About the AuthorStewart C Baker is an academic librarian, speculative fiction writer, and occasional haikuist. He was born in England, has lived in South Carolina, Japan, and California (in that order), and currently resides in Oregon with his family—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet.
The Monsters your Mother Still Asks About
i – Sasquatch
You’re sitting at a table in the overpriced restaurant at the bottom of Multnomah Falls, trying to decide whether you should stick to your diet or maybe get dessert. It’s cold and damp outside, the tourists milling around all bundled up in scarves and coats and gloves, but inside it’s nice and warm, and the air smells of fresh-baked garlic bread. Best of all, your mother, fed up with your indecision, has gone down to the gift shop in search of somebody else to harass. Her water glass, with its thick red lipstick stain, watches you balefully while she’s away.
You’ll be good, you decide, and limit yourself to an Irish coffee. Your server’s busy handing out plates to the family a few tables down, and there’s still no sign of your mother, so you sit back in the chair and pull out your phone to check the CryptidLife forums. A new girl—one ‘VaNessa933’—has just joined, and you and all the other old hands are giving her the usual ribald welcome.
Then, out of nowhere, a shadow falls across you and a deep voice rumbles out a familiar "Alice? Alice Mitchell, is that really you?"
You fumble the phone away into your pocket while your stomach does that thing where it tries to hide in your intestines. You’d know that voice anywhere: It’s Grant, the sasquatch you dated for three years half a decade ago. The one who humiliated you by turning out gay at the dinner where you’d sworn to your mother he was going to propose to you.
You lift the dessert menu in front of your face, hoping he’ll take the hint.
"How’ve you been?" he asks. "It’s been what, five years now? I can’t believe we’ve never run into each other before."
Four years, ten months, eight days, you think. Why won’t he just go away?
But it’s clear he has no intention of leaving until you speak to him, and you really don’t need the hassle from Mom. So you put on your best fake smile, lower the menu, and look over to him—only to feel the peppy response die on your lips when you see the twenty-something Asian woman wrapped around his arm.
"Who," you ask instead, unable to hide the bitterness in your voice, "is that?"
Grant scratches at his sagittal crest with one hairless forefinger. "Alice," he says, "this is Ai. My, uh, fiancée." He mumbles the word, and doesn’t even try to meet your eyes as he says it.
"Fiancée," you repeat. "I see." The dessert menu attracts your eye. Raspberry cheesecake? you think. Or hot fudge sundae?
"Oh!" Ai says suddenly. "Is this the one you talked about?" She titters and holds one hand out towards you. "So nice to meet you."
You glare at her until she takes the hand back and fiddles with the latch on her purse.
"I’ll, uh, go get the check," she says, leaning up to give Grant a peck on his thickly-furred sasquatch cheek.
"Sure," he replies, "I’ll catch up in a second." Then, to you once she’s gone: "Sorry. But really, how have you been? How’s your mother?"
"At home," you tell him. "I’m here on a date myself." Feeling your cheeks burn as he glances at the glass on your mother’s side of the table, then back again.
"Oh," he says. "That’s, uh. That’s great. What’s she like?"
You grind your teeth and change the subject. "What about you?" you ask. "Have you told her yet?"
He snorts. "You think she’s stupid just because she’s Japanese? You think she thinks I’m just some particularly tall and hairy American man?"
"Not that," you say. "Not the sasquatch thing. Have you told her that you’re gay?"
"Uh," he says. His eyes, which are each the size of a baseball, squint up, adding a dozen deep furrows to his prominent brow.
You used to love looking into those eyes. You used to love the way he would curl up around you, so big and strong and warm, and how you’d stay there all night long just listening to him breathe. Just being. Even now, sometimes you’ll wake up when it’s dark out with a half-real sensory memory of his hair, somehow hard and soft at the same time, brushing up against your skin.
"Listen," he says. "I’ve gotta go. I have a, uh, long business trip in a few weeks. Got to pack, and… Um. Anyway. Take care of yourself, okay?" And he heads off towards the exit in that big sasquatch stride you used to find so sexy.
You lean your head back and let out a sigh, then pick up the menu again. A business trip? you think. Damn him. At least Mother didn’t see.
