sometimes friend. He carried the pieces of Bartholomew one by one and put them in the trunk.

He knocked out the rest of the shattered glass from his window. “Safety first,” he said. He got in. He put the car in gear.

“You’re bleeding,” Abigail said.

“I’m alive,” Max said.

“I thought you were indestructible.”

“You must be terribly disappointed in me, then.”

Abigail looked back at the trunk. She frowned. Max wiped the blood out of his eyes.

“I thought he was your friend,” Abigail said.

“More of an acquaintance, really,” Max said.

• • •

Max drove out past the edge of nowhere. He buried pieces of Bartholomew here and there across the city. You could never be too sure with monsters.

They drove on through the sunset and kept going deep into the night. Abigail didn’t help with the digging. Sometimes she helped carry a piece of Bartholomew. She enjoyed the process of letting go.

They buried his head last. Abigail dropped it down a very deep hole. Max covered it with dirt.

“Time turns everything into a treasure,” Abigail said.

They walked away and sat in the car and didn’t go anywhere. They stared out at the cracked moon up above the trees and the city and the sky.

“Do you ever think everything’s as broken as the moon?” Abigail said.

“At one time,” Max said, “they say the moon was whole.”

“I’ve heard that,” Abigail said.

“If the moon was whole,” Max said, “why couldn’t we be?”

“Even the moon,” Abigail said, “must have belonged somewhere else once, Max. Everything used to be a part of something bigger. That’s just how the universe works.”

“How did you get so smart?” Max said.

“I didn’t waste any time dreaming of other worlds,” Abigail said.

Max blinked. He said, “You know.”

Abigail said, “There’s two options for me. I get sacrificed next month. Or I grow up, and I become just like my parents. I steal other people’s dreams to keep the world running. What a lucky girl I am.”

“I’m sorry,” Max said.

Abigail shook her head. She said, “Don’t be sorry.” The wind cried. Max started the car. He flicked on the headlights and punched on the radio. They drove toward home.

Halfway there, Abigail said, “I don’t think we’re broke. And I don’t think we’re whole. I think we just need each other. And I think that’s okay.”

Max said, “I don’t know that anything’s okay.”

Abigail said, “Some parts of it are. Sometimes.”

“You think so?”

“I have to.”

At the corner, Abigail didn’t get out.

“Hey, Max,” she said.

“Yes, Abigail.”

“I’ve got a question for you.”


“What do you call a group of monsters?”

“I don’t know,” Max said. “You tell me.”

“I looked and looked,” she said. “But I couldn’t find one.”

Max smiled. He said, “I don’t suppose anyone ever thought there would be a need.”

Abigail rested her head against the window. She drew circles on the glass.

“I thought of one, though.”



Abigail smiled at her reflection.

Max frowned.

Abigail stopped drawing circles. She said, “Do you think I’m innocent?”

Max shook his head. A horn tore a new strip in the ceiling. He said, “Nobody’s innocent. Or maybe everybody is. I don’t know.”

Abigail said, “Do you think you’re innocent?”

“Not really.”

“What about me?”


Abigail scraped her nails across the glass. “That doesn’t make sense, does it?”


She turned. She said, “Take me home.”

“We’re here,” Max said.

“Not my home,” she said. “Yours.”

• • •

He drove in circles until she fell asleep. He kept an eye out for torchlight. He wondered how long before the humans gave up on monsters and chased after him themselves. He wondered how long they had known. He supposed it was a dream to believe they never would.

He took Abigail to the sweet shop. He carried her up to the door. He knocked and knocked. Mira appeared in a fuzzy robe and bunny slippers. Her hair did a thing he had never seen it do before. He asked if they could spend the night.

Mira said, “What do I get for it?”

Max said, “My unwavering devotion.”

“I’ve already got that.”

Max shrugged.

Mira grumbled. She let them in.

“I am worried about you, you know,” Mira said.

“I know,” said Max.

“I wish you were more worried,” she said.

“I am,” said Max. “Terribly.”

Max put Abigail on Mira’s couch. He slept on the floor.

