Last month, I asked for broad story topics so I could make the official giveaway a free story that you helped me generate.
Thanks to those of you who sent suggestions! Here's a list of what I got:
Those are all great, but here are my reasons for dismissing a couple of them:
- Sleep paralysis
- Dead wolves
- Murders on a train going cross country in the winter in the mountains with a ghost/ ghosts.
- You're a serial killer who knows you'll make a mistake one day. You're trying to control yourself - to stay under the radar. But your perfect victim walks into your life. What do you do?
- The Man Who Walks Away From His Shadow
- A wood Carver that carves people that she sees in her dreams and the people who buy them gets a visit by the person whom the carving is of
- A Greek gorgon in New York (or other modern city of your choice)
That left four ideas that I rolled around in my head and thought about...and finally realized that one of them fit so perfectly as an addendum to my book Monsters of L.A. that I had to do it. So...thank you, Dan'l Danehy-Oakes, you're the big winner and here's the prize:
- I've already done a story about murders on a train in an icy mountain setting ("Bitter Shadows" from Madness on the Orient Express)
- The serial killer and wood carver ideas are too fleshed out (and frankly, Mary Ann, you should write that serial killer idea yourself because it's cool!)
Stheno can’t hold in a harsh laugh when Perseus slays Medusa.
She doesn’t care if any of the other customers are irritated; these days most of them are too busy looking at their phones anyway.
The movie was bad before this, but the ridiculous computer-generated monstrosity being decapitated by a pretty man-child in plastic armor is too much for her. Her sister was both more terrifying and more beautiful; the real Perseus was also a lovelier creature than his current cinematic counterpart.
After all, his father was the king of the gods.
Stheno is nearly overcome by a sudden wash of sadness as she thinks of Zeus, and of her own parents, Ceto and Phorcys; of her other sisters and brothers; of the accursed Athena, who had assisted Perseus; and the rest of the gods and heroes she once moved among, all gone now, dead or faded or hidden away. She thought, a few years ago, that she’d glimpsed the Maenads, playing loud music in a video with more views than it deserved, but otherwise she might be the last of the divine Greeks.
Well, and maybe Perseus.
Stheno studies the figure now strutting across the screen, holding a bulging cloth sack that contains Medusa’s head, and a sword still dripping blood. The thought of Perseus causes her blood to boil and her head-snakes to writhe and hiss beneath the scarf she wears. Perseus, the murderer, who she and Euryale chased three thousand years ago; Perseus, the deceiver who escaped them with a helm of darkness given to him by Hades. Soon after, Euryale gave up the search for Perseus, but Stheno didn’t. Mythology never recorded the time she caught up to him, years later, but nearly found her own head severed by his adamantine sword. She set aside her plans for vengeance after that, although the burning of it never left her. When she finally heard of the death of Perseus, she rejoiced.
But Perseus – the first great Mycenaean hero – hadn’t given up so easily. A hundred years after his death, Stheno had seen him from afar, leading a great army, young again, his name new…but with the same eyes that could turn men to stone she’d recognized him in an instant. When he’d died in battle before she could reach him, she’d once again cursed her failure.
But he’d shown up again, in another century. And again. And again. Always the hero, always in a different form, with different name, but still him. Sometimes he died before she could reach him; other times she lost his trail. Once he''d injured her badly with the aid of the last centaur, and she'd been forced to flee; she might be immortal, but she felt pain. Stheno continued in her own body while Perseus was reborn generation after generation, always taunting her with the promise of retribution she never achieved.
And so she’d pursued him over the millennia. She learned to walk among humans, to hide her head beneath scarves and hats, her eyes behind glasses, or simply kept lowered. Upon occasion, if she needed to appease her anger or her material needs, she removed her glasses and locked gazes with a victim, enjoying the power that filled her as she silenced a screaming man forever, watching his skin turn to white marble or gray granite. Stheno had learned to be cautious with this particular pleasure, however; it wouldn’t do to leave a trail of uncannily-realistic statues leading straight to her.
