How we ended up in those backwoods hills was Iris said we needed to ‘get a little air,’ and Dolan added, ‘country air!’ and that was that. Iris was my lover, and Dolan was her roommate I’d never liked. All of us were alive, at that point.
I had no problem with city air. I figured it was the same air out there as in here, but the decision had been made in my presence without my participation.
‘You know what we mean, goofus,’ Dolan said. ‘The noise. The lights.’
Iris giggled and put her hand on Dolan’s arm. They had their own private definition of humor.
A few hours later we were rolling through the hills. We’d been in a car the whole time and we had the windows up, AC blasting. We hadn’t yet felt the country air.
The roads up in these mountains were littered with signs. Caution for this, danger about that. Falling rocks, bobcat crossing, dangerous incline. There must have been a dozen ways for us to be crushed or torn apart.
‘You never see green like this in the city,’ Iris was saying. She clicked away with her phone as we rounded a chunk of mountain that had been blown open with dynamite.
‘You live by the park,’ I said. ‘The park is green.’
‘That’s a fake green. I mean real green.’
‘This is the green,’ Dolan said, ‘that’s good for the soul.’
Dolan was giving out the directions, steering us toward one of the ‘Top 10 Secluded Spots for Selfies’ he’d read about online. There was a basket of turkey sandwiches and seltzer water in the back.
Dolan wasn’t wearing his seatbelt, and as I drove I imagined the door popping open when we went around a sharp turn, then watching him tumble down the cliff and disappear.
After that, maybe Iris and I could get a fresh start on our own.
The dinky towns and small shops had died out miles before, and we still hadn’t found Dolan’s spot. Even the danger signs were worn away here, rusted or obscured with splatters of brown goo. The trees were a sickly yellow green. I rolled down my window, but there was a bad smell in the air.
Iris and Dolan were in the back talking about books I’d never read.
‘It’s bad air up here,’ I said. ‘Something huge must have died, like a Bigfoot.’
‘You’re so negative all the time,’ Iris said. She reached up to plug in her phone’s playlist.
‘Yeah, lighten up and soak in this country sun,’ Dolan chimed in.
I shut up and let the landscape roll past me. I had a lot of things to think about anyway, from where things were going with Iris to what the hell I was even doing with my life. I was at that age where it seemed as if everything was still possible, but only to someone else. I lived in the city in a small apartment I hated and crashed most nights with a girlfriend who sometimes wasn’t even there.
At the top of one hill, I saw a white goat standing on a rock. Its horned head twisted to follow our car as we passed. He had some wound in the middle of his forehead that looked like a misplaced eye.
‘Maybe it’s time to head back,’ I said, but no one responded. Dolan had his headphones on and Iris was pretending to sleep.
‘Hey, I said –’
I think that’s around when the creature burst from the bushes on the side of the road. It was black and pink and skittered across the pavement without using its wings. When we hit it, the left front tire popped and we started fishtailing. Dolan and Iris were both awake now and screaming.
I swung the wheel to the right and allowed the rock face to stop us. The car filled with dust, and my face was smashed into the dense pillow of an airbag. The screams were muffled now. Slowly the airbags deflated, and we wiped the blood from our bruised noses with our sleeves.
‘What the hell did you do that for?’ Iris shouted.
‘My car! My fucking car!’ Dolan moaned in a continuous loop.
Sitting there, shirt stained with blood, Iris photographing her face ‘for the records,’ I had the feeling that things between us might be reaching the end.
When we went over to look at the creature, it was mostly flattened. It looked like a crow, except the feathers had fallen off its back. Underneath, the flesh was scaly and pink. The exposed skin was split in half by a row of translucent spikes. The spikes were moving slightly, pointing first in this direction, then in that. The smell made me wrinkle my nose. It was an oddly sweet smell to find outdoors, like an open vat of lollipop flavoring.
For some reason, bumblebees were hovering above the carcass like buzzards. They made me dizzy. Iris started dry heaving.
‘Bees!’ Dolan shrieked. He grabbed Iris and held her in front of him. ‘First my car, now killer bees.’
‘Let’s get out of here,’ Iris said. She sounded defeated. ‘Let’s just go home.’
‘Okay,’ I said, but I wanted to get a closer look and maybe a few photos of this thing. I figured they might get me some favorites and likes on the Internet.