In the morning, he woke to find Abigail’s slender form curled along his arm, her hair scattered over his shoulder, a strand clinging to the bottom of his jaw. Light brushed in through a window, painting a small dresser, and a series of posters of old spy films, in gold and rust.

In the kitchen, a kettle boiled. He smelled cinnamon and fennel. From Mira’s bedroom, he heard a TV mumbling about last chance apocalyptic deals.

“I think I found a loophole,” Abigail said.

“You’re awake,” he said.

She pressed herself up and over him. Her thighs squeezed his broad hips.

“If I’m not a virgin,” she said, “they can’t sacrifice me.”

She slid her fingers around a declining orbit of his stomach.

She wiped her tears away with a thumb. She bent down. She whispered in his ear.

“You won’t have to do anything,” she said. “Just lie still.”

She slid her chin down along his throat.

He grabbed her shoulders. She smiled.

He pushed her away. Harder than he meant. She flew back against the couch.

She grabbed the back of her head. “Fuck,” she said.

“Oh,” he said. “Oh.”

“I’m okay,” she said.

“Oh,” he said.

She sat up. She swiped the hair from her eyes. “Really,” she said. “Stop staring at me. I get it. I’m disgusting. Whatever.”

She ran into the bathroom.

Mira came out of her bedroom.

“Anyone for tea?” she said.

• • •

He drove Abigail home. She leaned against the door. She didn’t look at him.

“Hey,” Max said. And then again. And later again.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She didn’t say anything. She didn’t even cry.

The city passed by on either side of them. The cafes and markets and restaurants and post offices. The trains and the burning dreams. None of it seemed like it belonged to them anymore. It belonged to itself. As all things do, really.

Max said, “It’s okay.”

Abigail locked and unlocked her door.

They passed under a lattice of bridges and pulled up to the corner where he first found her again those many years ago.

Neither of them said anything for a very long time.

“We shouldn’t see each other anymore,” Max said.

Abigail said, “Is this because of the thing where I tried to have sex with you?”

“No,” Max said. “Yes. Also. Your people sent Bartholomew to kill me. They’ll send others. Or they’ll come after me themselves.

“Besides. You’re all grown up. You don’t need me anymore.”

Abigail sighed. She said, “I stopped needing you a long time ago, Max.”

“Then why did you keep hanging out with me?”

Abigail opened the door. She turned. She said, “Innocence.”

Max said, “What?”

She said, “That’s what I would call it, I think. An innocence of monsters.”

She got out.

She said, “I won’t bother you anymore, Max. Don’t worry.”

She closed the door.

Max said, “Wait.”

• • •

He drove back to Mira. He wandered in and sat on the spun sugar stairs.

“Do you think she ever loved me?” he said. “Or do you think she just felt safe around me?”

Mira was up on a ladder dusting out the corners of her dusty old shop. “I think,” she said. “That it doesn’t matter.”

Max smiled around his cigarette. He wondered at how the sun caught the dust and sparkled like hard candy. He wondered at how the world could look so sweet sometimes.

Max said, “I don’t understand what I thought I was doing. I’m not her parent. I’m not.” He paused. He scratched a very fine scratch into the sugar. He tasted the tip of his claw. “I’m not anything.”

Mira pulled herself and the ladder over to another corner. Max wondered at her, at all the lives she lived, and all the ways that would tire someone else out. But, here she was, in her blazer and blue jeans, at the top of the ladder, carrying on, doing what she always did, making something of her time, and of her world. Max looked at his hands. He wondered at them.

“You’re her friend,” Mira said.

“Like you and me?” said Max.

Mira climbed down from the ladder. “Maybe,” she said. She grabbed a box of golden nuggets. She gave them a good wipe and blew the riotous dust away from her face. She opened the box and offered it up to Max.

“Imagine if we could just grow old together,” Mira said. “Imagine if time worked for us the way it worked for other creatures.”

Max took a candy. He finished his cigarette. He planted its remains in a can of cola.

He said, “I’m not sure time works for anyone, really. When you get right down to it.”

Mira closed the box. She put it away. “Sometimes I wish,” she said, “that things were different. I wish we could live our lives together for real and not always this passing back and forth in and out of each other’s lives.”

