Monstrous Femme

Humans are cursed with an overwhelming drive to live. To extend and preserve life. Living is familiar, all we understand how to do. So, of course, we fight to hold onto it. And struggle with losing what we are forbidden to keep. There is so much fear in the unknown, the stage after this life on earth, that we are willing to endure suffering as the price for breathing.

My cruel journey began with witnessing my elder brother, my caretaker, become one of the terrible creatures wreaking havoc in the city. Something that was no longer human, but walked in his skin. A ghoul with no fear of heaven or death. A devourer of life that remained unsatiated. My loving brother abetted my escape from the city at the cost of his mortal soul.

Weeks were spent walking, hiding, and staying as quiet as a mouse. But with my food and water gone, and my energies severely depleted, surrendering to death and abandoning my plight was appealing. Logical, even. However, I could not let go of myself. And I couldn’t become a senseless, ever-hungry monster. I was determined to stay alive for my brother’s sake. For his sacrifice to not have been made in vain.

By some miracle, I stumbled upon an untainted house on my trek across the countryside. I vaguely remembered banging my fists on the front door. I knew I had been in a pitiful state while begging for admittance. Knew that I collapsed into a pair of strong arms before crossing the threshold. And then, in my relief, I plummeted into unconsciousness.

For the first time in a month, I slept in a real bed and was enveloped by clean linens. I was in a secure, soft and warm place. That, in itself, felt like a dream after wandering through a nightmare for so long.

When I awakened, I had nearly forgotten the disorder plaguing the world. The ache still residing in my limbs served as a reminder. And I had no recollection of the physical appearance of my savior. His presence in the bedroom startled me to a degree in which I screamed.

The master of the house sat in an upholstered armchair beside a radiator, across from my bed. His legs were crossed one over the other with his fingers interlaced on his knees. He was unperturbed by my reaction, which oddly settled me. He stared with ice-blue eyes down a large nose on his long face. I pushed myself up in the bed, pulling the blankets up to my chest.

“I’m sorry,” I said, embarrassed by my rude riposte.

“Sorry for what, my dear?” Each of his words was enunciated with a politic tone and velvety voice. The thin lips under his graying, thread-like mustache puckered as he studied me.

There were deep lines around his eyes and enough grays through his neat black hair to convince me he was in his forties. Adding his demeanor to his multi-pieced suit, I presumed him a proper gentleman.

“I didn’t mean to scream at the sight of you, sir,” I explained timidly.

“Hmm.” His lips remained tight. “I suppose I should’ve expected it. I can’t imagine you’ve had a pleasant time out there among the creatures. You still look rather dreadful. I’ll assume you’re hungry?” He stood, and I realized he was most likely the tallest man I had ever encountered. His clothes were indeed fine, clean and well-pressed. But his trousers were two inches too short for his spindly legs. I could count all the buttons on his boot spats.

I nodded in answer to his question, clutching the bedcovers at my collarbone to hide my sullied shift.

“The name is Dr. Arthur Frederick Vonnegan.” He bowed his head and then took a single step toward the bed. “But you may call me Arthur.”

“I’m Elysia.”

A crooked smile stretched across his face.

“Are you journeying to Elysium, my young and fair Elysia?” The words seemed to bubble up from him facetiously.

I shook my head. “I don’t know where I was heading, sir. Just away from the city. Away from the ghouls and death.”

“Hmm.” Arthur’s lips gathered again, and I felt a wave of disappointment from him. “Not much for the Greeks, are we?”

“The Greeks?”

“If you wish to stay, you’ll need a better education.” He sighed. “I simply cannot tolerate company with no culture or ability to discuss a wide range of subjects.”

“I know plenty of things,” I said, knowing my brother had arranged a better education for me than most girls were accustomed to.

The crooked smile returned to his face.

“Time will decide such things.” Arthur jerked his bushy brow. “I believe you were hungry? I have a meal ready in the parlor.” He gestured at the door.

I looked down at myself, remaining hidden under the covers, and felt too indecent to dine with a strange man.