When I squatted close, I noticed that alongside the undulating spikes there were two watery ovals ringed with a ridge of veined flesh. They looked like eyeballs without the pupils. I wanted to reach out a finger and poke one.
When I did, the creature came back to life.
After things calmed down, I saw Dolan on his back in the road. I had closed my eyes and run away, swatting bees blindly with my hands. One of them had stung me on the neck. Dolan was doing much worse, though. His whole face was like an overinflated balloon. His skin was turning a dark, bruised red. Foam pooled beside his cheek on the pavement.
‘Oh my God,’ Iris said. ‘We have to get him to a hospital.’
I’d always suspected she was cheating on me with Dolan. This didn’t seem like the time to be thinking about that, but watching her kneel to cradle his head, I couldn’t help it.
‘There aren’t any hospitals around here. I haven’t seen a town for miles.’
‘We have to do something!’
Her phone wasn’t getting any signal, and mine was dead. I looked around and tried to think. A little ways down the road there was an old dirt path leading into the woods. It looked sparsely used, but at the foot there was a bashed-in mailbox labeled ‘The Scintleys’.
‘There’s a driveway over there.’ I pointed.
The creature had made it another fifty feet, but was lying still again. The bees descended on it in a swarm. The noise was thunderous.
We got Dolan up on his feet and put his arms around our shoulders. He was looking a little better, and even gurgled some words that sounded like either ‘a plan’ or ‘the pain!’ The front of his shirt was stained with drool. It took us a little while to get in sight of the house. Dolan was still breathing, but Iris and I were doing all the work. There were porch lights on at one point, and I noted it to Iris, but when I looked back they had been turned out. There was a string of faded prayer flags hanging on the porch. In the yard, a metal sculpture covered in glass bottles clinked in the wind.
We heard shuffling behind the door when we buzzed the buzzer.
‘Hey! Hey!’ Iris said and kept pressing the button. I was stooped under the weight of Dolan.
It was starting to get late. The sky was draining of color, and I could no longer see the sun through the patchwork of trees. I scratched the back of my neck where the bee had stung me and felt the hard, swelling bump.
Iris kept banging away.
Finally a man and a woman opened the door. They were both wearing scarves around their necks, gloves, and long sleeve tie-dyed shirts. I myself was sweating puddles in a shirt and jeans. I was worried they were from one of those weird religions that thought flesh was an abomination.
The bundled couple surveyed us for a few seconds. ‘You with the government?’ the man said when he’d worked up to our faces. His beard was overgrown, and there were little pink crumbs dotting his red lips.
‘Well, he works for the Department of Education,’ I said, pointing a thumb at Dolan.
Iris gave me a look that made me shut up quick. ‘What?’ she said. ‘No, we aren’t with the government. We got in an accident down the road because some bird ran in front of us, or flew or something, and my friend got stung by bees, and he can’t get stung by bees because it makes him swell up and not breathe, and we need to use a phone to get him to a hospital quick, please!’
‘We don’t have a phone up here,’ the man said slowly. ‘We try to live in harmony with our surroundings.’ Other than the clothes that covered most of their flesh, the two of them looked healthy and vital. When they smiled, I could see all their teeth.
Soon a small girl, also covered up to her chin, appeared between their legs. ‘Can they stay for dinner?’ the child said.
‘George,’ the woman said tenderly. ‘Invite them in. We’re still all children of the same cosmos, aren’t we?’
The woman guided us to a couch to rest Dolan on. His chest was rising and falling rhythmically now. His face was still grotesque, but it seemed he’d live.
‘I’ll make some herbal tea that will soothe his throat,’ the woman said. She told us her name was Feather and shook a pair of feathers stuck in her braid. ‘Like these,’ she said.
‘Tell me again what this crow looked like,’ George said. He tied his own long hair held back in a ponytail. ‘Don’t spare any details.’
After we went over it again, he said he’d go take a look at our car and headed out.
When they’d both left, I leaned over and rubbed Iris’s back. The sun was fading and letting in warm, pink light.
‘It’s kind of romantic up here, isn’t it?’ I whispered.
Iris was wiping drool off Dolan’s chin. ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ she said.
