Letters from the Monster Show

13 September 2011 | Issue 2 | | 3 Comments   

Ever since you first told me about the Monster Show, you’d told me about how people like to ignore it, to dismiss it, how they refused to see past the surface of it. How it was just a show to them, just a gag. People in costumes and rubber masks, like those haunted houses that get put on every year around Halloween...

Story by Orrin Grey

Illustration by Stephanie Martin


The night you joined the Monster Show I cried myself sick.

In the books I’ve read people always cry themselves to sleep, but I can’t sleep very well when I’m upset and so I just cried and cried until my nose was running and my face was puffy and I felt like crap.

My mom opened the door just wide enough to shove in an extra box of Kleenex. She didn’t come in. That was nice of her, especially since she hadn’t ever really approved of us.

That’s one of the good things about my mom. Most of the time maybe I can’t stand her, but it’s obvious that she knows a lot about having your heart broken. Where some other moms would’ve been perched on the edge of the bed, cooing and petting and talking about fish in the sea and generally trying to make it all better, she just left me alone and let me cry. I guess I’ve never told her how much I appreciated that. Maybe I should be writing her a letter.

That’s where it all really got started, you know, with your letter. Before that, no one but me knew what had happened to you. And I only knew because I knew, not because I had any evidence. You didn’t tell me you were leaving, didn’t kiss me goodbye like a soldier going off to war.

Everybody just assumed that you’d run off because you were the kind of boy who ran off, sooner or later. But you’d left all your stuff behind. Literally all of it, except for the clothes you were wearing and that pea-green messenger bag covered in pins that you carried everywhere you went.

No one else knew what was in that bag with you when you disappeared, but I did. The same thing that was always in it, give or take: Three marble composition notebooks. A grab-bag of pens swiped from work or school or the counter at the bank. A library book that had never been checked out of the library and was probably never going to go back. A change of socks. An extra pack of cigarettes. A picture of me.

When they asked me what you were wearing when you left, I told them I didn’t know. Which was technically true; you could’ve changed between school and when you left the house that night. But I’m sure you didn’t. I’m sure you were wearing a denim jacket over a shirt with a picture of a skeleton’s ribcage on it. Even if it hadn’t been what I saw you in last, it’s a pretty safe guess.

You’d think maybe I’d have tried harder to help them find you, but I already knew where you were, and I knew that you didn’t want to be found. You were right where you wanted to be.


Your letter got to me two weeks after you’d vanished, with a postmark from another state and no return address. I’m including it here, so we’ll both remember:


Dear Leah,


I didn’t mean to leave without saying goodbye, but when they agreed to take me on I had to go right away. One night only, y’know?

You can have all my stuff, if my parents haven’t already done something with it. Just do me a favor and hold onto a few things for me? You’ll know which ones.

I wish I could tell you more now, tell you some of the things I’ve already seen, but I can’t. Not yet. I’m not even sure they’d let me write you, if they knew, but I had to do this much for you.

Here I am, making it all sound so dramatic, referring to them as “them” as if you don’t know exactly who I’m talking about. I guess I’m trying to put off writing the word, though I don’t know why. They don’t hesitate. It’s the Monster Show, after all.

Anyway, I’m rambling, and I’ve probably said more than I should have. But I had to write you, I had to tell you something.

Just know that I still love you, Leah. Nothing I do will ever change that.




I don’t know if you remember, it was written on a torn out sheet from one of your notebooks, folded in half and then folded in half again. You’d tucked a little white roadside wildflower into the envelope, dried out and flattened from its time in the mail.

I cried after I read it, of course, and then I read it again and cried some more. Afterward, I went down to the kitchen where my mom was sitting at the table, drinking a cup of coffee and muddling her way through a crossword puzzle from a big book of them that she’d bought to do over her lunch breaks at work.

“You shouldn’t do those at home,” I told her. “You’ll use them all up.”

There are some people who can hide the fact that they’ve been crying, but you know I’m not one of them. So when I sat down at the table and my mom looked at me I’m sure she knew, but she didn’t say anything about it. She just said, “Want some coffee?”

