The Chartreuse Monster

by Ada Hoffmann

Light filled the convention centre. It poured in through multicolored glass, dodged the latticed rafters, and shone down on the Chartreuse Monster. Rough fins jutted down at strange angles from the Monster’s body. Bristly ridges shadowed its inanimate eyes and profuse antennae stuck out over the bulging, fang-filled mouth. Indrani tried to ignore it, but willpower and attention span shrank as her sleep debt grew, and the monster’s presence nagged at her.

The artist’s alley smelled like ink and metal and soap-deprived bodies, but it looked like a fairyland, she thought. A very loud, bright, crowded fairyland with sketches and digital paintings in every nook. A few yards away, a scruffy cartoonist sat signing things, and his devotees lined up filling half the room. Indrani was hanging out here with Quinn, trying to catch her breath between panels on astrobiology and military ethics so she’d have energy left for the dance in the evening. But Quinn wasn’t helping, and neither was the monster.

“What is it, anyway?” she kept asking.

“A chartreuse monster,” said Quinn, absorbed in someone else’s art book. He flipped through a series of demonesses and harpies, paused on a mermaid. “That’s what. Why are you so annoying?”

Quinn’s aura was thick and chunky and nervous. Worry streamed out of his skin and made dark, ugly clouds all around him. Quinn was worried no one would buy his art, and he’d be out several hundred dollars for admission and transportation – dollars he couldn’t really afford. Indrani had liked his art when she saw it online. It was full of swooshy, dynamic lines and deep colors, and she liked those. In real life, though, it was all covered with his aura. When she touched it, she could feel faint, spongy remnants of him on her fingertips, and she got queasy.

There was no way to explain all that in words Quinn would understand.

“You’re just tense,” said Indrani.

I’m tense?” said Quinn. “You’re freaking out all the way here because of Laska, and then you have a nervous breakdown when we get here because of Laska, and now you’re freaking out because of a stupid paper-maché gimmick, and I’m the one who’s tense?”

“I’m going over here,” said Indrani.

“Here” was a more or less random direction. Almost everyone in the building was getting chunky or wavy by now. To one side, four girls in superhero outfits sat chatting, sipping coffee, but their auras strobed painfully bright with nervous tension. In another direction, three bearded fanboys with stuffed shoulder dragons argued with each other. Their auras spun, bobbed, and swung like drunkards. There was an oddly strong current of happiness under it all, for most of them, but no peace. Indrani was hungry for peace.

She checked her bag and wandered into the main art show, though it wasn’t that much less chaotic than the alley. She found the least objectionable corner and fixed her eyes on a lunar landscape. The bidsheet was filled for this one, and the artist was doing well. There was pride here, mixed with relief. That might be enough for now. She pictured her feet in the lunar sand and the quiet, the absolute stillness. She took a deep breath.

Just above the moon painting hung a print of a spaceport bustling with life, in all the colors, textures, and energies Indrani was trying to avoid. She didn’t want to look at the spaceport, but the bright characters drew her in. They looked familiar.

“You like it?” said a woman behind her.

Indrani turned around. Pride and relief shone out of the woman’s pockmarked skin, along with gentleness.

“It’s nice,” she said. She was relieved to realize this was the truth, for once. She pointed to the spaceport. “It reminds me of the station in Matuta’s Truth.”

The artist crossed her arms. “Freakin’ Laska. But yeah, that’s what I was going for, too, more or less.”

“That book saved my life,” said Indrani.

She said it half to spite Quinn, who’d warned her in no uncertain terms not to talk about Laska anymore. She also said it because of the artist’s aura, because she looked like she’d get it, like she wanted the connection.

“Yeah?” said the artist.

Her aura gave a warm little pulse. Empathy. Good. A relief, saying this to someone who got it.

“Laska understood how everything is. How crazy it gets. But he never lost hope. He wrote about bookworms and misfits and magical people, and I felt like if they could get through all that shit that happened in his books and still turn out okay, then maybe I…” She looked down, rubbed her wrists. “I wanted to tell him that. While he was here. I thought he deserved to know.”

The artist shook her head. “I feel bad for the guy. All that money, but no family, no kids, no wife. I just hope he has a good priest. And someone to read him his fan mail.”

“Yeah,” said Indrani. And that thought made her stomach do a lonely little flip, so she slunk away. She sat next to Quinn and thought about death, and how it made even less sense than a chartreuse monster. The monster still stared at her, implacable and inanimate, and she couldn’t tear her mind away.

