“Beautiful Monsters” by Eric Puchner

It’s been a while, Story366! To say the least, as it’s been two months—two!—since I last posted at the ol’ story-a-day blog. Sure, I never thought I’d do one every day again, not since pulling that off for the entirety of 2016, but I also didn’t think it would take me two months to write a post. Sure enough, however, I last wrote on March 1, and while I’m no scientist, I’m pretty sure that’s two months, Leap Year or no Leap Year (checked: it’s not a Leap Year).

In any case, you may be wondering—or you may not be wondering—what I’ve been up to for two months, all that blogging time suddenly freed up. I wish I could report that I’ve whipped myself into shape, have fixed every lingering repair in my house and in the yard, and have completed my long-forming novel, all goals I set out for myself at the start of this non-daily blogging year. If I said any of those things, dear readers, I’d be lying. However, to some degree, I have actually made progress. In that time, I’ve managed to actually get the dust off the treadmill and can run for a bit without dying. I still have lingering repairs, but not quite as many (okay, I’ve changed a couple of lightbulbs and screwed on a couple of cabinet doors). And while I haven’t finished any novels lately, I have actually written a couple of stories, have revised another, and heck, might even write some later tonight.

On the more positive end, I have gotten my yard into shape, especially the front, clearing out a lot of dead brush and leaves, mowing and trimming with regularity, and best of all, there’s a new perennial garden where our ornamental plum fell last fall. The oldest boy and I have been working on Scouting advancements more, as he’s now a Boy instead of a Cub. Best of all, I turned my office—which looked like it had been tossed by movie criminals looking for a hidden hard drive—into a ridiculously clean habitat of efficiency and creativity. For the first time in my teaching career—twenty-three years now—I’m actually on top of my grading, even ahead.

Do I owe all of these upswings to neglecting this blog? No, not really. As the Karen points out, I led a decently productive life last year and posted every day. Maybe I just feel more accomplished, more well rounded now. Yeah, that’s the ticket: well rounded.

Today being the start of Short Story Monthall of these new collections starting to collect dust on my shelf, I decided to get back into it. My first instinct was, “I’ll do one every day in May!” Immediately, my second instinct was, “Don’t promise that, you idiot—it’s the end of the semester and you’ll have a shit-ton of grading to do next week.” Karen, of course, seeing me reading today, figured out exactly whatI was up to—me skulking off with a collection in hand probably gave her some PTSD—but opined, “You should do one every day this month!” I’m not making any promises. It’s May 1, I’m here with a new post, and yeah, I enjoyed getting back to reading something new, to expressing my thoughts with words. But May is one of the longest months—tied for first place with six other months—so all I can say now is we’ll see how it goes.

Today’s feature story is “Beautiful Monsters” from Eric Puchner‘s collection Last Day on Earth, out earlier this year from Scribner. This is my first foray into work by Puchner, who also has a novel, Model Home, and a previous collection, Music Through the Floor. Throw Puchner onto the How haven’t I read this guy before? pile, but here I am, fixing the hell out of that. I read the first three stories from Last Day on Earth—which didn’t include the title story—and “Beautiful Monsters” is the one that’s sticking with me the most. So, here we go.

“Beautiful Monsters” is set in some alternate/dystopian future of our society where people are raised as perennials (like those new flowers in my front yard!), people who seem to never get old, remaining small children for the entirety of their lives; Puchner never explains how this happens, but we do know that the two main characters, the boy and the girl, look around nine years old, but the girl is thirty. I suspect it’s some sort of cloning, some sort of drug treatment, or some other kind of sciencey flux capacitor that’s made this possible, but I didn’t really care how it happened because it just is that way and I bought it.

In any case, the boy and the girl—who may or may not be brother and sister, and/or may or may not be romantically linked—are hanging around their house one day when they see an adult male skulking around in their back yard, picking apples off their tree. Right away, on the first page, Puchner makes it clear that this is odd, as the boy has not only never seen an adult human before, but he goes to fetch his family .22 to shoo this intruder away. The man, picking the apples because he’s starving, is full-blown caveman, sporting long, straggly hair, yellow, crooked teeth, and clothing made from animal skins. We find out, after the man has assuaged himself into the house, that he’s part of a rebellious little band of realish people, dubbed Senescents here, who have been surviving in the rough up in the mountains, only to have a fire, and government troops (who just may have caused the fire) chase them down into the subdivisions. There, the troops can round them up more easily, as yeah, most of the kid-people like the boy and the girl turn them in, if not taking the Senescents out all by themselves—a pretty hefty bounty is put on information leading to their capture, etc, etc.

In the meanwhile, the man is dealing with a pretty bad wound on his leg while the kids take care of him in their home, society none the wiser. They go to work—the boy builds houses and the girl works in data collection—and both of them watch the man, amazed that he’s so old and does things so oddly. Pretty soon, the man, as injured and stinky as he is, starts taking on a paternal role, even threatening punishment if the kids don’t listen to what he says—instinct has taken over and the adult has started ordering the kids around. That wound on his leg isn’t getting any better, placing a clock on this emerging relationship, also stunted by an increased search for more of the Senescents—it’s implied the man is the last of his tribe.

I won’t go any further into the plot, as it winds down rather quickly from there. I like this story for a variety of reasons, including the basic sci-fi premise, Puchner’s convincing descriptions, but especially for how the relationship between the boy and girl and the man quickly evolves (just like the man does after a shower, shave, and change of clothes). Puchner really has fun with this inverted fish-out-of-water story, but also adds a real tenderness to the relationship. Perhaps, Puchner might be saying, people need parental guidance and affection more than they need immortality. Surely, things cross into Huxley territory, with a little Logan’s Run thrown in, but Puchner keeps it fresh with specific details and some pretty dynamite prose.

Last Day on Earth, three stories in, is a promisingly geat collection, Eric Puchner apparently rather eclectic. It opens with “Brood X,” a coming-of-age tale set against the coming of the cicadas. Next comes “Beautiful Monsters. Finally I read “Mothership,” about a woman who’s having a bad go of it, but isn’t getting the attention she craves. I liked all three and want to read the rest of the book, another solid addition to the 2017 short story collection roster.