Stheno watches the ridiculous film to the end. As she exits the theater into the wet Seattle night, doing her best to stay away from other patrons, she feels quite certain the actor playing Perseus is Perseus. She’s seen his soul change slightly over the long years, whittled away with each passing reincarnation, lessened as each fresh era displayed less use for heroes, until he’d dwindled down to the vain, useless fop she’d just seen on screen.
Still, she’s never found him this easily before. Despite his stature in the movie business, she knows she could get to him. He doesn’t know what or who he really is, so he’d be easy to kill.
This time, at last, she might find her revenge.
Daniel is especially tired tonight. He worked at the restaurant until 7 p.m., clearing tables and hustling dishes, then he rode his bike home as fast as he could since his mama wouldn’t be home from her job until after 9 p.m., and his Tia Lupe would be bored watching his six-year-old sister Alicia. He’ll send Tia home, then do his homework while he gets Alicia fed and into bed. Normally he can get a few hours to himself, from ten until midnight, when he drifts off to sleep, but he’s exhausted after what happened at school today.
He stood up to the bullies threatening his friend Ken.
Ken is small, not good with confrontation, an easy target for the class bullies. Daniel has always stood up for him, but today there were three. One – Raul – is big, broad-shouldered, without an ounce of compassion or regard for another human being. Daniel ducked his first punch, but took a blow to the shoulder before his charge caught Raul and his two minions off-guard. Raul went down hard, got back up swearing vengeance, but Daniel was more worried about Ken.
Ken was okay. And no teachers saw the fight, so Daniel needn't fear disciplinary action.
Ken called him a hero today. It wasn’t the first time Daniel had heard that. He didn’t really think of himself in that way.
After Alicia is in bed and Mama is home, Daniel looks at his shoulder in the bathroom mirror – it’s purple, inches wide.
His phone bings just then; a text has come in. It’s Ken, checking on him. He snaps a quick picture of his shoulder and sends it back to his friend. “Dude that is LOCO,” Ken types back, and Daniel isn’t sure if that’s a compliment or Ken is just grossed out.
The rest of Ken’s text is better: his Uncle Lee says he can get them work as movie extras tomorrow night. It’s an action movie starring Justin Day. They have to be at a rock quarry in the Valley at 6 p.m. for an all-night shoot. It pays $150.
Daniel’s never made that much money in a single day. Even though he’s tired, he stays up to text the restaurant and Tia Lupe. His aunt is excited to hear he’ll be in a movie with Justin Day, star of Sword of the Gods.
Daniel, though, is happy that he’ll be able to add a three-digit check to his college fund.
Stheno swims south from Seattle, gliding through the Pacific faster than anything else in the water. Her parents, after all, were sea monsters.
She enjoys her time in the ocean, but it also saddens her (as so much else does these days). She can remember when the world was still new, the water so clear you could see for miles. In those days it was inhabited by nereids and gods, by great Poseidon with his trident that was longer than the first ships. It was an enchanted place. Now the depths are murky, full of humankind’s ugly offerings, inhabited by nothing more magical than dying starfish.
She reaches the shore of Malibu before dawn. Crawling up out of the surf like some evolving primordial organism, she finds a wealthy house before her.
Thirty minutes later, she’s leaving the house, dressed in designer clothing and driving an expensive car. She laughs as she imagines the owner’s friends coming to see her and exclaiming over the incredible likeness of the marble statue they’ll find in the bedroom even as they wonder where she’s gone.
Stheno’s been to Los Angeles before, but it’s been years and it – like everything else – has changed. It’s slower, dirtier, more crowded. Still she can sense her prey ahead of her.
This promises to be an excellent visit.
Daniel and Ken arrive at the location at 5 p.m. The guard at the front gate of the quarry frowns – “You guys are early” – but waves them in.
They arrive at the heart of the rock quarry to find that the central pit has been transformed into a rave, with tiers of dancers and lights lining the sides of the quarry. Daniel’s not much of a movie fan (who has time for movies?), but he’s impressed by the way the quarry has been remade.
“Extra work’s easy,” Uncle Lee told them. “You just do what they tell you, and you get a free meal and a little money. What’s not to love?”
He did warn them about the waiting around – apparently there was a lot of boring down time between takes – but Daniel doesn’t mind because he’s got books loaded onto his phone and he can study then.