I don’t know why I’d said it. I think I was just trying to lighten the mood, because I was starting to get weirded out about the place. The last light of the day had slithered away, and the woman in the kitchen was knocking pots together. I kept thinking about the three-eyed goat and roadkill crow.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t drink anything,’ I said. ‘There might be something in the water up here.’
‘What do you know about water purity?’ she said.
‘I’m just saying I don’t know about these people. They’re wrapped up like mummies in the middle of summer.’
‘Now you’re a fashion expert too?’ Iris hissed.
Lately, Iris and I were always talking like this. We’d been good in the beginning, but along the way things had fallen off the rails. Maybe it was her fault, and maybe it was mine. More likely it was Dolan’s, but either way we were fighting more, and I was waking up every morning cold and angry.
The day drained away with Iris and Dolan on one couch and me stewing in my private stew. In that way, it was becoming too much like every other day.
Iris said it wasn’t polite to walk around without permission, but sitting still was making me paranoid. Maybe it was the stale air in that room or the finger paintings of wildlife on the walls. Iris was rubbing Dolan’s chest and telling him it would be okay. I kept thinking about Dolan and Iris naked and undulating against each other’s pink flesh. The bee sting on my neck was still swelling, and it hurt to touch. I took a few sips of Feather’s tepid, salmon-colored tea.
At some point, I nodded off.
In my dream, I was in a field of corn. The corn immediately around me had been flattened into a crop circle by asshole teenagers. The stalks around the circle were taller than me and bright green. They were so fresh they were dripping with perspiration. The old goat with the eye in the middle of its head walked out of the corn and into the circle. The crow was riding on its head between the horns. It flopped off the goat’s head and scurried across the downed corn toward me, pulling itself forward with its wings. It began cawing and crawling up my leg. Then it perspired and fell to the ground.
The goat let out a tortured howl, and I looked back up. It stared at me with all three eyes. A seam appeared above its nose, then stretched back across its head. When the seam made its way around to the chin, the goat’s skin and dirty white fur fell off, half to the left and half to the right.
I was wrong about the crow. It had come back to life and was trying to scale my leg. I could feel its claws digging into my shin.
Underneath the goat’s skin was a bloody mess that looked nothing like a goat. Then I realized it wasn’t a goat, it was Dolan! He was naked and covered in blood. There were rows of spikes going down his arms and legs.
‘What the hell is up with you and Iris?’ I said.
In response, the Dolan-goat let out another tortured howl, and another seam appeared. I could see something black and rubbery inside. Before this new seam could fully open, I was awoken to another Dolan shouting. This Dolan had one hand gripping my arm and the other gripping Iris’s.
‘Ow!’ she said, then, ‘You’re awake, thank God.’
I guess his throat was still swollen up, because he could barely talk. His words sounded like someone gargling with blood. ‘He’s cutting the brake lines.’
‘He must destroy one vessel to trap another.’
Feather was two rooms away. I saw her poke her head out the kitchen door and squint at us.
Iris’s eyes were wild, but I was confused. ‘What are you even talking about, Dolan?’
‘The bearded man,’ Dolan said, talking more quietly now and spitting up a bit of blood and foam.
‘You mean George?’ Iris said. ‘He’s fixing the car. We’re getting out of here and getting you to a hospital. You’ll be all right, I promise. You’re gonna be A-OK.’
Dolan closed his again. He seemed to be falling back to sleep.
‘No. I heard him tell the woman,’ he said.
‘Dolan, he isn’t even in the house.’
‘He talks without lips. They won’t let us leave. The flesh in his brain won’t allow it.’
When George finally came back, Dolan was snoring. George stood in the doorway and shook his head.
‘We can fix the tire, but the engine is busted. You’ll have to walk down the mountain to Gunderburg in the morning. You should get reception down there and be able to call a tow truck, but it isn’t safe till first light. We’ll fix you up a place to sleep in the spare room.’
‘Can’t we just use your computer and get a cab up here?’ Iris said.
‘We don’t use the Internet. We don’t need the government spying on us through the wires,’ the man said. ‘And anyway, we got everything we need right here in these beautiful woods.’
He left, saying he had to wash his hands. He was still wearing gloves.
‘Let’s head out now, before he gets back,’ Iris whispered.
‘We can’t carry Dolan down a whole mountain.’
‘We’re going to have to. We aren’t leaving him with paranoid hillbillies.’
‘I think they’re hippies, not hillbillies,’ I said.