Just then you hear, from across the restaurant, in that deep, booming voice: "Hullo, Mrs. Mitchell. Yes, you too."
Ears burning, you flag down a server and order the cheesecake and sundae both. Thinking you can maybe get at least one down before your mother comes back to the table.
ii – Vampire
The next morning at breakfast, you make the mistake of letting your mother hook you up with the son of an acquaintance.
"He’s very popular," she tells you as she snatches the syrup away from you in mid-pour. "Very handsome. You’re lucky he even agreed to this date I set up."
But on the day of the date, he doesn’t show up until just after sunset—an hour after your dinner reservation, which the maître d’ cancels in a huff of contempt. When he finally arrives he doesn’t even apologize, just flips his cape behind his shoulders, flashes you a too-white grin, incisors gleaming, and suggests you take a walk instead.
You spend the rest of the evening shivering in the strapless dress you bought specially as he flits from shadow to shadow, making dramatic swooping gestures with his cape and talking about how tragic he is.
"It’s an apex predator thing," he says. "You wouldn’t understand. Sometimes I wish I could just be ordinary, like you." He slicks his hair back for what has to be the twentieth time and grins, the light of a streetlamp glinting off his fangs. "But not for long."
Then he tries to swoop and flit at the same time and falls into the bushes. After you untangle him, he casually mentions that he has a double-wide coffin at his place. "Maybe you’d like to come over," he adds, staring fixedly at your bare shoulders.
"Sorry," you say, "I have to go, uh… meet some friends."
"Oh," he says. He rubs at one fang despondently and drops his eyes to the ground.
At least that’s over, you think, and you turn to leave. But then you remember Grant, and all the other times you’ve been there yourself. So you ball your hands into fists until your nails dig into your palms and add, with your sweetest smile: "Maybe another time?"
"Another time?" he says. "You bet!"
As he darts off through an empty parking lot, you pull out your phone and load up the forums. They have got to hear this one…
iii – Werewolf
You only dated Mike for about two months in high school—longer ago than you’d like to admit—but your mother still won’t shut up about him. Every Sunday afternoon so far since the Falls, she’s brought up what she calls ‘your first love.’
But this Sunday she’s been unusually quiet, and you think maybe she’s given it up. So after dinner, you let yourself relax. Mother’s doing one of her crosswords, eyeglasses perched on the end of her nose, and you’re goofing around on your laptop, chatting with VaNessa933 from the CryptidLife forums.
It’s almost seven thirty when, with one of those soul-weary sighs, your mother strikes. "He was just so perfect for you, dear," she says, not lifting her eyes from the crossword. "What’s a four-letter word for ‘reproduce’? Starts with ‘m.’"
"Mate," you say. Thinking that’s all Mike ever really wanted from you. First Love? It was animal magnetism, pure and simple—nothing more than hormones and pheromones.
Your mother pencils in the letters with four sharp scritching sounds, then sets her eyeglasses on top of the newspaper. "It’s just," she says, "you were both so in love. I don’t understand why you ever left him."
"Mom, I was eighteen. I barely understood what I was doing. Neither did he." Feeling the heat in your cheeks as you remember going to the cafeteria at school with him when no one was around. The warmth of his hands on your breasts. The warmth of other things. How exciting it was when he changed.
"Well, you’re hardly eighteen now. Why don’t you give him a call? Maybe he misses you too."
You roll your eyes. "Mom, I dated him for two months, fifteen years ago, and the day after I broke up with him he was walking around school holding hands with Clarissa Jones from the cheerleading squad. I doubt he even remembers me." Besides, you think, his Facebook profile says "in a relationship."
"You’ll never know unless you call him," she says, throwing in another sigh for good measure. "I just worry about you, dear. All you ever seem to do is poke around on that computer. Even if it’s not Mike or Grant, you ought get out there and meet someone."
You pick up your laptop without answering and go upstairs to your bedroom.
My mom can be so insensitive sometimes, you type to VaNessa933 after you’ve shut your door and flumped down on the bed.
She keeps going on about my ex-boyfriends, even when it’s clear I don’t want to talk about it. I mean, it’s not like I want to stay single forever, but… Ugh! At least she’s stopped trying to force me on another date with that vampire.