They check in with an assistant director, who briefly explains the scene (they’ll be positioned near the top of the quarry, swaying to music when the hero, played by Justin Day, comes in looking for the bad guy). He tells them they don’t have to speak, just look like they’re enjoying a rave. Daniel says he can do that.
At 6:30 p.m., Justin Day arrives. Daniel’s mildly surprised – he’s not as big as he looks onscreen, and he seems kind of tired (“Hungover more like,” Ken notes with a smirk). They’ve been told not to approach Mr. Day. That’s fine with Daniel – he’s not interested anyway. He notes only that the star goes to his own trailer at the top of the quarry, and then Daniel returns to his biology textbook.
Uncle Lee was right – making movies is boring.
It’s night before Stheno finds the location. She leaves the car on a side street nearby, adjusts her scarf and glasses, and walks along the fenced perimeter of the quarry until she comes to a place where the lighting is dim and the traffic light. It’s an easy matter for her to scale the chain link and barbed wire, and then she drops down on the other side.
The quarry is big and dark, but it’s not hard to follow the lights and sound to where the filming is happening. Stheno has to admit the redressed quarry is spectacular, with a hundred young extras gyrating along its walls. She glances at a row of trailers parked nearby, and feels her blood heat up when she sees a name plate on one:
An amplified voice booms out. “Cut!”
The music stops playing. The dancers quit. A knot of voices is raised in argument. As Stheno steps back into shadows, a man walks up out of the quarry, moving with rapid rage. He goes into the trailer designated for Justin Day and slams the door behind him.
Stheno stands back, watching, as other men pour out of the quarry. One of them pounds on the door of the trailer. “Justin, you can’t do this. We’ve got to get this scene in the can tonight. We’re burning money that’s not in the budget!”
From within the trailer, Justin shouts, “Fuck your budget! I’m not shooting this shit until those lines are changed!”
The man gives up; turning away from the trailer, he converses quickly with the other men. One of them throws a script to the ground and strides off furiously. The other two go after him.
She hears more voices coming from within the pit, but no one else comes up.
It’s time for her to meet Justin Day.
“Wow, dude, Justin Day is a fucking jerk.”
That’s Ken, pulling Daniel away from learning about mitochondria. “Huh?”
“Didn’t you see that little shitstorm he just threw?”
Daniel didn’t pay much attention. “Oh. Yeah.”
Ken glances in the direction of the trailers. “What a pussy.” Laughing, Ken gives Daniel a playful shove. “You could so take him.”
Daniel smiles, but he’s already turned away. He’s more interested in cell structure than Justin Day.
Stheno doesn’t really breathe, so there’s no need for her to take a deep breath before entering the trailer. But she nevertheless hesitates, more to relish this moment than compose herself.
The long hunt ends tonight.
She opens the door and steps up into the trailer.
Justin Day is sprawled on a bunk inside, playing a mindless game on his phone. He doesn’t look up as she enters. “Are those lines changed yet? I hope so because otherwise you can just turn your ass around and walk right back out.”
When there’s no response, he looks up. “Who the fuck are you?”
“My name is Stheno.”
“Ohhhhkaaay.” He utters an exaggerated sigh and sets the phone aside. “And whose agent are you?”
“I am no one’s agent except perhaps…death’s.”
He gapes for a few seconds before picking up the phone again. “Uh-huh. Guess it’s time to call security –”
In an instant, Stheno has his phone in her hand. She flings it into a corner of the trailer. With satisfaction, she sees the first flicker of fear cross Perseus/Justin’s handsome features. Then his arrogance and petulance return, and he rises from the bunk, trying to make himself big like any less-sophisticated predator. “Oh, you wanna play rough?” He reaches out a hand for her.
In that instant she tears the scarf from her head. Dozens of snakes lunge at him, hissing, their hinged jaws open wide. He gasps and staggers back, colliding with a table, stumbling, barely catching himself. “How…how are you…”
His lips curl up in a smile as he draws himself up. “Oh, I get it: a Sword of the Gods fan, right? Hey, I gotta give ya credit – those snakes are good. Really good.”
“Shut up, Perseus,” Stheno says. She hisses like one of her snakes.
“I’m not Perseus, you crazy bitch.”
