Mara hated how her breathing sounded inside the spacesuit. Her helmet amplified everything – the slow draw of the inhale, with that ever-so-faint squeak at the end. A leftover from the asthma she’d had as a child. The exhale that whooshed out and echoed in her ears, a hollow, close sound that made her feel like she’d been buried alive. It would have been worse if the visor had fogged up, but the thermal plastic kept that from happening. A small blessing. With her own hollow breath in her ears, she turned on her helmet camera and keyed in the override for the airlock.
The interior of the derelict ship wasn’t what she’d expected. Darkness, dust, broken things – that was what every fiction she’d seen since childhood had prepared her for. It was a well-worn plot, after all: distress call, motionless ship, no answer. Followed by a throwaway character going in to explore and being devoured by something the filmmakers could barely afford to pay for.
Of course, no one had ever run into a horrible, carnivorous Monster from Beyond the Stars before, so Mara assured herself that she was perfectly safe. Right on the heels of that thought was the quiet whisper in the back of her mind that said, “But there’s always a first time.”
She wasn’t sure what bothered her more, that she might get eaten alive or that she might be a throwaway character. Neither was very appealing to think about.
The helmet radio crackled in her ear. “Mara, we’re seeing the airlock open. How does everything look?”
She gave herself a light push off the wall and drifted through the hatch. “All looks good, Marco,” she said. “The lights are on.” She checked the readout on her helmet display. “Atmosphere seems intact.” She reached out to the wall and let the ridged fingertips of her gloves drag her to a halt. “Gravity’s off, but otherwise…”
Otherwise it looked like someone should come around the corner any minute and ask her what the hell she thinks she’s doing there. “Marco, what’s the stats on this ship?”
“Hold,” he said. A few loud breaths later, he was back. “Huh,” he said. “Looks like a Hermes-class, small diplomatic vessel. Uploading schematics now.” An orange icon blinked into life on her helmet screen, in the lower left. Mara held her gaze on it, and a detailed 3-D map of the ship blossomed before her eyes.
“Did the S.O.S. say anything about it being a diplomatic mission?” she asked.
“Not a thing,” Marco said. “And you’d think that might be the kind of information that’d be useful. But it was just a distress call, and nothing else. Automated, sent out to Any and All.”
“Nope. If I can get the ship’s ID code, Ken might able to dig something up. He said he did a database backup at our last station visit. Try the bridge, see what you can find.”
“Gotcha.” She glanced around the schematic until she found the bridge – three decks up and at the farthest point from where she was now. “Marco. Grab my helmet feed. Tell me if I’m missing anything.”
“Already done,” he said. “Off with you.” The persistent hiss of the open channel clicked off.
There was a lift about ten meters down the corridor. She thought about it, and then called up the schematics again to look for an access vent. Someplace where she would be slightly less trapped. She pulled a vent cover off and stuck her head inside. It would be close, but she could fit.
The trip along the vent was short and uneventful. She braced her back against the wall and pushed with her feet, popping the vent cover off and sending it bouncing off the opposite wall. When she looked out into the corridor, the first thing she did was curse. Loudly and well.
“Mara?” Marco’s voice cut through the mix of rage and fear that she found herself overwhelmed by. “Mara, is everything okay?”
Everything was most certainly not okay. The walls were covered with old, dried blood. There were splashes on the floor and ceiling alike, bloody handprints, and long, smeared drag marks. It was all a dark, iron brown, and there were tiny flecks of dried blood floating in the air like motes of dust in an abandoned house.
“Holy shit,” Marco said.
Mara swallowed hard. “My thoughts exactly.”
“What do you think happened?”
Mara was pretty sure she knew what happened. She figured Marco knew too, but the question still had to be asked. “Looks like we’re gonna have to find out,” she said. The blood trail led off to her right, which the schematics said was in the direction of the bridge. “I’ll follow this,” she said. She pulled herself out of the access vent and started floating along the corridor, following the blood.
There was more blood as she went along, and the bloody dust in the air seemed to be getting thicker. When she turned the first corner, it just got worse.
There was a head resting where the floor and wall met, and it was facing away from her. It was a small blessing, but the rest of the corridor looked like a slaughterhouse. The blood was now mixed with what was unmistakably flesh, and it caked the walls where it wasn’t floating through the air. “Marco,” she said. “How many people does a Hermes usually carry?”