*

Abraham Z. N. Laska was the whole reason Indrani had gone to this stupid convention. There was Quinn, too, but honestly she hadn’t liked Quinn enough to drive across the country just to meet him. The whole way, she thought about Laska to keep herself sane, while her brother Swaran’s aura jangled impatiently in the driver’s seat. Swaran’s best friend’s aura kept shifting from green to white and back, fighting off nausea, and the three strangers who took up the rest of the van got progressively grumpier as the trip went on. Indrani repeated her plans in her head like a mantra, trying to block out everything else. She was going to meet Laska. She’d get him to sign her books. She’d get her picture taken with him. She’d tell him how much he had meant to her all these years. He’d smile and nod and sign things and not even notice, because he probably got people telling him that all the time, but hell, at least she’d have said it to him. At least she’d have seen his face.

She wondered what color Laska’s aura would be. She figured probably blue. A gentle blue, but a deep blue, a wise blue.

“Not a word about Laska,” said Quinn when he joined the caravan, six hours in. “Seriously. I have heard all of your rants about him before.”

Quinn was already getting lumpy at the edges. Indrani decided she had liked him a lot better online, as an elfin avatar with a bow and arrow.

“Whatever,” said Indrani. “You’re a fan, too, you know.”

“I’m in the actual fan club,” said Quinn. Indrani was not. They had been over this, online, many times.

Indrani hunched her shoulders against the seat of the car. She’d never written him a letter, either. She’d been too shy. But that hardly mattered now. This time would make up for everything.

Quinn wouldn’t leave her alone, though. “You could have joined if you cared so much.”

“I just never really saw the point of a club,” said Indrani.

“Point?” said Quinn. “Does there need to be a point? I’ll show you the point of my arrows. That’s a point!”

“Not as pointy as a sword.”

“Know what’s pointier? A shatter spell!”

“That’s not pointy,” said Indrani. “The shards left over after are pointy, maybe.”

As long as she could keep him in game speak, Quinn was okay.

*

The real problem started when they got to the convention centre. Early-arriving fans milled in a crowd around the registration desk, and their auras were dark, disappointed, angry.

“What’s going on?” said Indrani.

Quinn blinked at her. “What’s what? That’s the registration desk.” He didn’t have auras to go by, and he hadn’t got close enough yet to see their faces.

“They’re upset,” said Indrani.

“They look fine to me,” said Quinn. “Ugh, you’re so weird. Look, I’ll just go up and hold everyone’s place, but you better be there when I need your ID.”

“Okay,” said Indrani.

Quinn went up, stood in line, chatted with the people next to him. Indrani watched his aura. It flickered and dimmed, and he abruptly broke out of the line, stumbling back to her.

“Laska’s not here,” he said.

“What?” said Indrani.

“He’s not coming,” said Quinn.

What?” said Indrani.

Quinn explained. His aura didn’t grate the way most people’s auras did when they lied. Still, Indrani had to check with the desk herself before she believed him.

“But he was in remission,” she reminded Quinn. “Getting better. All the press releases said so. All your stupid fan club bulletins said so.”

He had apparently failed to get better.

Laska had lied, it seemed, about how serious it was. He hadn’t wanted to worry the public. He had been hoping to make his guest of honor speech and talk at panels and sign autographs and get pictures taken and make everyone happy, and lie, and pretend things were fine. A hard thing to do when you can’t sit unsupported anymore.

He was in a hospice somewhere, fixing loose ends. And not, as promised, at the convention.

“Oh, don’t give me that look,” said Quinn. “It’s not my fault. I’m upset, too.”

“I paid all this money,” Indrani mumbled. It was a stupid, selfish thing to say, but she was feeling stupid with shock. “I sat in a car for two days.”

“I know, I know,” said Quinn. “Look, Gaiman and Czerneda and Stross and all those other guys will still be there. I’ll still be selling art. We’ll still have fun. Just don’t cry on me, okay?” Quinn’s aura wavered and lumped up. “Seriously, don’t. I don’t know what to do. Oh, god.” He looked over at Swaran. “She’s crying. Do something.”

“I’m not,” said Indrani. “I’m not crying.”

“Come on,” said Swaran, putting an arm around her shoulder. “We’re gonna go check out the hotel rooms and get you some quiet time.”

“I’m not crying,” said Indrani.

*

It was the last night. Indrani had the free books, the action figures, the silly pinback buttons, the photographs of cosplayers, the autographs from people she liked only slightly less than Laska. She had flirted unnecessarily, asked insightful questions at science and worldbuilding panels, danced until she felt sick, watched prestigious awards handed out like candy. She was still not satisfied.