Max smiled with all of his teeth.

He so rarely showed his teeth to anyone.

“You wouldn’t like living with me,” he said. “I snore.”

Mira laughed.

Then she said, “Oh.”

She said, “Here we go again.”

Max watched time pass across her face. He wondered at a life of such endless magic. He said, “Which way is it this time?”

“Younger, I think.”

“Well,” Max said. “I will attempt not to die before you need me.”

Mira put her hand on his shoulder. She said, “You are my stone among the endless clouds of time. Do you know that?”

Max didn’t know where to begin with that and so he chewed his candy and said nothing.

• • •

Max drove around the city. Trains ran circles around him. He hunted through the fog of dreams for a monster to kill. He found one. He killed it. He washed his hands in the snow. He went home and fell asleep and dreamed that things hadn’t happened.

He did this for many days and the days became weeks. He drove past the corner. Past the post office. The 7-11. Back and forth across the bridge. He couldn’t find any music he liked. He settled for music he could manage not to hate. He drove along the edge of nowhere. He couldn’t remember feeling so uncomfortably alone before. He knew this feeling would pass. He dreaded the moment when he forgot about the emptiness. Still. He knew it was very likely that he would never see her again.

One day he woke up to the sound of rain and a knock on his door.

Max looked out his window.

There was someone standing outside, huddled under a blue umbrella.

Max listened to the rain dance across and through his roof. He considered not going down.

It turned out to be a man under the blue umbrella. The man had brown hair and small lips.

Max said, “What can I do for you?”

The man said, “Your sacrifice is ready.”

Max frowned. “Why not send an owl like usual?”

The man shrugged.

“Who is it?” Max said.

“What do you care, monster?” the man said, and then he left.

Max sighed.

He drove to the park at whose center the humans enjoyed arranging their sacrifices. He approached the altar of rocks. He pulled away the sheet.

He brushed her bangs from her eyes.

He didn’t know how he ever let himself dream it could be otherwise.

He couldn’t remember the last time he cried. Or the first.

He did not know how to consume her.

He did not know how to break his vow and live again as a monster.

He roared at the screaming wind.

She was already dead, he told himself, so why not tear free her heart? Why not feed himself in the mysterious warmth of its chambers? Why not rend her delicate limbs from their sockets and suck the marrow from her bones?

Why not treat this creature as he had treated all the others?

He knew the answers to these questions, of course.

Because she knew his name. And he knew hers.

He carried her away.

He lay her beside the tree in the park where they spoke of the moon and the scattered pieces of the universe searching for some orbit in which to make a home.

He dug and he dug and he carried her into the hole he made in the world.

He considered getting in the grave with her.

He thought this was silly.

He thought about how much sillier it was that he had carried her out of the water all those years ago only to be carrying her into this grave now.


What a thing.

What a big dumb thing.

He gathered in his paws, such big paws, such things to have held her small hand, he gathered in them a ball of dust to scatter over her body. He held it over her. And then he heard a voice.

He heard Mira, calling from back among the trees. Moving closer. Walking at speed.

She was saying, “I told her it was stupid.”

She was saying, “I gave them something different.”

She was saying, “Not everything that appears dead is without hope of life.”

She was saying, “Maybe I got the dose wrong.”

“I’m a wizard for fuck’s sake, not a scientist.”

She stood next to him. She touched his shoulder. She said, “I don’t know.”

Max pulled his hand away. He let the dust fall across his feet. The wind cried. Nameless clouds passed over them.

Max said, “I know.”

He did not know, though, if there was room in his heart anymore for hope.

But he climbed down into the grave with Abigail, anyway. He sat with her, and he held her hand. He stayed there like that for a long time, waiting for the hope of life to beat its timeless rhythm against his ageless form.

Chris Kammerud is a writer, photographer, and performer. Their stories have been short-listed for the Calvino Prize and appeared in, among others, Passages North, formercactus, and Quarterly West. They are a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop and received their MFA from the University of Mississippi, where they studied as a Grisham Fellow. They live in Brooklyn. Find them online @cuvols.