There as a pause. When he spoke, Marco’s voice was quiet and hoarse. “Around fifty,” he said. “Maybe more, depending on the mission.”
“Jesus,” she said.
She checked the map. The bridge was just up the corridor, but she really, really didn’t want to find it. Whoever – and she couldn’t stop amending that to Whatever – had either come from or gone to the bridge. In a ship this size, there were plenty of places to hide, but everything pointed to Mara walking into a horror house.
The bridge door was covered with bloody handprints. Mara took a deep breath and thought about how lucky she was that she couldn’t smell anything. Her stomach lurched anyway, and she gritted her teeth and closed her eyes. The suit had ways of handling puke in the helmet, but it was still horrible, and she’d never live it down.
The door opened at her approach.
Except for the floating naked corpse in the middle of the bridge, it all looked perfectly normal. the man was thin and very clearly dead. His throat had been cut, and he was hovering in a thick cloud of dried blood. The main screen was dark, as we’re most of the other consoles on the bridge. Mara moved from point to point, trying to get an idea of who this ship was.
There was an axe buried in the communications console.
To Be Continued… (I keep using that phrase… I do not think it means what I think it means…)
“It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well.”
The living room of the Browning house smelled of lilies and expensive wood polish. It was small, and looked smaller with the crowd that had been assembled inside. Detective Branden Horne wanted to smoke a cigarette, but dared not. The wrath of Mrs. Browning would overpower her need to know who killed her husband, which was the reason all these people were assembled. On top of that, he knew that he would have far too much to answer for before the afternoon was over as it was.
The five other people in the room were the most likely suspects for the murder of Christopher Browning. Elton, his son, looked like his father in miniature – tall and pallid, as though someone had taken a normal young man and stretched him out with a roller. His liquid brown eyes always seemed to be on the verge of tears, and he looked down at his over-large feet in despair. His sister, Trudi, was almost his opposite. She was short and heavy and outgoing, and wore colors so vivid that they hurt to look at. Even during the investigation of her father’s death, Trudi had been relentlessly cheerful, which was enough to increase suspicion in Branden’s eyes.
Curtis Hancock had been the hardest to convince to come to this meeting. He lurked in a back corner of the room and scowled, except when his eyes lit on the widow Browning. When he saw her, his ruddy face softened and he looked nearly like the person he’d been before she decided to marry the richest man in town. If the crowd could have taken a vote on who the murderer was, Curtis would’ve been hanging before the sun went down.
Addie Horton was standing next to Mrs. Browning, with a cup of tea in one hand and the other on the shoulder of her grieving best friend. She had brought over one of her hand-made prayer shawls – “A prayer in every stitch,” she’d said when she put it around Mrs. Browning’s slumped shoulders. Addie wore the role of best friend well, and it made Branden wonder how much she really knew.
Finally, Celinda Browning herself. She had been older than her husband when they married – he was a millionaire at forty-five, and she was a divorced schoolteacher in her fifties. But they had fallen in love and retreated out to his favorite country house. There she taught some local homeschool children while he indulged in his artistic hobbies. They lived a life that seemed idyllic to anyone looking in, and as far as anyone knew they were perfectly happy.
Five days ago, Christopher Browning had been found dead in his workshop, bludgeoned to death by one of his own hand-made scrap metal sculptures. His wife hadn’t seen him since the day before and wanted to check up on him, but she couldn’t even enter the workshop due to the overpowering smell of solvents and acids that he used in his work. She called the police, who sent in a HAZMAT team to retrieve the body and make the crime scene accessible. When they brought out his body and gently removed the ventilation hood from his head, Celinda had to be held back by three officers so that she couldn’t embrace her husband and contaminate the body.
Branden had been assigned to the case, and very quickly narrowed down the suspects.
“Thank you all for coming,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to do one of these drawing-room reveals.” He chuckled, but no one else did. No one was even looking at him.
