My Custom Monster

Edited by Yanni Kuznia

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

August 2021

2566 words — Reading time: around 12 minutes

Thank you for your recent gift purchase from the Custom Monster Company. The monster you gave is now settling into your loved one’s home. As a token of our appreciation, here’s a coupon for 20% off your next monster. Monsters make a terror-ific gift for people of all ages — or even for yourself! Remember, there’s a little monster inside all of us.

I meant to unsubscribe. Just because I’d bought a monster for my niece didn’t mean I wanted to keep getting emails from the company forever. But instead, I sat there, staring at the pictures of supposedly real customers posing with their hideous monsters. Staring for way too long.

They looked happy. Even the monsters. Why did pictures of happy people make me want to cry?

I called up my sister.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” she answered.

“Hello to you, too. I don’t only call when I’m in trouble, you know.”

“Sure.” She didn’t sound sure. “What’s up, then?”

“I was just wondering how Gemma’s liking her monster.”

Her voice warmed. “Oh, she loves it! She takes it everywhere, and get this — she hasn’t woken me up for a week! Seriously, I’ve never slept better.”

“I’m really glad.”

“She’d love to see you, though. We both would.”

“I know, I know. I’ll… figure out a time to visit.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see them. It was just a lot, planning a trip across the country. Planning, at all. And then making my family deal with me.

She must have heard it in my voice. “Are you having a rough time again?”

“Have you seen the news? The whole world’s having a rough time these days. I’m fine.”

“I wish we were closer to you. Maybe….” I thought she was going to suggest they come visit me, but she surprised me. “Maybe you should try one of these custom monsters for yourself.”

“To cure me of my fear of monsters under the bed? It’s been a few years since I worried about that.”

“They’re not just for kids.” She suddenly sounded extra-earnest, as if she’d thought a lot about this. “I’ve been reading about it in my monster-parent group. They help adults, too. Lots of people. You should think about it.”

“Sure, okay.”

“I mean it.”

Have you ever owned a cat or a dog? Put aside your preconceptions, because caring for a monster is different. Monsters feed themselves, and they don’t poop — that would be ridiculous — so there’s no annoying cleanup. But more importantly, you don’t own a monster. Unlike pets, monsters are avatars of primeval forces and can’t be owned by mortals. Instead, you bond with your monster. It takes work on both sides, but a strong connection with a monster will last a lifetime.

I really hadn’t meant to consider it. But the idea wouldn’t leave my head. I looked up the monster creation form, and then looked again. I kept it open in a browser tab for a week, thinking about how I’d answer the questions if I ordered a monster. Which I wasn’t going to.

I read every case study, every section of the FAQ. I read the return policy — not allowed, of course. There was no “trying out” a monster for a couple months. A monster was a commitment, and that was a deal-breaker.

“I don’t know why she even suggested it,” I told my therapist. “It’s just a fad, right?”

“It’s certainly trendy right now, but there haven’t been any studies yet on its effectiveness.”

“See? It’s ridiculous.”

“That’s not what I said. A couple of my patients have found their monsters quite therapeutic.”

That wasn’t what I’d wanted him to say. “But I couldn’t do it,” I said, and explained all the reasons it was a bad idea. It was enough of a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. Putting on real clothes and making food that wasn’t cereal were some-days activities. I couldn’t be responsible for a living monster.

“If you’ve already decided not to do it,” he said when I’d finished, “then why are we talking about this more than a week after your sister suggested it?”

He had a point. I hated that he had a point.

Rank the following monster types from most to least frightening:
   • A warm, stinky breath on the back of your neck
   • Slithering sounds outside your door at night
   • The clasp of tentacles around your ankles
   • A many-legged creature moving in the shadows
   • A chill of dread with no apparent source
Monsters are self-sufficient hunters and rarely need to be fed by their humans. What are the most abundant sources of monster food in your home? (Choose all that apply.)
   • Mice and other vermin
   • Forgotten, decaying food in the back of your fridge
   • Parental guilt
   • Fear of making an irrevocable error
   • Feelings of inadequacy and despair

It took three days, but I finally squelched my doubts long enough to place my order.

