Wonder Woman finally has a movie, Lois Lane has a YA book series, and Supergirl just wrapped up the second season of her television show. But it’s been a rough road for female comic book characters — something best-selling author Catherynne M. Valente addresses in her latest book, The Refrigerator Monologues.
The collection of short stories derives its title from the “Women in Refrigerators” trope, which sees female characters killed or maimed to spur the growth of male characters. Monologues delves into the lives of six dead members of the “Hell Hath Club,” whose members include female superheroes as well as wives and girlfriends of male superheroes, giving them each a voice as they recount their interactions with the different heroes or villains that ultimately led to their demise.
The Refrigerator Monologues hits stores June 6. Preorder it here, and read an exclusive excerpt below.
Exclusive Excerpt From ‘The Refrigerator Monologues’ By Catherynne M. Valente
Paige Embry Is Dead
Trouble is, my story is his story. The story of Kid Mercury crowds out everything else, like Christmas landing on the shops in August while Halloween tries to get a bat in edgewise. It’s not his fault. I’m not even mad. Who wants to hear about an intern eking out a 2.21% improvement in the structural cohesion and tensile strength of an experimental alloy when they could look out the window of her very productive lab and see a guy in a slick silver suit swinging a haymaker at the metallic jaw of a former professor of music theory? BAM. POW. No contest. I have to try to squeeze in around the edges of him, to cram my little witch’s hat on the department store shelf next to his great fat silver star.
Picture me as I was then. Paige Embry, pretty as a penny in a ponytail, turning up to Falk Industries every morning with what I used to cheerfully call my Cyanide Breakfast—a triple almond latte in my shiny, only slightly dented steel thermos. God damn, I used to love my lab coat! It made me feel invincible. A knight in shining polyester. I was gonna be twenty-two so fucking soon. I was gonna graduate with honors in overachieving-know-it-all studies. I was gonna throw my stupid mortarboard in the stupid air and it was gonna hang there for this long beautiful golden endless moment, like the last shot in a sitcom, before falling back into my arms filled up to the brim with tomorrows. The future looked so good on me.
Not bad for an invisible-class nobody. You know the invisible classes. They’re the ones you never see till you need them. My dad was a garbageman. My mom was a night nurse. My whole childhood was made up of wee hours. Until I met Tom Thatcher, my favorite things in the world were C++, metallurgy, a shade of matte lipstick called the Grapes of Math, and Frosty Frogs cereal. Every single day of my life, I lived for the hour after my mother came home from the hospital, before my father started up his truck in the driveway, when the stars still held onto the sky by their fingertips and I sat at the kitchen counter, swinging my legs, eating my bowl of Frosty Frogs and listening to my parents be married to each other. You’d think Dad would have smelled horrific all the time, but he didn’t. He smelled like coffee grounds, no matter how many times he showered.
“People throw out enough coffee in this city to keep the whole world awake till Judgment Day, Paigy. You should eat something besides that sugary crap, you know. Why don’t you make her a soft-boiled egg, Nora? Brainiacs need protein or they keel over.” And he’d whistle and spin woozily on his heel like a cartoon.
My mom sighed the same when I was seven as when I was seventeen. Her sigh was the prettiest part of her. Dad once said he knew it was love when he realized he’d jump off a cliff just to hear one exasperated sigh out of Nora Embry’s mouth.
She’s a vegetable now.
The Arachnochancellor wrapped my mother up in his Web of Illusion and left her there to starve and suffocate and even though Tom rescued the hell out of her she never woke up. It happens. What are you going to do? When the world loses its fucking mind and turns on you like a stupid feral cat you thought was tame, it happens. Everyone does the long, woozy whistle and keels over.
You get real honest when you’re dead. So let me give it to you straight: it’s my fault. Catatonic mom? My fault. Kid Mercury? My fault. The Arachnochancellor and Doctor Nocturne and those singing, boiling violet lights over Manhattan? They belong to me. I own them.