She laughs before saying, “You don’t even know, you fool. You are Perseus, or at least what’s left of him. Granted, your soul has withered over the centuries, but you’re still the slayer of my sister. I’ve chased you, through all your different forms, but you always eluded me…until tonight.”
She’s pleased to see real fear in him now. Some part of him hears and knows that she’s telling the truth.
As she lowers her glasses, he screams.
Ken is occupying his time hitting on a lovely young woman who is telling him that she’s only doing extra work until she can get speaking roles. Daniel hasn’t eaten since morning, and he figures Ken would like a little space, so he excuses himself to go in search of the craft service table he’s heard about.
He finds it located near the trailers – two long tables full of vegetables, candy, and chips. He’s just reaching for a protein bar when a scream from nearby stops him.
Daniel’s first thought is that it’s his friend, but he doesn’t slow down even when he realizes it’s not. He forgets the free food to race to the source.
The scream is coming from inside Justin Day’s trailer.
No one else is coming.
Daniel runs forward, flings the door open, steps in – and stops at what he sees.
Stheno removes the glasses and looks into Justin Day’s/Perseus’s eyes.
Their gazes meet.
Justin begins to harden.
Mad joy threatens to overwhelm Stheno, but she can’t risk turning away for even a second. She trembles with released fury as Justin stops screaming, stops moving, his skin altering, turning gray, his arms held out before him, arms now made from unyielding stone.
Stheno wants to howl, dance, ride the night winds as a mad shrieking thing, join the Maenads in their demented revels – but she hears something behind her, a small human sound.
She turns, and there’s a young man there, halfway in the door, staring in panting disbelief at the granite figure that was once the mighty Perseus. The boy starts to look up at her. She doesn’t know who he is, but her bloodlust has been unleashed and she prepares to bind this one’s soul to eternal stone next.
Something tells Daniel to look away. Whether it’s because of that scene in Sword of the Gods or some far older instinct, he doesn’t know, but he drops his gaze, even though he wants to look up (did he see real snakes on her head?). He wishes he had a weapon, something to defend himself with. He should turn and run, let the crew’s security handle this, but running’s just never been his style.
The boy looks away.
Stheno utters a small cry of disappointment and steps forward, ready to force him to look. It would be easy; she’s done it so many times before.
But something stops her.
She looks at the young man, who now stands resolutely in the doorway, blocking her exit. His head is lowered, his chest is heaving, but he’s silent, strong. Strong in a way that she hasn’t seen a long time. Strong in the way that Perseus once was, before most of him was hacked away by progress.
The boy is a hero.
Stheno finds herself looking down the long future to come, when there will be no more purpose, no Perseus to keep her in the forward slipstream of time. She thinks of her sister, Euryale, also immortal (as Medusa wasn’t); she remembers how Euryale gave up, traveled down to the bottom of the deepest crack in the oceans and stayed there, abandoning the world. How long will it be now before she joins her sister, seeking that release, that oblivion?
There is a new hero to pursue.
“What’s your name?”
Daniel has no reason to answer the monster, but his tongue betrays him. “Daniel Ortiz.”
“Well, Daniel Ortiz…” Out of his peripheral vision, he sees her moving toward him. He tenses as she reaches out, but her hand is moving to her own face. “I’ve put my glasses back on. You can look up.”
He shouldn’t, but he does.
She’s smiling as she ties the scarf back around her head, quieting and hiding the writhing serpents. “Daniel Ortiz, I’m sparing you this time but we will meet again. Study your mythology and remember my name: Stheno. Next time, you’ll need to be prepared because I won’t be so generous again. Especially not if you come after me.”
She pushes him aside so she can leave, and he lets her. As she’s stepping from the trailer, she pauses to speak softly into his ear, causing him to shiver. “Look at Perseus over there, remember his fate and remember my name: Stheno.”
She’s gone then.
Moving on legs of ice water, Daniel staggers from the trailer, his mind struggling to parse what has just happened. He tries to grab hold of the sense that he’s stepped into some age-old cosmic drama, that he has a part to play – an important part, a part that Justin Day wasn’t up to.
His life has just been unveiled. He’s been told what to do, and he’ll do it.
He’ll be ready.