She gave me a look that said I didn’t have a choice, then walked to the kitchen. ‘We really appreciate your hospitality, but we couldn’t impose. Do you have a flashlight we could borrow? We’ll head into town. We aren’t afraid of the night.’
The husband and wife gazed at each other for a minute or two without moving. Then the husband nodded and the wife turned back.
‘Stay for dinner, at least,’ George said. ‘I’ll make an all-natural herb paste to put on your friend’s stings, and you guys can go on your way with a belly full of organic food. No one can say the Scintleys don’t keep a house of healing and peace.’
When George went to go ‘gather some herbs and berries’ for the paste, I made an excuse to go use the bathroom. My neck was killing me, and I wanted to see what was up without worrying Iris.
The bathroom window was covered with old boards, but as I urinated I noticed a crack. I put my eye close. George was walking toward a cage with a long black rod like a cattle prod. The cage was covered with a ratty old tarp. George lifted a corner of the tarp and rattled the cage. His back was blocking what was inside. I saw him switch on the cattle prod.
Around that time, I started to feel a pain in my forehead. It was a pain that came from sound, a swelling hum. I stumbled, knocking over the soap.
Someone banged on the door. ‘You all right in there?’ My heart was beating quickly, but I decided to get out and pretend nothing had happened.
When I left, Feather closed the door behind me without going in.
The paste that we put on Dolan’s face was purple and chunky. It didn’t look as if it had any herbs in it. Still, Dolan’s face started to deflate, and he let out a pleased sigh. I sneaked a little to rub on the gumball-sized sting on my neck.
‘He looks peaceful,’ the little girl said. She’d been standing in the doorway, pulling at the arms of her ragdoll. ‘I bet he’s dreaming about the stars.’
One weird thing about dinner was that none of the Scintleys touched the normal food. There was roasted wild rabbit, a bowl of green beans, and mashed potatoes. They passed the plates around a few times, and Feather even took a scoop of potatoes, but all they actually chewed were fleshy pink strips laid out on a sterling silver platter. They didn’t pass that platter to us.
‘So what kind of plant is that?’ Iris said. ‘Bamboo?’
‘Something like that,’ George said.
‘Try some!’ the little girl said.
‘Oh, they wouldn’t like it, Clover,’ the mother said coldly. She turned to us, ‘It’s from a species that’s only native to these hills. An acquired taste. And we don’t have much of it to spare. I’m sure you understand.’
The little girl frowned and crossed her arms. The strips on the plate looked sticky and sweet. They were sitting in a pool of muddy yellow sauce.
Iris and I exchanged a look. She went back to poking her food with her fork. It didn’t look like she’d eaten much. I hadn’t either. My head was bothering me. The swarming noise had returned and was drowning my thoughts. It felt like a bad gin hangover, and I bent forward in pain. Some kind of liquid trickled out of my ear.
Then suddenly the noise cleared, as if it had been sucked away by a vacuum cleaner.
Why are you lying? Clover said, only not exactly. She was looking at her mother, yet her lips weren’t moving.
Honeypot, we don’t know yet if the flesh of the star-fallen is for them.
The crow-bitten has the aura, George’s voice said, but the other two are likely just allergic to bees.
All three family members were still. They weren’t even moving their utensils, and I had the sudden feeling I was in a wax museum. The buzzing noise started up in my head again suddenly. I squeezed my eyes shut and concentrated until it stopped.
But I want friends. I want to play. It’s boring up here alone!
You know I’m not violent darling, George’s voice said, but if you don’t listen to your mother, I’ll have to pull out the respect belt.
‘Hey,’ I said, ‘let’s all calm down.’
I immediately realized my error.
The three family members silently turned their heads toward me. George and Feather had their mouths agape. Clover was smiling.
‘What the hell are you talking about?’ Iris said, annoyed. The rest of us didn’t talk though. We were waiting for someone to make the first move.
He has the star-fallen aura. He heard!
Pretend nothing happened. We have to make sure the host has enough time.
‘Excuse me,’ George said, enunciating every syllable. ‘I think I hear nature calling, so to speak.’
He stood up and carefully put his chair back. He stretched his arms and scratched his bearded neck. I could see him looking at me from the corner of his eye.