The Chartreuse Monster still bothered her. If everything else had been okay, she might have shrugged and let the mystery stay a mystery. But she was exhausted and bombarded and she had missed her last chance to see Laska. She wasn’t going to let another last chance go past.

She waited, looking at the ceiling in the darkness, until Swaran and the other people in the hotel room were asleep. Then she slipped out of bed, took a key, went to the door, closed it carefully behind her, and padded in her pajamas down the curling stairs.

The door to the artist’s alley was shut tight, with a “Closed” sign, but it wasn’t locked. Indrani pushed the door open as quietly as she could. She shuffled forwards through the darkness, reaching forward until her hands met the monster’s rough carapace. She leaned her head against it. She imagined she could almost hear some indefinable hum from inside, like machinery. Or like breathing. She pulled back a little so she could see the thing, moving her hands across it. Its hide was coarse and papery.

It was, she realized, easier to see than it ought to be. It almost had an aura. Not quite. Not the chaotic splashes of aura she found in art shows. The monster was dim and diffuse. It had been built by many hands. But it had been built with love. Love and fear.

One of her hands abruptly slipped across a panel. A recessed one, invisible from a distance.

She snuck around the side of the monster, peered at the thing. It was an alphabetical keypad. Like you’d use to put in a password.

That was insane. What would they need a password for? But she was too tired and too crazy and too curious to leave it alone. She tried “abcdefg”. That didn’t work. She tried “password” and “pass123”. Those didn’t work either.

And then it hit her.

There were monsters in Laska’s books, in places. There had been one, a chartreuse one, in one of his very first. Plasticity. An obscure book from before he was famous, one it was hard to find these days. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t remembered. She’d never pictured the monster looking remotely like this. But it had been a good monster. Strange and maddening and alien and dangerous, but ultimately a sweet thing, a hopeful one. Like everything Laska did.

That was what the monster was. A tribute. Someone in love the way fans fell in love had built the thing at the last minute, as a distant second best to having Laska there himself. A coded message to those who knew enough to care.

Plasticity swung open a hidden door in the monster’s side. Too tired and too crazy and too curious to leave it alone, she stepped through.

The moment she opened the door, a small fluorescent light sprang to life, illuminating the inside of the monster. Art hung laundrylike all over, fluttering slightly in the breeze from hidden ventilation slats in the ceiling. Good art and terrible art dangled in front of her, all styles of art, with no rhyme or reason to it at all. Even Quinn’s swooshy, dynamic lines and deep colors had found their way into a corner. Fan club submissions, she supposed.

The rest of the monster was a mess of wires, lights, tubes, monitors, and IV lines. And on a small, neat mattress, plugged in to way too many wires for any one person, lay a wizened little man. A man with a blue aura, a wise kind of blue. He was propped half-upright, gazing sleepily at a tilted viewscreen in front of him. A night nurse sat on a stool at the other side, reading a paperback novel; a curtain to her side half-obscured a chemical toilet and a dispenser of hand sanitizer.

Indrani’s hand went to her mouth. “I’m sorry.” She backed away. “I’ll go. I… I shouldn’t have… I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay,” said the night nurse. She put a bookmark in her novel and set it down. “He said he wouldn’t mind if someone figured it out. You’re not the first.”

Indrani shook her head. She wondered if she was too tired, if she’d fallen asleep back in her room after all. “But how -“

The night nurse shrugged. “No family. Nothing tying him down. But lots of money. He wanted to be here, whatever way he could. I think it’s a little silly, as last requests go, but it’s what he wanted, so he made it happen.” She gestured to the viewscreen, which was black – but an odd kind of black. Not a turned-off black. A black that said it looked out into the darkened convention center, even now.

“He sees everything,” said the night nurse.

Indrani looked at the viewscreen, and she looked down at the man. He turned his head ever so slightly in her direction and met her eyes. Opened his mouth, then shut it. Couldn’t speak anymore. But he put out a hand and beckoned weakly.

Indrani dropped to her knees next to the mattress.

“I want you to know,” she said, “that Matuta’s Truth saved my life.”

*

Abraham Z. N. Laska died that weekend, surrounded by his family: the misfits and bookworms and magical people. His friends and those who had known him held a service the following week, after Indrani’s brother had already dragged her home. She held a secret minute of silence for him, alone in her room. Through the grief, she was strangely content. She’d done what she needed to.

Laska’s books survived him, as the best books do. And so, in a way, did the Chartreuse Monster. Hollowed out and cleaned, with the cameras removed, it reappeared in corners at that convention for years. Every once in a while, as someone passed, they would look at it and pause, and smile to themselves. Sadly. Fondly. Knowingly.

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