For the next two weeks, five times a day, I checked my order status. Even though I knew the scheduled delivery date, I needed to see the updates: “Order received!” “Questionnaire analysis in progress!” “Your monster is being built!”

Anticipation got me out of bed in the mornings. Preparing a lair forced me out of the house to run errands. Each night, I stayed up too late rereading the monster caretaker’s manual.

The delivery truck came on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, which seemed appropriate. I’d put on unwrinkled jeans, a clean shirt, and an actual bra for the occasion. A Custom Monster Company bonding specialist brought a crate to the door — a crate that had my monster in it. I let him in, clumsily, hands shaking. What if this was an awful mistake? What if my monster hated me?

“Can I see it?” My voice cracked.

The crate was heavy wood, with air holes too small for me to see inside. The company logo, with its red cartoon mascot, was stamped on the lid.

“Not yet. This is your monster, and you should be alone when you meet it. It’s best to leave it in its crate for an hour or two, so it can get used to the scent of your house, before you let it out.”

He toured the house with me, pointing out places the monster might want to hide, delicate objects it might want to knock off shelves. So many things I hadn’t thought of. By the time he suggested improvements to the lair I’d built, I was on the verge of tears.

“I’m sorry, I really don’t know what I’m doing.”

He must have seen reactions like mine a lot, because he didn’t look at all concerned. “Don’t worry! You’re doing great already, and remember, monsters are tough. That’s part of what makes them monsters. You two will be fine.”

Then he left, and I was alone with the crate.

I sat cross-legged on the floor, my back against the opposite wall, watching it. Every so often, it made soft snuffling noises or scratched the box. For the next hour, I roller-coastered between excitement and dread, and when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I undid the clasps and lifted off the lid to see my monster.

He was covered in wiry fur that stood out at odd angles, fur in every color you can imagine. Calling him a rainbow would make him sound pretty, but he was like a rainbow in the way grunge rock is like opera. All the colors clashed, pumpkin orange next to neon green dotted with a sickly yellowish-gray. He had lumpy horns on his head, a snout like an alligator, and a tail like a rat. He was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen.

I knew, right then, I would die for him.

“Hi there, monster friend,” I whispered. “You’re awful, aren’t you? I’m awful too. But don’t worry, I’ll try to be less awful for you.”

He growled softly at me and curled up at the back of his box.

Bonding with your monster can take several days, or up to a week. Give your monster space while it explores your home, but discipline it promptly (as described above) if it shows any destructive tendencies, such as scratching furniture, spitting acid, or opening hell-portals.

I rolled out of bed early the next morning, anxious and eager for my first full day with my monster. But I couldn’t find him.

“Monster?” I called, and then, “Grumph?” That was the name I’d given him, because he seemed like a “Grumph.” But he didn’t answer to it yet.

I searched everywhere: under the bed, the back corners of closets, the cobwebbed gaps behind bookshelves. Nothing. I checked the manual. It talked about learning your monster’s favorite hiding places, but it didn’t say what to do if your monster disappeared.

Had he gotten stuck somewhere? Gotten in trouble? What if he’d run away?

What if he’d run away because he didn’t want to be my monster?

I picked up my phone to call Caretaker Services, but stopped. They might tell me I was overreacting — people told me that a lot — or they might decide I was a bad caretaker. What sort of person loses their monster the very first night?

This was all a mistake. I wasn’t cut out for this. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to fail before I’d begun.

“Please, monster. Please, Grumph, come back. I suck at this, I know, but won’t you give me a chance? I’m not that bad.” I couldn’t be that bad. I couldn’t be as awful as I felt.

There was a rustling behind me, and when I turned, Grumph was sitting there in the middle of the living room, giving me a puzzled look, as if I was the strangest human he’d ever met.

“Rawr?” he said.

“Oh, thank goodness. Where were you?” I rushed forward without thinking to give him a hug. He growled and sped away in a blur of colors, leaving scratches on the wood floor.