I looked out the window. It was nice and sunny outside, the kind of summer day that means something to you when you’re little but becomes more and more just another day the older you get.

“Actually,” I said, “would you make me some lemonade? Like you used to when I was a kid?”

My mom smiled and got up to walk over to the fridge. “I never knew you liked my lemonade,” she said. “You always wanted the powder kind from the store.”

“Well today I want yours.”


I showed your letter to your parents and to the police. They took it as confirmation of their own theories and refused to acknowledge the Monster Show at all, which should come as no surprise to you. Ever since you first told me about it, you’d told me about how people like to ignore it, to dismiss it, how they refused to see past the surface of it. How it was just a show to them, just a gag. People in costumes and rubber masks, like those haunted houses that get put on every year around Halloween.

Of course, you didn’t believe that. Maybe couldn’t believe it.

The Monster Show came to town when you were a kid and you snuck in. You told me all about it, eventually. Never anyone else, only me. Everything you remembered, everything you’d learned since, and everything that you’d half made up.

How it came to town for one night only each time, and how it never advertised except by word of mouth. How it was rare that reviews of it ever appeared, and when they did it was always painted as something between a sideshow and a spookhouse. Some genuine human oddities, perhaps. Some special effects. Difficult to say where one ended and the other began.

But that was never your memory of it, was it? When you snuck in, you couldn’t have seen much beyond the benches you crouched behind, just a corner of the show’s makeshift stage. But that was enough.

It always sounded like a dream when you tried to explain it to me. Too many limbs, or limbs the wrong shape or size or texture. Skins that were not what we think of as skins at all. Just a jumble of images, nothing that made sense. Not to me. But it made sense to you, and I could see the look in your face when you told me about it and that made sense to me.


You were right that I’d know what stuff you wanted me to hold onto for you, but your parents wouldn’t let me have it. I don’t think it was sentimentality; I think they just still thought you might come back, and they didn’t want you to come back and find that they’d given it away. Not even to me.

Even after I got the letter, everyone still thought that you’d left me as much as you’d left home, and while you might come back home someday you’d probably never come back to me.

So I snuck into your bedroom window–I hadn’t forgotten how just because you weren’t there anymore–and took the stuff that I knew you’d want: A piece of chalk-blue flier that you’d gotten signed by Sam Raimi. An LP of London Calling. All the previous iterations of those composition notebooks that you always carried.

I also took some stuff for me: Some of my favorites from your CD collection. A framed picture of the two of us together. My red corduroy jacket from under the bed. That plush cat you won for me in a crane game and that I slept with whenever I slept over at your house.

No matter what everyone else said, I knew you wouldn’t be coming home, and that I’d slept over at your house for the last time.


After showing the first letter to the authorities, I never showed any of the others to anyone. They didn’t seem to care.

Maybe that’s not fair, though. Maybe they cared plenty, and just knew there wasn’t anything they could do.



Letters from the Monster Show illustration

Illustration by Stephanie Martin

In the evenings, when it was worst, I would sit in my room and page through your old notebooks. They were a walking tour of the journey that ended when you joined the Monster Show.

Or did it just begin there?

In the earliest of the notebooks you’d drawn figures from your childhood recollections, hazy caricatures scrawled in with zig-zagging pen lines, almost too dark and cross-hatched to make out. Something squat and hairy with too many legs. Something man-shaped but horribly folded and rubbery. A figure that was obviously a woman; cartoon voluptuous, with squiggly black lines emanating from her body.

And under each one, in your careful handwriting, was a legend: HORATIO, THE HUMAN SPIDER. THE RUMPLED MAN. ZELARA, THE SERPENT LADY.

I bought a notebook just like yours, for the express purpose of writing letters back, even though I had no way to send them. I put an old Halloween sticker of a werewolf on the cover.

I wrote a lot more letters than I received, one every day. Mostly they were more like a diary than letters, where I talked about my day and my thoughts and stuff. At first they all started out “Dear Ben.” Then it became just “Ben.” Then, eventually I gave up the pretense that I was writing letters at all and just wrote, but I always addressed them to you, just as this is addressed to you. It let me feel a little bit like I was talking to you.