‘I’m going to check on Dolan,’ Iris said. ‘Thanks for the dinner, it was very, uh, well balanced.’ When she stood up, Feather grabbed her hand.
‘You haven’t had dessert,’ she said. ‘I make a completely organic berry pie.’
‘Hey, don’t grab me,’ Iris said and yanked at Feather’s gloved hand. When she did, the glove came off, and Feather and Iris both gasped.
‘What the fuck did you do to your hand?’
Feather’s hand alighted back on Iris’s. It wasn’t a normal hand. It was swollen and bright pink, with rows of tiny spikes running down the middle of four fingers. Only the pinky had remained unchanged. Her fingernails on the other four fingers had fallen off, but the skin underneath looked odd. Each finger ended in the same watery, pupil-less eye.
‘Oh dearie,’ she said, pulling her hand back and covering it with a napkin. ‘I guess the cat’s out of the bag now.’
We managed to get the family room door locked and began propping up furniture. Even from behind the shut door, I could hear the parents shouting at each other in my mind. Clover was laughing. My head was swimming in sound and adrenaline, and I could only hear fragments. Does the woman have it too? . . . Will he want to join the circle? . . . This is serious, Clover . . . signal with burnt skin . . . and so on.
‘Dolan, we have to go. Wake up!’ Her tears were mixing with the flecks of George’s blood. I went over to her and she grabbed my hand. Her grip was so tight her fingernails dug into my skin, and I started bleeding.
‘What did they do to him? What the fuck is wrong with these people?’
Dolan, if he was still Dolan, was lying engorged on the couch. His skin had turned even darker. It looked as if his entire body was one huge bruise. His stomach cavity was swelling outward, spilling over his jeans and remaining rib cage. You could see that several of the ribs had cracked where bits of bone had ripped through his shirt. Rivulets of pus dripped from little holes in his skin where tiny translucent bulbs had emerged. His eyes were closed and crusted with dark gunk.
Iris kept yelling ‘no’ and pinching her face as if she was trying to wake up from a dream. I’d never been a big fan of Dolan, but even I didn’t like seeing him like this. I wished we could all be back in that car, driving through the woods in our angry silence back to the city.
The Scintleys were knocking politely on the door. ‘Brother, sister, open the door and commune with us. You don’t know the joy your friend has in store!’
‘We need to get out of here,’ I said, trying to pull Iris up.
‘Fuck you,’ Iris said quietly. She was weeping. ‘Do you even know what Dolan did for me? I had a life before we dated, you know. And it was a shitty life until Dolan helped me out. I’m not leaving him to die on a couch.’
‘We’ll get help. We’ll go get help and come back and save him.’
She was trying to lift Dolan and wouldn’t move. I tried to help her, and we got him almost standing. His skin was covered in sweat and goo. He slipped out of our arms and onto the rug. He let out a deep inhuman groan as he fell.
Iris balled her hands into fists and snarled, ‘Oh, we’re coming back all right. We’re coming back to fuck those fuckers up.’
There was a side door that opened to the backyard. Iris and I sprinted toward the shack, holding hands. My heart was pulsing like a strobe light.
It was pretty dark out, and we ducked into the space between the shack and the covered cage to catch our breaths. Iris leaned against the cage. ‘Those cocksuckers, those motherfuckers,’ she was saying between huffs.
I peeked over the edge of the cage and saw Feather in the light of the kitchen window. She was pointing out toward something behind their house with her deformed hand. It wasn’t in our direction.
‘We’ll sneak down that slope and make our way back to the road,’ Iris said. ‘Then we’ll come back with police and guns and fucking rapid dogs.’
‘Do you mean rabid dogs?’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Okay. That’s a plan.’ I was distracted though. My head was starting to buzz again, and the noise seemed to somehow be emanating from the cage. There was a presence in there cooing to me, like a mother to a child, without words. It wanted me to reach inside.
Iris slapped my hand. ‘What are you doing?’ she whispered. ‘We need to go. We need to help Dolan.’
The buzzing in my head made me close my eyes. I couldn’t help it. It felt as if my insides were brittle, cracking glass. It was originating from the bee sting on my neck. I reached back to rub it. When my fingertip touched the swollen sting on my neck, everything in front of me dissolved from black to white to black again.
I wasn’t seeing Iris or any woods or house or tarp-covered cage.