He cleared his throat. “You all know what happened,” he said, “but I wanted to update you on what we’ve found so far.” He took the investigation folder from his briefcase and flipped it open. “Christopher Browning was killed by repeated blows to the head with a large metal object. We think the killer was right-handed, but that’s not much to go on. The killer left no fingerprints and no DNA evidence that we could find. And the isolated nature of Mister Browning’s workshop means that there were no eyewitnesses.” He snapped the folder shut.
Branden took a handkerchief from his jacket pocket, and a small plastic bottle from his briefcase. “There are lots of reasons why someone would want to kill Christopher Browning,” he said as he uncapped the bottle. The faint smell of eucalyptus blossomed in the air, and this finally got their attention. He dripped the pale blue liquid into his handkerchief. “Money, love, revenge – those are the reasons that people usually kill.” He capped the bottle and put it back in the briefcase. “Honestly, I don’t really care why one person kills another. All I care about is that the killer gets caught.”
He put his hands behind his back and started to pace. “I talked to all of you, and really I think all of you had reasons to kill him.” They watched him as he walked back and forth, and he relished drawing out the moment. “As I said, there was very little solid evidence left behind, and I had a lot of work to do as far as investigations go.” He shrugged. “Most criminals are stupid. They make a mistake and leave something behind.” He stopped and looked at each of them in turn. “This killer did not.”
He walked back to his briefcase and took out a small glass bottle, filled with a pale yellow liquid. “That doesn’t mean, however, that the killer didn’t make a mistake.” He uncapped the bottle and swiftly brought the handkerchief up to cover his mouth and nose.
The room went mad. Celinda Browning doubled over and vomited onto her shoes, just moments before her daughter did the same. Elton groaned and held his stomach, his face reddening as he willed himself not to lose control, and Curtis was on his feet, waving his hand to try and clear the air around his head of the horrifying sulfurous stench that had erupted around them. Branden smiled under the handkerchief, even though his eyes were beginning to water. He’d confiscated the stink bomb from his son weeks ago, and had been looking for a good chance to use it. The capstone of a murder investigation was as good a time as any.
He put the cap back on the bottle and went around the living room to open the windows, gripping the handkerchief in his teeth. The smell would never really go away, but he figured that Mrs. Browning would have enough money to get it ripped out and cleaned. Knowing that his little stunt revealed her husband’s murderer would be some small comfort.
When he turned back, the group was glaring at him, in between heaving breaths and groans. Elton had the collar of his shirt up over his nose, and Trudi was helping Addie guide Mrs. Browning to the sofa. After a moment, Branden lowered the handkerchief and blinked a few times at the lingering smell. “Mrs. Horton,” he said to Addie. “How are you feeling?”
“How am I feeling?” she said over her shoulder. “That was an ugly stunt you pulled young man. Poor Cellie is already in enough distress!”
“Yeah,” Branden said. “But I asked about you. How are you feeling?”
Addie stood up, but didn’t say anything.
“You didn’t seem too bothered yourself,” he said, taking a step towards her. “Didn’t that smell get to you?”
Her face went flat and she narrowed her eyes. “If you must know,” she said, “I was born with no sense of smell.” She sniffed, and Branden suppressed a smile. “It’s something I’ve never been terribly thankful for, until now.”
Branden nodded. “I thought so.” He put his handkerchief and the little bottle in his pocket. “When I visited you, you were doing laundry, right?” Addie nodded. “I remember that, mainly because I was wondering what kind of detergent you used. The basket in your arms should have smelled like flowers or sunshine or something, but it actually had quite a whiff of metal oils and some of the other chemicals that the deceased used in his craft. Not a smell most people would want lingering among their clean clothes, I thought. So I did a little asking around.”
Addie Horton had gone pale as Branden talked, and she looked around the room as though she was looking for someone to come to her rescue. All she saw, however, was anger and astonishment. She was starting to breathe more quickly, and Branden readied himself for anything. “You didn’t know what the workshop smelled like, Addie. You had no idea.” He took another step closer to her and she flinched. “You killed him. The smell stuck to your clothes and you brought it home.”
“You have to be kidding,” she spat. “You can’t prove it was me just because of that!”
Branden nodded. “You’re right – we can’t. But I only said that we had very little evidence. Not that we had none.” He smiled sheepishly. “The thing about fingerprints? I lied.”