In one of your notebooks, I found a picture you’d drawn of me once. Do you remember? I was nude, lying sprawled out on my bed with pillows half-propping me up and that stuffed cat beside my arm. It made me feel sexy. I tore the page out and tucked it into my own notebook.

I remember that the whole time we were together, we never called each other “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.” You weren’t my boyfriend, you were my best friend. My only friend.

Maybe that’s why our parents didn’t really approve of us being together. Maybe they didn’t think it was right for us to only have each other and no one else. Maybe it wasn’t right, but that’s how it was. We were all we had. Or all I had, anyway.

I guess you had something else after all.


In your second letter, you sounded confused and lonely, maybe a little drunk.


Dear Leah,

It’s so different here. It’s so different to sit in the wings and look out at the faces of the people as they come in to watch. The folks in the show call them rubes, when they talk about them at all. Rubes, can you believe that? But it seems right, and I find myself calling them that too, when I’m not thinking about it. After awhile everyone in here starts to feel like the real people, everyone else are just the rubes.

When they see the show you can watch their faces and know that they’re not watching you. You can see their eyes peel open. Not the lids, but the things inside — their souls or their minds or whatever they are — watch them peel back and let the light in.

And then you can watch it go. That’s the really amazing part. Watching them convince themselves that it wasn’t ever there at all. But they know it. The know it because it’s inside them now, just a little bit, like it was in me.

It’s still in me, and there’s more of it now. Filling me up, spilling out. Soon I don’t know if my skin will hold it anymore. I can barely remember what it was like to be anything but this, to be anywhere but here. One of these days I think all I’ll remember is you.

I’m forgetting the things I already told you. Have I told you how much I miss you? Have I said that I was sorry? Have I said that I wish you could have come with me? Have I told you that I still love you?

I still love you.


– Ben


The funny thing is, your first letter made me cry but that one didn’t. The ink was smeared; you’d obviously folded it up and put it in the mail before you could read it over again and think better of it.

I put it with the other letter, and in my notebook that I night I wrote, Why don’t you send for me? You know I’d come.

And beneath that, What would you have done if I’d asked you to stay?


You were my only friend, but I wasn’t unpopular at school. I got along with everyone just fine, I just didn’t have any friends. This, I think now, was my own fault as much as theirs. I just didn’t like people. They confused me.

The closest thing to a friend I had ever had besides you was a girl at school who could draw. Her name was Amanda, I don’t know if you ever met her. She smoked pot and liked the Doors. I asked her one day if she would draw my picture.

I remember her blinking at me. “Most people don’t ask that because they think it makes them seem conceited,” she said.

I shrugged.

“I’d love to.”

She came over to my place and brought a bigger version of the sketchpad I always saw her with at school. My mom, when I told her that I was having a friend over, insisted that we have dinner and I indulged her because she seemed so happy to hear that I had a friend.

She made this taco-macaroni-casserole thing that she got the recipe for off a box of Velveeta, and we all made small talk around the kitchen table. Or mostly my mom and Amanda made small talk and I listened. Fortunately for her, Amanda didn’t seem the least bit shy.

Afterward we went up to my room and I asked her where she wanted me and she said she didn’t care so I lay down on the bed sort of like I had been in the picture you drew of me. I wasn’t naked this time, but only because I was too shy to ask Amanda to draw me naked.

She asked me innocuous questions while she drew. “If I keep you talking,” she said, “you won’t move around as much.”

I didn’t tell her, but I wouldn’t have moved anyway. I was as content in those moments as I had been in months, just lying there, being looked at. I closed my eyes, and if I was a cat I would have purred.

She let me see the picture when she was finished. She’s better than you were, and where your drawing had made me feel sexy, hers made me feel like a person. Real. Complete. Seen entirely and not partially invisible, or partially gone.

Being drawn, I saw immediately, was something I could quickly become addicted to.


It was a long time between your second letter and your third. So long that I thought maybe I wouldn’t be getting any more.



I understand now.

I’m like them, you see. And not just now, I always was. Even when I first came here, when I was a kid, I was never afraid of the monsters. (You see how I have no trouble calling them monsters now?)