I was in a cyclopean pink cave at least as large as a football stadium. It was lit from undulating yellow orbs that sank from the ceilings, stretching out like drool from sleeping lips, until they snapped and splattered on the floor. When they splattered, their light disappeared. The cave itself was scaly, but pulsing. The floor surged and waned.
When I crawled forward, the scales of the floor opened up around my hands and feet. I sank in, and then the scales closed back. The toothless mouths of the floor gummed my elbows and knees. I could feel my skin being rubbed off. I cried out in pain.
There was a presence that was trying to speak to me, but it didn’t know how. It was assaulting me, yelling things at me that weren’t words or human feelings. I tried to say, ‘I don’t understand,’ but when I did, a fissure opened between my bottom front teeth.
The fissure crept down my chest. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it splitting open down my stomach and all the way around. I could feel myself opening. I was sliding to each side. I tried to scream again, and my teeth fell out, replaced by small, stunted spikes that hurt my tongue. Then my eyes dripped away, running down my checks and hanging over the floor.
When they hit the cave floor, everything went black again.
Welcome back to this realm.
George was standing over me. He’d taken his scarf off, and I could see the swollen mound of spikes on his neck. He was holding a lantern with a bare, deformed hand. His other held the cattle prod at his side.
I looked around and didn’t see Iris. Iris was always threatening to leave me, but I hadn’t thought it would happen like this.
‘I think we got off on the wrong foot,’ George said. ‘You can understand why we’re wary of strangers. If the government found us, who knows what experiments their sick scientists would do. We have to protect it. We’re all it has.’ Plus you and me are brothers now, aren’t we?
‘Let me show you something. Can you get on your feet?’
He helped me up and motioned toward the cage. ‘Take a look and prepare to be amazed by what this universe contains,’ he said. His smile was gigantic. I couldn’t tell if his teeth were real or covering something else.
I could feel that presence again, humming something to me. It was vibrating my spine. I didn’t know what the hell it was trying to say. I pulled the tarp off the cage and immediately gasped and stepped backwards.
I don’t know what kind of horror I was expecting, but my stomach was instantly filled with sadness.
The creature was about the size of a Great Dane, and was resting on its side on the bottom of the cage. It wasn’t shaped quite like a dog though. The body was a distorted orb, wider at one end than the other. It looked almost like an elongated apple, except covered in cracked pink flesh. Rows of translucent spikes ran down its body in five columns. They met up at a wrinkled sphincter at the top. The creature’s body didn’t move, but its spikes undulated up and down in a sad rhythm. Between the rows of spikes there were sets of large watery ovals that seemed to be eyes. A bit of yellow-green liquid, like pea soup, dripped out of one or two of them.
‘Incredible, isn’t it?’ George said. ‘We found this wonder in the cornfield back there, flopping around on the ground like a fish yanked out of water.’ He held his hands together and bowed toward the cage.
‘Where did it come from?’
‘It fell here from another glorious world. We found a thick round rubber vessel nearby.’ He motioned off into the woods. ‘Its house, I guess. If you want proof of how mysterious the cosmos are, watch this.’
George flicked on the cattle prod and jammed it inside.
The creature began convulsing, its spikes flailing in all directions. A sweet stench, like burnt garlic, surrounded us.
The message the creature was sending me was very clear now. Pain. Its hurt rained through my body, and by the scrunched-up look on George’s face, his too. Then there was a thick ripping sound, like someone pulling apart an enormous steak with their hands.
‘I can always feel its life force when I do that,’ he said. When I looked back down, there were two creatures in the cage, identical in size and shape. They were both smaller than the one before.
‘This creature doesn’t even consume plants, much less animals. It sustains itself on electricity, and makes love with it. It’s how it reproduces. We’ve been eating its bounty, using every part like the Indians. We always keep one half of it alive and strong. If it wasn’t for our care, it would have surely died already.’ George hung the lantern on a hook on the wall of the nearby shack. ‘It’s been rewarding us too, transferring its aura to us and allowing our life forces to merge.’ But you already know that, don’t you?
He pulled a small black pistol from the back of his pants. He used the gun to scratch the underside of his chin.
‘I didn’t eat any of it,’ I said.
‘No, but I suppose those bees must have communed with it before stinging you. The crow put something different in your fellow traveler though. He isn’t like you and me. Feather and I don’t even know exactly what he will birth, but I think you can understand why we couldn’t let you leave.’