Watch your monster’s eating habits to discover its favorite foods. Most monsters prefer to feed on negative human emotions, but keep an eye out for mouse carcasses and regurgitated human food. Don’t worry about giving your monster exercise. It’ll do that on its own.

For the next few days, I tried hard, and it seemed to be working. Grumph would appear at odd times, then go hide again, and I watched for him all day and too much of the night. I learned he liked hiding behind the books in my bookshelf, and he’d dig through the trash if I let him. Clumps of brightly colored fur started showing up in the bathtub, but I didn’t have the energy to clean, and he didn’t seem to care.

He liked to sit in the window and hiss when neighbors walked their dogs by, and I swear, he laughed when they got startled.

“You’re horrible,” I told him fondly, and he growled his pleased growl. But he still didn’t let me near him. My therapist told me to give it time.

Then… I hit a funk.

Understand that when someone with depression calls it a “funk,” it’s a euphemism, because that’s less scary than using the right words to describe it. There’s not always a reason for the funk. Sometimes you’ll be trudging along, feeling down but coping. Still managing to feed yourself and shower and do your job. Maybe you’ll even have a good day, where you take a walk in the sunshine and then watch sappy movies with your monster crouching gargoyle-like on the opposite end of the couch. Then the next day: Wham! The world is all shades of gray. There’s no hope in your heart, and you know you should get out of bed, but it’s too hard to remember why.

I lay there for hours, awake but not moving, watching light from the gaps in the blinds make its way up the wall. For a while, I scrolled on my phone, but even that took too much effort. It was hunger, eventually, that forced me out of bed, though not until I’d spent a long time wondering what to do about the pain in my stomach. But I knew from experience that if I didn’t eat, I’d spiral to a much worse place.

I dragged myself to the kitchen and stood in front of the fridge. Making choices felt impossible, but there was a sticky-note from my past self that read: Peanut Butter Sandwich. That, I could manage even on my worst days.

While I spread the peanut butter on bread, Grumph appeared and started rummaging through the fridge. He pulled out a Chinese food container, leftovers so old I didn’t remember the meal and so moldy I could smell it from across the room.

He gave me a lopsided, pleading look, and despite everything, I laughed. “Knock yourself out.”

He ate the moldy leftovers, and I ate my sandwich, and for lack of anything better to do, I went back to bed, glad that Grumph could take care of himself. I was in no state to take care of a living creature.

But this time, Grumph followed me. He sat at the food of the bed, and after a while, the bed creaked as he climbed up. Bristly fur pressed against my back. Breath from a long, damp snout tickled my neck, and a skinny tail curled around my waist.

I started to cry.

I rolled over and buried my face in his fur. He smelled somewhere between earthy and fetid, and it shouldn’t have been pleasant — not a smell I wanted on my sheets — but it was weirdly comforting.

“Thanks,” I mumbled, sniffling, and he growled quietly. He was still growling to himself, or maybe to me, when I fell asleep.

When I woke again, the room was brighter. Inside my heart, everything was still gray, but my monster was still there, my own personal, hideous rainbow. Staying with me.

Customer Testimonial:
When I first got my monster, I didn’t really get why I needed him. But over the past months, I’ve come to understand: Your monster loves you in a way no one else can. When you’re depressed, some days it helps to be told that you’re a good person. Some days it helps to do positive self-talk and all that. But sometimes, on the days when you can’t shut up the voice that says you’re horrible, what you really need is someone who doesn’t care how good you are. Someone who doesn’t expect you to be anything but what you are, even when what you are is a mess. Someone who’s a bit of a monster themselves. Grumph has taught me that we’re all part monster sometimes, and that’s okay.

The Custom Monster Company may be fictional, but depression is very real. If you’re depressed, no matter whether it’s mild or severe or in between, you deserve help.

Check out this list of resources for places to get help, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to talk to someone and get support 24/7. If you’re trans/nonbinary or questioning, you can call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860 to get support from a trans peer.

© 2021 Jo Miles

About the author

Jo Miles

Jo Miles writes optimistic science fiction and fantasy. Their stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Nature Futures, and more. You can find Jo online at and on Twitter as @josmiles. They live in Maryland.