“Very well,” he scoffed and went to the long wooden chest at the foot of the bed. The hinges whined as he opened the lid. A moment later, he closed it and laid a quilted maroon robe along the edge of the bed. “This should do for now. It belonged to my late wife. Please excuse the sizing. She was a bit rounder than you.” He turned on his heels and faced the door.

“Thank you.” I scrambled over the bedcovers and slipped the robe on as quickly and tightly as I could. Three of me might’ve fit inside. But I had also grown thinner since being out on my own.

My bare feet delighted in the carpeted floor. And then I noticed my personal things were absent from the room. “My dress—”

“Yes, those awful articles you seemed to think constituted suitable clothing.” Arthur spun back around. “Oh no, you simply cannot wear such dreadful-looking things around here.” He chuckled.

I pulled a face. Yes, the wear on my outfit was more than desirable, but what other options did I have? It wasn’t as though I could have strolled into a dressmaker’s shop at any point and exchanged my look.

“Come, come.” Arthur opened the door and clicked his heels together. “After you, my dear Elysia.”

I stepped into a hallway with burning sconces along the walls. There was a red theme to the house décor: cherrywood accents, burgundy carpeting, scarlet-patterned wallpapers, and framed art with splashes of red paint. Even the heavy drapes which blocked the windows were a deep shade of crimson. I found it peculiar but who was I to criticize my savior’s taste?

Arthur shut my door and then proceeded down the corridor in a stiff march. I followed behind, taking in every detail. I realized I not only had no remembrance of Arthur but none of the house either. When we descended a wooden staircase with curly iron rails, the master of the house spoke again.

“I hope you’ll be honest enough not to wander around my home,” he said without turning to me. I hurried to traverse the stairs alongside him. “Please note your room was the second door on the right.”

“Of course.” I nodded. “Thank you for the room, sir.” I assumed that meant I could stay and I was filled with relief once more. I was finally safe from the ghouls.

Continuing through the foyer and into a new corridor, Arthur carried on with his tour. He motioned to his left. “This is my library. You’re more than welcome to lose yourself in here.” He paused and I peered in. The room was large, with every wall covered in full bookcases from floor to ceiling. My jaw dropped.

“I’m delighted with your reaction.” Arthur smiled from ear to ear. He resumed his stride and I shadowed. “It was a formal dining room when I purchased the house, but I felt the space was better used for learning.” He sounded smug.

He waved to our right. “The kitchen rooms are there.” We reached the end of the hall. “The parlor is here.” He opened the door and stepped aside, allowing me to enter first.

It looked like a typical dining suite, with a lovely cherrywood table and six matching chairs filling most of the room. Two place settings were at one end of the rectangular table and a third at the opposite end. The drapes were closed in here too, and sconces burned brightly. It was at this point that I wondered the hour, but pushed the thought aside. I lost track of the calendar a long time ago. Every day was filled with death, terror and hopelessness. Time had become inconsequential.

Arthur pulled out a chair, and I sat. He placed himself across from me at the other meal setting. A man, not dressed as finely as my host, came in through a swinging door to my right with a tray.

I wouldn’t have paid our server a second glance had it not been for the hard white plastic mask covering his entire face. My muscles turned rigid, and I could do nothing but stare at him. The masked man placed his tray down on the table before delivering a bowl of steaming soup to Arthur and me.

The mask was molded to fit his face perfectly: there was no sneaking a peek underneath or along the edges. His eyes were hidden too, nearly invisible with the casted restriction. The holes of the modeled nose didn’t appear big enough to allow for easy breathing. And the slit where a mouth should be seemed useless for any function. Holding the mask in place were black ribbons, tied into bows at the back of his head.

I could not imagine it was comfortable to wear.

“Thank you.” Arthur nodded at the masked man. “Elysia, this is my son, Theodore.” He raised a hand toward him.

My words wouldn’t come. I did try to remain polite.

“Theodore, please welcome Elysia to our humble abode.”

“Good evening, Miss Elysia. Welcome.” Theodore’s voice was more baritone than his father’s, but his mouth sounded full and his lips wet. I presumed the mask was hiding some deformity of his jaw. A pang of pity erased my fear.