Not me alone, of course. I was only an intern. But it came from my lab. My project. What a fathomless world can live in the slim space of 2.21%.
It was such a nothing assignment. Busy work, really. Falk Industries loves the military-industrial complex like a kid in a blue tuxedo loves his date to the prom, and the military only ever wants two things from her suitors: new stuff that blows up or new stuff to keep other stuff from getting blown up. I was on Team No Blow Up. We were developing new alloys for use in body and vehicle armor—flexible, lightweight, strong, all those fun things that actually don’t play together so nicely unless you start telling them who’s boss on the molecular level. That was my job. Making metals and chemicals go out on charming little dates and drink charming little cocktails and make charming little astonishingly useful babies. It’s all so totally toxic, you need your own body armor even to take most of our toys out of the box. We had a prototype. Liquid armor. Take one bath and you’re good to work out your testosterone on unsuspecting nationalities for a solid diner shift of eight hours—if we could find a way to make it stop burning your skin off and eating through the floor of your infantry tank while smelling weirdly like baking cookies. I’d gotten us 2.21% closer to the promised land of nobody’s flesh melting.
Who wouldn’t sneak their boyfriend in at night to see a bulletproof bubble bath that smelled like oatmeal chocolate chip?
Tom and I met in class. Music theory. Dr. Alastair Augustus presiding. We’d both played piano since we were kids. Mom insisted that the upright Dad hauled back from some Upper East Side curb was only a little out of tune and besides I’d regret it if I woke up at fifty and had never learned an instrument. Tom’s parents died when he was little, but his aunt felt similarly about the epidemic of modern children growing up with only enough knowledge to hit play on a glowing screen. Dr. Augustus was a wonderful lecturer. Tall and thin in his dark suits and floppy hair, gesturing wildly with his good hand. He’d lost the other in Kuwait. You’d think he wouldn’t want to talk about it, but Dr. A wasn’t like that. He’d tell you anything you wanted to know. He flapped around his lecture hall like a jazz crow stuck in the building with no way out, squawking: Music theory is just math you can groove to.
Tom and I are both front-row wave-your-hands-in-the-air-like-you-just-really-care-way-too-much types. One day, Dr. A asked us to stay after. He’d written a piece for five hands, and he wanted to take it for a spin. Tom’s, mine, his. We sat at the bench with the professor behind us, dusty afternoon sun sneaking in through the high windows to pool in the empty chairs and listen. We made a mess of it at first. You can imagine. Frantic eyes jumping between the sheet music and our leaping tangle of fingers. But slowly, the melody sorted itself between us, beneath our hands, filling up the hall with a strange, frantic sorrow.
It was a nocturne.
By the time we’d finished, Tom and I were a couple, even though we hadn’t said a word to each other. Music is an asshole like that.
I remember lying next to him in his childhood bedroom, which looked like someplace computers went to have nervous breakdowns and die. Motherboards and soldering irons and cables, oh my. Old TRON and WarGames posters on the wall next to that awful cheesecake shot of a be-sweatered and bespectacled Glenn Falk of Falk Industries lying across his desk in nineteen eighty whatever. I pulled up the sheet a little—it felt weird to have my CEO watch me fuck Tom Thatcher for the first time with that smug come-hither stare. But I was happy. The sex was sweet and deep and good. We made do with four hands. I’d stepped on an old keyboard at one point and snapped off the vowels and a good spray of consonants. Now, after, Tom snuggled against me, rolling the M key over his thumb and his forefinger. I looked up through the spaces between the bones of his hand at the moon outside the window. M is for lots of things. Moon. Midnight. Mine. Mercury. Pretty soon it would be the Frosty Frogs hour.
“You’re like the boy version of me,” I sighed.
“I think you’ll find you’re the girl version of me,” Tom said, and whenever he said anything, there was a little laughter in it—not cruel laughter, just leftover crumbs of delight in the world and himself and human speech.