He pressed the side of the gun into his cheek, as if he was making a motion to fall asleep. ‘Well, I abhor guns, but I have to keep the forces in balance.’ He lowered the gun and fired. The new creature trembled once, and then was still.
The first creature’s eyes turned dark. The spikes drooped downward, and a cloud of rank gas whiffed out of its wrinkly hole.
George scratched his beard with the barrel again. It must have still been hot, because I smelled a bit of singed hair. He smiled and put the gun back in his pants.
‘Can’t you feel how connected we are? I wasn’t sure at first, but after you spoke at dinner I knew. This wonderful being has touched both of us and joined our chis.’
He leaned his head back so he was facing the stars and let out a whoop.
I didn’t even see Iris coming, but she whacked George pretty good in the back of the head. When he fell forward, his chin hit the cage and his teeth smacked together with a wet crunch.
‘You sick hippie hick!’ She was on top of him now and gashing his back with a hatchet she’d found God knows where. His blood turned the dirt under him into mud. The mixture was dotted with broken bits of teeth. ‘You aren’t nice people! You’re sicko pervert assholes!’
Finally she stopped and stood over him, breathing rapidly. When she looked at me, I saw her face was splattered with blood. Some had gotten in her left eye, making her wink.
‘Where did you learn to do that?’ I said.
‘It’s not hard, you just swing,’ she said. ‘Are you okay?’
I said I thought I was and she smiled.
‘Then let’s get Dolan and the hell back to the city.’
‘What about that thing? I don’t want to leave it like that.’
Iris looked in the cage and groaned.
‘What kind of shit is that? A diseased walrus? I can’t deal with this right now. I’m getting Dolan, and you’re coming with me, and we’re never coming out to this shithole again.’
Feather broke down in tears when she saw us walk by splattered in blood.
‘Run, run to your room!’ she said to Clover, shielding her with her body. She moaned George’s name and started chanting in a language I didn’t understand.
Iris walked right past her though, and I followed.
‘Dolan,’ Iris said quietly. The thing she was talking to didn’t look like Dolan to me. His flesh had sloughed off. His face was bunched up like a rubber mask on the floor.
In the cavity of Dolan, a thick black orb was expanding. It was half in, half out of Dolan. Bits of him clung to its curved sides. The stench of the room made me pinch my nose shut. A few dark strands extended out of the orb, writhing on the floor. Another strand had made its way out of Dolan’s ear and slithered into the wall socket.
Iris was throbbing with tears. I pulled her away and hugged her. ‘Hey, it’ll be all right. We’re gonna be all right.’
Iris pushed her hands up my chest in what I took to be a tender way. But when her hands reached my neck, she shoved me back violently.
‘My fucking best friend is dead! It’s not going to be all right, you dick! How did I ever even date you? What is wrong with your fucking brain?’
She tore at her hair and looked around the room with wild eyes. She ran a few feet toward one door, then turned and ran back toward the couch. She didn’t seem to know what to do, but eventually she threw the axe at the orb. ‘This is bullshit!’ she screamed.
I barely heard Feather yell, ‘It’s not safe out of the cage, go back!’ When I turned around, she was trying to shove the creature back out the door.
I’d left the cage door open before we came inside. I’d tried to project a message of peace and forgiveness.
The pink creature was moving toward the Dolan-orb, inching along like a worm. It stopped and turned to Feather. She was chanting her prayer and pushing with all her might. Then the top of the creature, where the rows of spikes converged on the sphincter, expanded open. The creature bunched up, and, I guess, inhaled.
Feather’s leg got sucked right in up to the knee. She screamed, hopping on her other leg. Her right leg was inside the creature for about three seconds, then the creature spat what was left back out. Fleshless bones hung from her kneecap. She tried to stand on both legs, but the bare bones collapsed with her weight, and she tumbled to the floor. She looked completely confused and her eyes darted around. Blood poured over the white bones.
The creature did the same thing to her left leg. It sucked it in as she screamed, then spat it out as neat, white bones. The creature rolled a little to the left and regurgitated a pile of tendons, muscle and blood. Feather was barely moving now. The creature shifted itself to face her twitching arm.
When Iris saw the creature continuing toward us, she shouted, ‘You aren’t coming near Dolan, pus bag!’