“Theodore, saliva. Must I tell you every time?” Arthur frowned. “Manners around our guest, young man.”

Theodore nodded as he reached into the pocket of his baggy trousers to retrieve a stained white handkerchief. He turned from us as he lifted the crumpled square to his chin and under the mask.

“I do apologize, my dear Elysia,” Arthur said, still frowning. “I’m afraid this is what my wife left me with.” He gestured at Theodore once more.

“You needn’t scold him, sir, if it’s something he can’t help.” My eyes were on Theodore. He did not stand nearly as tall or lean as his father, but the jet-black hair—not hidden by the mask—matched.

Theodore tucked his handkerchief away and took a seat at the far end of the table.

We ate silently. I couldn’t bring myself to broach any topic appropriate for dinnertime conversation. I found myself distracted by Theodore, who carefully brought his spoon under his mask to eat.

When we finished, Theodore cleared the bowls. He swiftly returned with a second course, but only for Arthur and me. Then he sat at his place at the table, focused on his hands in his lap. I spied the handkerchief thrice more before I finished my meal.

“I prepared a small cake,” Theodore said as he stood, ready to clear our settings once more.

“A cake? Really, Theodore?” Arthur sounded annoyed.

“Father, you said our guest was a girl. Don’t they enjoy sugary confections? Alice ate cake.” Theodore shrank. “I thought after her adventures in the wild, she might enjoy something sweet.”

“Alice?” I looked between father and son.

“You’ll have to excuse Theodore again, my dear Elysia. He hasn’t been socialized well, for which I am not completely at fault given our circumstances. You do understand, don’t you? He loves stories, made-up fictional types, rather than the intellectual readings of—”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?” I interrupted Arthur with a question to Theodore.

“One of my favorites,” he answered, bobbing his head. I could hear the smile in his voice.

“You’ve read it?” Arthur raised an eyebrow at me.

“I have. I can read and write and do a great many things outside of the typical domestic, feminine domain.”

I heard a slushy-sounding laugh from Theodore. He turned away to tend to his face again.

Arthur’s lips were puckered.

“Well, that’s excellent news. I do appreciate an educated woman, despite the unorthodoxy of it.” He placed his elbows on the table and locked his hands together, then rested his chin on top of his fingers. “Do you wish to stay among us, Miss Elysia?”

“Yes sir. With my only other option to live among the ghouls, I would be a fool if I chose to leave.” I leaned over the table. “Am I allowed to stay, sir?”

Arthur’s grin gave me goosebumps.

“I have terms you must agree to,” he said, sitting back in his chair. He placed his folded hands in his lap.

“Of course. I agree to your terms wholeheartedly.”

“You haven’t heard them yet.” He tilted his head and narrowed his eyes.

“Sir, I want to live. And I want to sleep knowing that danger is far away. I don’t want to wonder when my next meal will be. Or if my water is clean enough to drink. Fear that the next choice I make will end me.” My heart was beating hard. “I never want to see a ghoul again.” My voice cracked. The apparition of my brother’s soulless eyes as his jaw chomped mechanically tightened my chest and paralyzed my lungs.

“And you feel safe here? That your needs can be met?”


“You are permitted in your bedroom, the library, the kitchen, and the parlor. The other rooms—especially the cellar—are forbidden. You are not allowed to venture outside or wander the gardens. There is a toilet and bathtub inside the house for your sanitary needs. You’ll take your meals here, with us. And you’ll not question anything you’re given or told to do. I will further your education as I see fit. Do you find the contract agreeable?”

“Yes sir.” I straightened in my chair.

“One final rule: You are never, ever to ask Theodore to remove his mask. Is that understood?” His eyes were cold and wide.

I swallowed audibly. “Yes sir.”

“If you should default on this promise, Miss Elysia, I will send you straight to the flesh-eating ghouls you dread so very much,” he warned.

I did not doubt that he would.




Arthur left me with Theodore to have dessert. The masked man’s witty cake was small and square. Protruding from the baked item was a white card with sloppy black letters: Eat Me. I offered him a taste of his work, but he refused.