“I mean, obviously, my science is way cooler than your science, but I accept your lifestyle choices. You can fix my computer while I save the world.”
Tom clutched invisible pearls. This is the mating dance of the lab scientist and the computer engineer. View our majestic plumage. “You bite your tongue! Cool is as cool does. And when those fancy Falk mainframes start horking up ASCII pictures of Sailor Moon instead of meekly processing your results, who you gonna call? That’s right, your big, strong, super cool boyfriend to make it all better.”
That’s when everything changed. Right then. Watch it happen.
I sat up, not caring one bit if Glenn W. Falk III saw my tits, and said:
“You wanna see cool? Come with me. I’ll show you cool.”
The lab was quiet at four AM. Fluorescent lights and shadows and my brand-new 2.21% improved solution, the color of Frosty Frogs by moonlight. I’ve gone over it in my head a hundred times since. A thousand times. Because listen: Paige Embry practices Good Laboratory Hygiene. Perfect laboratory hygiene, in fact. I got into my hazmat suit and put Tom in Jimmy Keeler’s. They were about the same size. I checked the seals twice. I inspected the fabric for any micro-tears, felt my ears pop as the seals locked in our helmets, and gave Tom the thumbs-up. Protocols: I follow them. I fucking love protocols. Protocols are a girl’s best friend. So, I don’t understand. I still don’t understand.
“So, this is what you do,” Tom said from beneath his plastic mask. “You do goop. All hail, Queen of Goop.”
“Okay, it’s not that impressive in its resting state.” It really wasn’t. We called it hypermercury, even though there wasn’t much mercury in it anymore. It just sounded badass. At that moment, a couple of tablespoons of hypermercury sat at the bottom of my beaker like snot in fancy dress, doing absolutely nothing. “Hold out your hand.”
Girls do dumb things to impress boys. I’m no different. But I swear it was safe. I’d done it on myself, on Jimmy Keeler, on a New England Patriots bobblehead, even on Mr. Falk himself when he toured R&D last Thanksgiving. Our suits keep it off you. They’re designed specifically for working with hypermercury. Maybe I missed a micro-tear. Maybe the gloves were degraded from the day’s testing. Maybe that 2.21% I was so proud of made hypermercury just that tiniest bit more corrosive, that tiniest bit hungrier. I poured my goop onto Tom Thatcher’s fingertips—just a little. I swear, only a little.
At first, it did its thing and did it fabulously.
My happy silver mud flowed over his knuckles, mapping his hand, conforming, coating, encasing. Becoming a gauntlet that almost nothing could pierce or dent or scratch or penetrate in any fashion. Just like it was supposed to—better than it was supposed to. I could see the wrinkles of his glove forming in crisp, flawless silver. It was beautiful.
And then he started screaming.
Through the faceplate of his suit I could see Tom Thatcher’s pretty face annihilate itself. Sudden thready veins snaked over his jaw—silver, white, blue, black—like frost cracking. Like dye falling through water. His eyes became hot diamonds, a million boiling crystal facets shredding his pupils. His stubble, the hair in his nose, his eyelashes, his eyebrows, all froze into steely icicles, then liquefied, sliding down over his cheeks, dripping, weeping off his chin. He said my name once.
Then Tom fell down. When he got back up, everything in the world was different, and it would never go back.
He said I’m okay but he wasn’t. He said It didn’t hurt but it did. He said I feel fine but he lied.
He felt amazing.
Origin stories are like birthday parties: very exciting and colorful and noisy, but in the end, they’re all the same. Anticipation sizzles around for weeks before the Big Day, but when it comes, your shindig looks pretty much like the one little Peter had last month. There’s an order of operations: take off your coats, pin the tail on the donkey, infection, singing, cake, mutation, balloons, gifts, branding, maybe a magician or a clown, exhaustion, and a bag of toys to take home. You’re the same person today as yesterday. You just got a really big present and a shiny new hat to wear.