The one you talked about before? I remember him.
I wish I didn’t!
Well, anyway. Why don’t you take a wee break from your mum, get away for a while?
I don’t know where I’d go.
Vp,r voxody ,r/
Sorry, I’m all thumbs sometimes. Come visit me, I meant to say.
She sends you a link to a guest house in the Scottish highlands, in a tiny village you’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce.
It’s right on Loch Ness, you type.
Aye, she replies. Where else? 😉
You sit there for a while with the browser open to an airfare website, unable to decide. You’ve never been out of the country before: What if the trip makes re-adjusting to life with Mom all the more suffocating? And what will Mom say about it, anyway?
At last, though, you think, To Hell with it. If nothing else, you could use a vacation. And who knows? Maybe you’ll meet someone new.
iv. Incubus (1)
Your itinerary says it’s a sixteen-hour journey to Nessa’s town in the Scottish highlands, counting a two-hour layover at JFK and the drive up from Edinburgh. The first leg of the flight is dreadful: Due to some mix-up in the seating process, you get sandwiched between an old German couple who spend the whole three hours shouting across you at each other about things you can’t understand. There’s no in-flight Wi-Fi, either, so you can’t even text Nessa how awful things are.
But then, while you’re waiting for your second plane at JFK, you spot this incredibly handsome guy about your age. He has a swarthy, European look about him—Italian, maybe, or Greek—and a finely-pressed grey suit jacket draped over one arm. You barely even think about your mother as you pinch your upper arm until your eyes tear up.
"I’m so sorry," you say—just a little too loud—as you come up behind him. "But have you seen my phone? I’m expecting a very important call, but I left it somewhere around here, and… If I can’t find it, I just… I just…" and you break into a fresh set of tears.
He turns towards you, and you glance up demurely through your lashes like you’ve seen in the movies. But when you meet his eyes, it’s you who feels captured: He has yellow, cat-like irises, this man you’ve found, and deep black pupils flecked with red. Incubus eyes, you think with a shiver, as you tilt your head up to get a better view.
"A phone?" the incubus says, his accent very slight and unplaceable, but definitely there. "What kind?"
You hear the words, but they don’t quite register. It’s as if you’re underwater, and he’s speaking from the surface. You’re drowning in those eyes of his, that’s what it is: sinking further and further into the ocean of his irises, wishing they’d subsume you, body and soul.
"Miss?" he says. "What kind?"
You force your eyes away from his and blink a few times to clear your head. "Pink?" you say, trying to remember. But before you can say anything more, it starts to ring from where it’s tucked away inside your purse.
"Aren’t you going to answer it?" Incubus says.
"It’s probably just my mother," you reply, reaching in to send her to your voicemail. "I’m Alice, by the way."
"Hi Alice," he says. "I’m Irdu. It’s a pleasure to meet you." With laughter in his eyes, but kindness, too.
Interlude – A Telephone Conversation with Your Mother
"Darling! I tried to call, but you didn’t answer. How’s New York?"
"It’s just the airport, Mom. But omigosh I met this guy! He—"
"Not another sasquatch, is he?"
"No, mom. He’s—"
"Because you remember how the last one turned out."
"Okay, okay. No need to get snippy."
"It’s not okay, Mom. You always do this. You push me to find someone new, but every time I try, you nag me about ex-boyfriends until I can’t think straight. I don’t know why I even bothered calling."
She’s quiet for a long moment after that, and then she sighs. "I’m sorry, honey. It’s just… I don’t want you to get hurt again. I want you to be happy."
"I’m… I’m sorry too, mom. I shouldn’t have—"
"No, don’t apologize; you’re right. I can be … a bit of a witch sometimes. So tell me about your guy. Is he handsome? Nice eyes? Did you get a good look at his butt?"
"Sorry, sorry. But really, what’s he like?"
"He’s so great! He’s an incubus, I think. They’re these, like, um, demons, sort of. Only, uh. Never mind about that, actually. Anyway, he’s really kind, and he has the most fascinating eyes. And yes, a nice butt, since you asked. And he seems to like me. I guess. I’m just… I’m so afraid I’ll screw it up. What am I going to do, mom?"