I felt I understood Theodore’s desire to escape into fiction. I imagined his little world serving his father wasn’t satisfying. But now we were trapped here together. Neither of us had to be alone anymore.

His creation was truly delicious. After eating the entire confection, I complimented Theodore on a tasty piece of a story. He clapped with delight. The sweetness of the cake and of my pastry chef made my head swirl.

The next several days passed uneventfully. I slept well in my assigned bedroom, wore fresh clothes hastily tailored to my form, and took every meal with Arthur and Theodore. But I hadn’t spent any quality time with either of them. They seemed to disappear during my waking hours, between mealtimes.

I picked my way through the library shelves without anything else to do. And I was rapidly growing restless. As much as I loved reading, I wanted conversation. With my brother stripped from me, I was lonely. I had hoped Theodore might fill his place.

After a full week passed since my arrival, I decided to gain someone’s attention. In between lunch and dinner, I ventured into the empty kitchen. I searched cupboards and closets, nooks, and tall canisters for ingredients to make my own cake. I would surprise my hosts with a dessert and prove I was capable of more than just sitting around a library. Perhaps Arthur would find the time to teach me something academic in an effort to sway me from becoming more industrious.

Theodore appeared in the doorway, most likely summoned by the clamor I created.

“What are you doing, Miss Elysia?” He looked around the kitchen at my trail of curiosity.

“I decided I want cake again. I’ve been here a whole week now. We should mark the occasion,” I declared with my hands on my hips.

Theodore slurped his laugh.

“I can make a cake.” He nodded, then retrieved his handkerchief and turned from me temporarily.

“Why do you . . .? I know I’m not allowed to see, but there was no rule against me asking.” I stepped toward Theodore.

He hunched and shook his head. “Just wasn’t born quite right. Father doesn’t need to be reminded.”

“I would think wearing a mask would draw more attention. It certainly caught mine.” I crept closer.

“I’m sorry it upsets you, Miss Elysia.”

“That’s not what I said at all.” I was standing directly in front of him. I could finally see his eyes. His pupils were large and the irises were a pale shade of gray. “Your eyes are so unusual.”

“I’ll try to keep them off you.” He lowered his head.

“That’s not what I said at all,” I repeated. “Please, stop apologizing and belittling yourself.” I put a hand under his chin to lift his face. He pulled away immediately, stumbling back as though my touch had caused him pain. My hand was left wet.

“Oh no!” He rushed forward, handkerchief at the ready, and began to dry my hand. “You mustn’t tell Father.” He shook his head frantically, panic in his voice.

“I won’t.” I closed my fingers and locked the handkerchief between our hands. “Theodore, are we friends?”

“Friends?” His mask remained aimed at our joined hands. “I’m not sure Father will allow that.”

“Then we could be secret friends. You know what a secret is, don’t you, Theodore?”

Our eyes met.

“Oh, Father has many secrets. I keep them all. There’s no one to tell anyway.” He squeezed my hand. “But now, I suppose there’s you.”

A chill ran down my spine. Theodore squeezed my hand harder. While his grip didn’t hurt me, I spiraled into a state of alarm.

“Theodore, my hand,” I whined, unable to pry myself from him.

“Theodore!” Arthur’s voice boomed from the doorway on the opposite side of the kitchen.

His son’s hand sprang open, and his form cowered.

I clasped my squashed hand to my chest.

Arthur crossed the room swiftly. “What is going on here?” he demanded, a fierceness to his face I had not seen before.

Theodore whimpered.

“I’m fine, sir,” I said, holding out my hand to show him.

Arthur studied it briefly with a raised eyebrow.

“I asked what was going on here,” he said, calmer now. He split his scrutiny between the two of us.

“I wanted to make a cake. Theodore was going to assist me,” I answered for us both.

Theodore remained recoiled.

“Sugar is difficult to acquire these days. I would request you do not waste it on frivolities such as cake.”

“I’ve been here a whole week. I wanted to celebrate.”

“Celebrate your stay?” He scoffed. “The only event that would ever necessitate rejoicing in this household is a scientific breakthrough.” Arthur turned his chin up. “The kitchen is now off-limits,” he said, turning to exit.