We stood outside the great glass doors of Falk Industries’ midtown campus hip-deep in the last dregs of night and stars.
I saw it first.
Tom Thatcher, standing in a puddle of rain. But it wasn’t rain. Too silvery, too thick, too opaque. It seeped from the soles of his feet, welled up, then bolted out ahead of him like a path through a fairy tale forest.
“Tom?” I asked. But he was already gone.
Tom vanished. That’s what the speed of light looks like when you’re standing still. He just tilted forward and disappeared, chasing the silver down 23rd Street, across the park, across the river, back to me, then up the side of the glassy Falk offices and over the top, leaping between skyscrapers like it was nothing, like he was hopping over Lego bricks he’d left on the floor of his room. I walked up to the N/R train subway entrance and waited for him to remember I existed. By the time he came silver-screaming down the stairwell, the sun had come up. Nothing can hide in the all-seeing light of dawn in Manhattan. Everything is just so totally clear.
“Holy shit,” he said. “Did you see? Did you see?”
Back at his place, Tom and me went at it like fucking was an Olympic sport and we were after the gold.
Nobody ever talks about the sex. Nobody but the Hell Hath Club. I’ll tell you something, it is unsettling as all hell. Tom turned into a hummingbird. So fast, touching every part of me at once, his fingertips crackling with the liquid lightning of hypermercury. With whatever hypermercury had become once it got inside him and unpacked all its secret belongings. Sometimes his eyes were diamonds. Sometimes they were human, brown and warm. Sometimes he was kissing me. Sometimes . . . sometimes it was. My work. My 2.21%. I could feel the difference on my lips. All the while, Glenn Falk III looked down from his poster, from his 1982 desk and his computer the size of a baby elephant.
Afterward, I lay there with one leg flung over his thigh, and we stated the obvious. Because it is obvious. I’ve seen a movie in my life. I’ve read a damn comic book. Why pretend there’s some mystery to Hardy-Boy out? Dead rising from the grave? Eating brains? Only die with a headshot? You’ve got zombies, son. And when you come in contact with experimental goo and suddenly start leaping up the sides of buildings and punching through steel?
“So,” Tom Thatcher said with a grin, “I’m clearly a superhero, right?”
“Do I have to fight crime?” He whispered sweet everythings in my ear. “I mean, that’s the classic career path. Computer science degree is to San Francisco start-up as superpower is to fighting crime. Never really wanted to be a cop, though.”
I ran my fingers down the line of his jaw. “So don’t be a cop. You don’t have to do anything. Except maybe see a doctor? We can’t be totally sure this is safe, it was nowhere near ready for human trials—”
Tom wasn’t listening. “But I . . . I have a responsibility, don’t I? To help people. If you’re strong, you gotta use that strength. And I . . . I’m good, aren’t I? I’m a good person. I could use it well. I could fix things. More than code. Debug the world, little bit by little bit. I can’t just go back to school like nothing’s different. You can’t just shove power under the bed and expect it to stay put. It wants to be expressed. I just . . . I just have to do it carefully.”
And that’s why I went back to the lab and deleted my notes, my progress, everything leading to that strange, wily 2.21% improvement and everything coming from it. Because Tom Thatcher was a good person. I took the solution sample home with me. I didn’t even break a sweat going through security. Turns out lying and stealing aren’t that hard. If you’ve got a solid reason to sin, it’s easy. It’s nothing. This was my reason: one Kid Mercury was enough for the world. One good person could be trusted. Mass-produced Kid Mercuries could not.
Tom kissed me so fiercely that first morning. He could hardly contain himself. He started giggling and fell back on the bed.
“Oh my god, Paige, I really want a costume. Is that stupid? Can you sew?”
The garbageman’s daughter could indeed sew.
Copyright © 2017 by SAGA PRESS and Catherynne M. Valente
You can preorder The Refridgerator Monologues here.