I thought that’s how I knew I belonged here. It was only after I was here that I learned that no one’s afraid of them. They’re afraid of their jobs, of their house payments and their wives and their dogs and their friends and their kids and all the things that keep them trapped in this life, tied to this world as it spins around and around and slowly burns to death. They’re not afraid of the monsters; they’re afraid of the monsters not existing.

That’s why they come to the Monster Show. It lets them out of their lives for a little while in a way no truly safe thing ever can. They can convince themselves later that it wasn’t real, but they’ll always have that one moment where it was. And they make that moment be enough.

That’s what makes me different from them. From the rubes. It’s not enough for me. I can’t have just a glimpse. It’s a part of me now, filling me up, and I’m a part of it and I always was and I always will be.


You didn’t sign it. Like my own notebook, it was no longer really a letter at all. It didn’t mention me or talk to me the way the others had. It was a revelation, a religious tract, and you had obviously penned it in the ecstasy of enlightenment and then sent it out into the world to find its way to me.

At the bottom of the letter was a drawing, sketchy and cross-hatched like the ones in your notebook. It was of an incredibly thin man, or maybe it wasn’t a man at all but just the inside of a man, and under it was written: BEN, THE LIVING SKELETON.

I tried to imagine you sleeping with someone in the show. Maybe Zelara, the Serpent Lady, never mind that she’d be old enough to be your mother. But I found that I couldn’t do it. Not because it was too painful, or too unlikely, but because I just couldn’t picture the other people in the show at all. I could hardly even picture you anymore, and when I did it certainly wasn’t the way you must have looked by then.

I also tried to hate you, for not having called me even once since you left. It wasn’t as if my number had changed, and there had to be phones in the places you went. But while it was easier to hate you for that, I found that it was no more satisfying.

Amanda called me a few days after she’d done the drawing, and we went out and had ice cream. “I liked sketching you,” she said. “You’re a good model. I’d like to do it again, sometime.”

When I got home my mom told me that if I wanted to have Amanda over again that’d be OK. I hugged her then, and cried a little bit. I didn’t tell her why, and she didn’t ask.


I guess that could have been it, and it almost was. A month after I got the third letter, a fourth one came in the mail. It was postmarked from the next town over, but what was folded up in the envelope wasn’t anything I could read. It wasn’t even written in English; or Hebrew or Sanskrit or any other language I could find in a book. Just weird shapes, boxes and circles on the ends of lines.

I don’t know what it said. It went on for about a page, and the bottom part had been ripped off jaggedly, as though something had been written there that whoever wrote it thought better of.

I saw “whoever wrote it,” but I know. I know it was from you, your last letter from the Monster Show. I couldn’t prove it, but I know.

I didn’t show the letter to anyone. Not my mom, not Amanda. I just asked my mom if I could borrow the car, just for the night, and I drove over to the next town and I found the tents where the Monster Show was waiting and I bought my ticket.

I’m going to go in, and I’m going to see. Even if you’re there, and even if I recognize you, you won’t know me anymore. I know that, and that’s fine. You’ll never read this. This isn’t a letter to you anymore, maybe it never was. It’s a revelation, just like your letters were.

I’m going to go in, and I’m going to see, and then there’ll be a little piece of the Monster Show inside me, and I’ll take it back with me. I’ll take it back to my mom and to Amanda, and I’ll take it with me through the rest of my life. And unlike with you, it’ll be enough.

I’ll make it be enough.


  1. Ki on 13 December 11, 9:52am

    You know a short story is really good when it makes you want to read more, when just a short story is not enough. At least, that’s how I feel. Often, short stories will conclude and while they were good, I’ll forget the characters. I won’t want to spend any more time with them, because the story is over. Here, I want to see how Leah continues to deal with everything. I want to know more about the monsters. More about the process. More about Ben.

    I really loved this story. It was calm and poignant and painful, and left me with some things to think about.

  2. Chris Kelworth on 21 January 12, 8:45pm

    More than just poignant – heartbreaking. Girl meets boy, boy becomes monster, girl loses monster. Sigh.

  3. Elizabeth Twist on 23 January 12, 2:20am

    Fabulous! Thanks for this, Orrin.

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