I pulled her out of the way just as the thing was opening its hole. Iris struggled against me, but I held on.
Go on, we won’t stop you, I tried to say to the creature. I concentrated as hard as I could. I am sorry for what the man and woman did to you. We killed the bearded one for you.
The creature’s opening was facing us. I could see a strange yellow light inside. It stayed there for a few seconds, then clenched back up. It turned toward the black orb.
By this point, the orb had expanded to the size of the couch. The bottom was still expanding out of the cavity of Dolan. It didn’t seem fully formed. A half-dozen thin threads were wrapped around the appliances in the room. You could hear the hum of the electricity moving through them.
The creature emitted a low rumble, and a part of the orb opened up, like a slit in a curtain.
I saw Clover standing in the other entranceway. She was sniffling, but watching intently.
Dad, Dad, she said in my mind.
Don’t worry, I said. Stay still and close your eyes.
The creature started to crawl into the opening of the orb. The swarm in my head was intercepting something. It wasn’t quite words, but I could tell the orb was its ship, and that the creature was going to return home.
‘We have to get outside,’ I yelled. ‘It’s going to break through the roof!’
That didn’t happen though.
Instead, a jolt of blue electricity surged up the orb thread from the wall socket. The lights started flickering. Clover and Iris screamed and ran outside. I started to follow them, but before we could make it out, there was a loud pop and all the lights shut off. Everything turned black.
I could sense something, either panic or resignation, coming from the creature. I opened a long cut on my calf scrambling out of the house. Iris and Clover were already in the yard.
‘I guess the fuses blew,’ I said.
Iris smiled and guffawed. Clover was smiling too, but I didn’t get why.
‘We should move farther back,’ I said.
We don’t have to. He can’t leave, Clover said. The vessel was only partially born. He’ll have to stay with us!
The air was cool outside, but the stars were shining brightly. We stood out in the yard for a while before the creature tumbled out of the house. It seemed Clover was right. The pink creature looked confused rolling around the wet grass. No one said anything, not even Clover.
I couldn’t tell if it saw us, or even if it cared we were there. Maybe it didn’t care about anything now. It inched away in a different direction, moving slowly toward the dark, open woods.
‘Yes, leave you asshole!’ Iris finally said when it was almost out of sight. ‘I hope Dolan’s ghost haunts you all the way to Mars!’
I guess it wasn’t much of a surprise, but Iris and I didn’t last much longer. We made it back to the city intact, but everything that had happened was too much for her. Or maybe we just weren’t meant to be.
She moved out of her apartment a few weeks later, saying it smelled too much like Dolan. I never did learn if there was anything more going on there. Soon Iris left the city and flew across the country. She sent me one postcard with a picture of tanned bodies on the beach that said, ‘Wish you were here to oil me up!’ but on the back she had written, ‘I know it isn’t your fault, but that thing that killed Dolan is in your bloodstream. I can’t fuck someone knowing there is an alien eye on the back of their neck. I hope you understand. Formerly yours, Iris.’
I’m doing all right though. I’m not as angry as I used to be. When I get worked up, my head throbs, so I have to be calm and let things move through me. The eye on the back of my neck doesn’t look too much bigger, but it’s hard to tell. I wear a lot of turtlenecks.
Plus, I’ve got someone to take care of now. Little Clover, who likes to play Nintendo and makes us go out on the roof to watch the sky at night.
What happened to my second daddy? she asks me. When’s he coming back to take us away to a planet that isn’t full of jerks? She has more of the flesh in her than me, so I don’t bother lying to her. She’d know. I say it probably died in those woods. Most likely it got mistaken for a deer by a hunter and shot, or else chewed up by wolves.
But Clover, I say, even when we die, we never truly go away.
I don’t mean that hogwash about friends and family living on in our memories. I mean that creatures like Clover and me, those with the star-fallen flesh inside us, are not restrained by these bodies. When we die, even the worms and bugs that inspect our remains become touched. Our life force multiplies inside them, creating yet more vessels that crawl through the dark soil with new purpose. They spill out onto the green grass to scatter and grow and spread.
‘Dark Air’ is included in the collection Upright Beasts, published by Coffee House Press. Copyright © 2015 by Lincoln Michel. Photograph courtesy of the National Institute of Health (NIH).