"The thing is, honey, you worry too much. I don’t know if it’s my fault, but you try too hard, and you get too invested in things that don’t exist outside your own imagination. Or you get too scared, and they think you don’t want them and they leave."
"Listen! You’re a wonderful, beautiful, intelligent, charming person, Alice, and I’m not saying that just because I’m your mother. Don’t worry so much about every last little possibility. Just be yourself, and let things move at a natural pace, and he’ll be putty in your hands."
"You really think I’m all those things?"
"Darling, I know it. Even Grant did—he told me as much when we ran into him at Multnomah Falls."
"Grant said that? Listen, they’re boarding my flight. I’ll call you when I’m in Scotland."
"Don’t worry about it. You go snare your incubus and see the sights. It’s so wonderful to find the one you’re meant for. I’ll be right here waiting when you get back, and you can tell me all about it then. Okay?"
"Okay. Thanks so much, mom. And… I love you."
"Love you too, honey. Bye."
v – Incubus (2)
You manage to score a window seat next to Irdu when the stewardess asks for volunteers to sit in the exit row, and you spend the whole flight chatting. His eyes grow no less fascinating, and his smile and kindness never fade. The whole time, you stick to small talk. You don’t bring up past loves or relationships, terrified that you’ll come across as too bold, too desperate, or that he’ll say you’re not his type. Anyway, you’re enjoying just talking for now, and you don’t want that to stop.
You repeat your mother’s advice in your head like a mantra: Be yourself. Don’t worry. Be yourself. Don’t worry. Be yourself. Don’t worry.
So you do, and you don’t, until the plane’s sinking into the vibrant sunset of an Edinburgh evening and he still hasn’t offered his phone number or made any move to kiss you. By the time the plane’s taxiing up to the arrival gate, you’re petrified, unable to even reply as he smiles one last time, says, "It was nice talking to you, Alice," and reaches overhead to pull down his carry-on.
You sit there, still buckled in, as the rest of the passengers filter past the edge of your vision in fits and starts. And then you sit some more, eyes closed, head leaned back in your seat, until at last you feel a hand on your shoulder, gently shaking you. It’s Irdu, you think, your heart skipping a beat; he’s come back for you after all.
But then a barrage of strong perfume hits your nose, and when you open your eyes, it’s the stewardess’s plastic smile that greets you instead of Irdu’s warmth. "Miss," she tells you, "it’s time to wake up. We’ve landed."
"Thanks," you mutter, then pick up your purse and shuffle off the plane. You know you ought to send your mother or VaNessa a text, but you just can’t muster the energy.
Irdu isn’t waiting for you at the top of the ramp; he doesn’t help you haul your bulging suitcases off the carousel; he is conspicuous in his absence as you wrestle them through the double doors on the way to the car rental place. You’ve almost given up on ever meeting him a second time when you see him standing by a taxi under the international arrivals sign, as if he’s waiting for someone. As if he’s waiting for you.
"Alice," he shouts when he spots you, waving one arm madly above his head. "Alice Mitchell!"
He jogs across the walkway without waiting for the traffic lights to change, ignoring the angry honks and the hand gestures of drivers. You feel the heat rising in your cheeks: He’s causing a scene for you—plain old ordinary you. Thank you Mom, you think, knowing you’d never have dared talk to him so naturally without her advice. You try not to grin too stupidly, imagining where things will go from here: You’ll invite him to visit Loch Ness together, he’ll fall so deeply for you he’ll propose before you’re due to go back home. You’ll say yes, of course, and then there’ll be the wedding to plan, grandkids for mom. Everything you’ve always wanted, and that you never dared hope for—not fully. Maybe he’ll even turn out to be some kind of royalty.
Irdu takes you up in a bone-crushing hug, and you realize with a jolt he’s still talking. He has been the whole time, in a giddy, too-loud voice you can’t quite reconcile with his casual cool aboard the airplane. "—to thank you for," he’s saying. "That he never would have had the courage to accept who he really was if he hadn’t run into you again."
"Um," you manage to reply, thinking that there’s something odd about his phrasing.