“But, sir—”

Arthur glared at me over his shoulder. “You’re welcome to leave if you find me unfair, Miss Elysia.”

“No, please don’t send me out to the ghouls!” I rushed to him and grabbed at his jacket sleeve. He stared down at my hands wrinkling the pristine fabric, and I released him. “I can obey your rules.” I lowered my head and shuffled my feet as I left the kitchen ahead of him.

Theodore did not join us for dinner that night. All our food was left out on the table, and I was instructed to serve the meal. My appetite was minimal. I worried something dreadful had happened to my poor masked friend.

Theodore had said his father had many secrets. My curiosity only continued to grow.




My mundane schedule continued for two more weeks until I discovered blank paper and charcoals in the library desk’s bottom drawer. I could not recall my last opportunity to draw and the excitement of this finding deleted any fear of reprimand. Arthur did not say the desk was prohibited.

I started small, putting several vague pictures on the first paper while I revived my skill. The following sheets had fewer images, but each vision was more detailed than the last. By the fifth sheet, I was feeling confident in my talent once more. I filled the paper with a still-life: a stack of Arthur’s science books. Proud of my work, I decided to gift it to my host at dinner.

Arthur seemed largely unimpressed with my present but thanked me for it nonetheless. He placed it aside and we continued our meal.

“I wonder . . .” He surveyed my drawing again. “How are you with anatomy?”

“Anatomy, sir?”

“Yes,” he said with his strange smile. “In regards to your artistic talents?” He tapped my drawing beside his plate. “My wife also possessed this skill. She assisted me with laboratory sketches for my notes. How strong is your stomach?”

“You want me to draw . . .” I swallowed. “. . . bodies?”

“Could you?” His eyes widened, eager for my answer.

I considered the challenge. I reasoned it would not be very different from a portrait, and my brother had always praised my attempts at them. I nodded. At least drawing for Arthur would disrupt the monotony.

The next day, after breakfast, I was blindfolded before leaving the parlor. With Arthur’s hands on my shoulders, I was guided through the house, then outside. I knew we went outdoors because I heard birds, smelled fresh pollen on the gentle breeze and felt the warm sun on my skin.

My hand brushed along a stone wall as I went down a set of stairs and was greeted by damp air. It smelled old and sterile, and I realized I was being taken into the cellar. A wave of excitement coursed through me: I was gaining privileges!

My blindfold came away, and I gasped. Hands over my mouth, my eyes toured Arthur’s laboratory. It was terrifying, evoking thoughts of Shelley’s Frankenstein. Her novel seemed unbelievable when I read it. But here it was before me.

I was overwhelmed by tears at the sight of several caged ghouls in the far corner. From between the heavy iron bars, the decaying monsters reached out, putting all their effort into trying to grasp. Their low, hungry moans filled my ears. I was shaking when I felt Arthur’s hand on my shoulder again.

“I must know if you are capable, Miss Elysia, of doing what I need.” He stared down at me.

My jaw hung open.

“I know you did not wish to see a ghoul again, but you must understand that my work is very important. My sketches are not good enough—not nearly as detailed or accurate as Winifred’s were. A second pair of nimble, steady hands in my laboratory is essential.”

Arthur steered me toward a long table draped in a white sheet. I could see the outline of a body underneath. The center of the fabric was soaked in a sickening color: not quite red, mostly brown. Arthur pulled the sheet back to reveal a partially dissected ghoul strapped to the table. I jerked under his hand, my heart thudding hard. The creature’s head turned to us, and it began to fuss, clacking its teeth in ravenous hunger.

“I’m going to find a solution to this mess,” Arthur continued. “I am manipulating this disease into something better. Each creature brings me closer to my goal. What I need is a proper assistant.”

“What happened to your wife?” I whispered, eyes fixed on the anatomized ghoul.

“A very unfortunate thing transpired.” His voice saddened. “One day, she got too close to her model.”

Breathing became harder. My mouth went dry. “And Theodore?” I looked up at Arthur.

“My poor son.” Arthur shook his head. “Winifred was seven months pregnant at the time of the incident. I kept her comfortable and fed her well. Vagrants from the city served her need. She went to term. Her labor was easy and quick. She hardly noticed the birth.” He appeared unaffected by the terrible story he told.