"I knew your name sounded familiar, but I just couldn’t place you. Then when I called him I mentioned you, and he said you used to date, and I just knew I had to stay here and thank you."
"Ah…" That familiar feeling in your stomach again.
"I’m going over to his hotel once this business trip he’s on is done, and then we’re going to take the train all the way down through England and across the channel to Paris. The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre—it’ll be ever so romantic!"
You cough around the lump in your throat. "He?"
"Yeah," he says, "Grant." He looks down with those strange cat-slit eyes as if he’s seeing you for the first time. "Hey, you okay?"
You want to scream at him, to tell him Grant’s engaged to some lithe, pretty bitch of a Japanese woman. That there’s no way he’s gay. You want to shout and rant and cry, to tear great clumps of your hair out and shove them down Irdu’s handsome, kind, smug, stupid throat.
Instead, you sigh. "Yeah," you say. You give him another hug, just a small one—letting yourself daydream for just a second longer as his arms close around you, wreathing you in his subtle cologne-and-firesmoke scent. Like having one last dance with a long-lost love. Then you look up at him and say, "I’m okay."
"You sure? I have a handkerchief somewhere," he says, fumbling through his pants pockets.
"No, it’s fine. I’m fine. I’m happy for the both of you. It’s so wonderful to find the one you’re meant for. Tell Grant I said…" You almost say I’m sorry for everything, but you’re not, not really, and anyway it wouldn’t sound right. "… congratulations," you finish, lamely.
And then, before Irdu can say anything more, you turn away, snatch up your luggage, and stumble across the road as the lights turn red, trying to pretend that the blurriness of everything is because it always rains in Scotland. That it has nothing to do with the tears in your eyes.
vi – Loch Ness
You drive in a daze, not really noticing where you are, where you’re going. It takes an hour before you realize you haven’t texted Nessa to let her know you landed. The rental needs gas anyway, so you pull out into a dingy motorway service area which boasts a burger place and a convenience store.
There’s this tall, muscular werewolf in a kilt filling up a Land Rover at the next pump over, and he smiles and looks your way as you get out of your rental. You smile back, heart beating fast, then catch what you’re doing and laugh. What would Mom say about this? you wonder.
After you fill up your tank and get a coffee, you send Nessa a message. Hey, just passing through Perth. Sorry I didn’t text earlier.
‘s all right. I’ll see you in a few hours. There’s a car park off the motorway near the loch South of town. Text me again when you’re there and I’ll come out to meet you.
You sure? The sun’s already going down.
Time doesn’t matter. I’m a night owl and all. 🙂
You go back to your car and merge back into traffic, no longer as dazed. Who cares about "Mister Right"? you think. Be yourself. Don’t worry. You find a radio station playing EDM, crank up the volume, and blast through the darkness of the autumn evening with your windows down and your hair blowing out behind you.
The air is thick with fog when you finally pass a road sign for Drumnadrochit, the town where your guest house is located. It’s black as pitch already, so you pull into the lot Nessa told you about and text her to ask if she still wants to meet.
I’ll be up in a mo, she replies.
You step out of your car and stretch until your spine pops, then rub your eyes and look around. There’s a half-ruined castle a little further south, illuminated with spotlights so bright you have to blink and look away until your night vision comes back. The loch itself is covered in slowly drifting banks of fog. They cast strange, unreal shadows on the water, clearing occasionally to give you glimpses of thickly forested hills which are eerily sharp in the light of a waxing gibbous moon. The air smells faintly of rain-soaked pine, with some stronger earthy smell underneath it you can’t quite place. There’s no one nearby you can see.
Hey, you text Nessa, how long’s a mo?
Your phone stays silent, but from out on the loch comes a lowing, soft and deep and sonorous, like whale song mixed with a wolf’s howl. You grin—you’d suspected this for a while now.
"Nessa!" you shout, half-laughing, cupping your hands around your mouth. "I’ll be right in!"
But first, there’s something you have to do. You take out your phone and send a quick e-mail to Mom: Just got to my guest house. Tell you all about it when I get back. Love you! Alice.
Then you shuck off your clothes and step into the water. It’s ice cold against your skin, and everything you didn’t know you always wanted.