“Theodore is . . . one of them?” I forced the air from my lungs to speak.

“Not quite. Not one of them.” He angled his head at the table. “But not what I’m aiming to create either. Theodore is unique. A useful specimen regardless.”

My body prickled with my next question. “How old is Theodore?”

There was Arthur’s awful smile. “You are a smart girl indeed. And with the right amount of curiosity. I’m so glad I decided to be patient with you.”

I repeated my inquiry.

“Theodore is sixteen.”

“The ghouls . . .” I felt hot and dizzy. The plague of undead, flesh-eating creatures in the city had only begun several months ago.

“Yes, my dear. I’m afraid they are my fault.” Arthur nodded but looked unremorseful. “One of my experiments escaped earlier this year. Some of them are more clever than they appear. I learned my lesson, though. I put in stronger bars and restraints.”

“Were you trying to end the world?” My voice pitched higher.

Arthur’s laugh tightened the knot in my stomach.

“Trying to save it, my dear Elysia. End all illnesses. End death.” A pensive expression passed across his face. “I suppose, in a way, I did. The infected do take on a perverted sort of immortality.” He sighed. “Back to business. Now that I have revealed all this, will you assist me in my laboratory or not?”

“What if I say no?” I asked, already knowing his answer.

“No one will miss you, except perhaps Theodore. He’s grown quite fond of you. You’re the first to last this long and be so gentle with him. But there will be others who make their way here. There always are.” He shrugged.

“I want to see his face.” I clenched my teeth and took a long breath through my nose. The air in the cellar was not only dank: it was sour. “I want Theodore to have the freedom to take off the mask.”

Arthur grinned. “Are those your only conditions?”

I nodded, incompletely comprehending what I was agreeing to.

“Then go see him.” Arthur turned slightly, gesturing at the stone stairs leading up to a sunny sky.

I ran.

I had been aimed toward the house but caught sight of Theodore from the corner of my eye. He was working in a lush green garden with a hoe. So I changed direction. He stopped laboring as I drew close.

“What’s wrong, Miss Elysia?”

Without explanation, I reached up and pulled at the ribbons at the back of his head. He struggled against me. Pleaded with me to cease my efforts. But I persisted until I held the mask in my hands.

Theodore dropped to his knees and hid his face in his hands.

I knelt beside him and stroked his silky hair.

“It’s all right, Theodore. I’m staying. I’ve got permission to look,” I said. “Arthur and I reached an agreement.” I thought of all the horrific things in the cellar and the terrible work I would be responsible for. I couldn’t believe I made such an outrageous bargain for the sake of a roof over my head and the unmasking of a young man. Confound my ruthless curiosity and uncontrollable desire to survive.

Theodore peered through his dirt-encrusted fingers. In the bright sunlight, his eyes looked wholly white. Like the other ghouls. “You’ll never leave us?”

I assured him I would not.

Theodore lowered his hands . . .

. . . and his face was completely normal. I couldn’t hide my shock.

“Am I hideous?” he asked.

“I don’t understand.” I shook my head. “You’re handsome.”

“You don’t have to humor me, Elysia.” He turned his face away.

I put my hands under his jaw and shifted his gaze back to me. “I’m being truthful.”

He smiled sweetly, then began to drool. He licked his lips, but saliva continued to flow in a steady stream onto his chin.

“Theodore!” Arthur’s voice boomed behind me.

His son startled and fell backward into the dirt.

My hands were drenched. I stared at my glistening palms.

“You’ll have to excuse him, my dear.” Arthur sighed as he approached. “He’s not trying to disgust you with his salivation. He truly cannot help himself around live flesh. You see, Theodore wears the mask to dull his senses, to deter him from biting. I love my son. I can’t put a muzzle on him like he’s some senseless, wild animal. He’s not a ghoul, not completely.”

Theodore’s head was bowed as he held out his handkerchief. I wiped my hands.

“Those are precious hands, Miss Elysia,” Arthur noted. “Be sure to take good care of them while you’re here.”