Addie gasped. “Then all this…?” She looked around the room, at the people who were pale and sick and furious. Mrs. Browning looked like she was ready to pass out again. “Why did you do this?” Addie asked.
“I needed to be sure,” Branden said. “And like I mentioned, I’ve always wanted to do the drawing-room reveal.” He took his cell phone out from inside his jacket. “You want to come quietly?” he asked as he flipped it open. “Or do I need to call in some back-up?”
The moment hung in the air, and Branden honestly wasn’t sure which way she would go. Finally, she just slumped and nodded. Branden dialed his phone. “It’s over,” he said. “Come on in.” He reached out and took her shoulder.
“Cellie,” she said, turning in his grip. Mrs. Browning looked away from her. “Cellie, I’m sorry.” She tried to reach out, but Branden pulled her away. “I can’t explain, but… I’m so sorry.” She crumpled to the floor as she said the last words, and Branden caught her in his arms. He held her there, in silence, until the other officers came in, handcuffed her, and led her away.
This was done for the upcoming Worth1000.com contest “Odor.” With luck, I’ll be able to chop out 200 words and get the rest into fighting shape in the next twelve hours….
As my cast list grows, every now and then I’ll randomly choose two characters and see what happens when I put them together. Insofar as there is a canon to any of these stories, these are not canon. Or maybe they are. We’ll see.
Green hair isn’t something you can hide easily in high school. Evelyn Pierce certainly tried, but she found that trying to go from a deep, mossy green back to her normal blonde was asking for more than modern cosmetics could offer. The new tint ignored the bleach utterly, and she knew she wasn’t goth enough to pull off dyeing her hair black. So green it was.
She got complaints from teachers, who called her parents, who said they had no idea what was going on. There was no history of green hair in the family, of course, and they were as concerned as anyone.
Compared to what else was happening, though, green hair was the least of Evelyn’s problems.
The real trouble started in biology class, as it so often does. The project was simple: clone a plant. Take a cutting, put it in some agar in a tube and try to cultivate cells from it. Each student pair did just that – plant, cutting, agar, incubate. Evelyn was paired with Rachael Decker, which made life easier. Rachael was a rarity in high school – someone who was incredibly popular, but at the same time genuinely nice. She didn’t care who you were, but rather treated everyone with basic human decency.
No one knew how she managed. But if there was any better person to have to work with when your hair was turning green, Evelyn didn’t know her. All Rachael said when she saw it for the first time was, “Wow! That looks nice!” And that was it. From anyone else, Evelyn would have suspected sarcasm. But not Rachael Decker.
The results of the experiment were, for most of the pairs, fairly ordinary. Lots of fungal infections from improperly cleaned equipment, a few that showed some sign of growth.
Evelyn’s had exploded. It broke through its glass tube and sent blind tendrils all through the incubator, infiltrating other experiments and completely ruining half the class’ work. Mr. Peters, the bio teacher, was amused, if anything. “Looks like we have a success,” he said, carefully disentangling the thing from all the others. He handed it to Evelyn and Rachael. “What’re you going to name it?”
Rachael laughed, but Evelyn didn’t even hear him. She was too busy listening to the horrible thing she was holding in her hands as it screamed at her. It was… crying. Like a horrible, twisted baby. And no one seemed to notice.
She dropped it and ran out of the bio lab. She went to the nurse, who called her parents, who took her home. As they drove, the whispering voice of that thing tickled her mind, and wherever she looked she felt like she was being watched.
She missed school the next day, and the day after. She wouldn’t leave her room – going to the living room with her mother’s potted plants was painful enough, and when her father mowed the lawn she nearly went mad. The grass screamed at her. The begonias begged for their freedom. She couldn’t even take a shower – as scrupulous as her mother was about cleaning, there was still mold somewhere, and it spoke to her in a horrible black voice that made her teeth hurt.
After a few days, her mother poked her head into the bedroom. “Evey, honey? You have a visitor?” Everything her mother said sounded like a question. It always had, and it always bugged Evelyn, but not now,
“I can’t, mom,” she said.
“She says it’s important? It’s your friend Rachael?”
The thought that Rachael could make everything better was stupid, she knew. Childish. No one could make things better, not ever. But it planted itself in her, and took hold. If she could talk to anyone, it would be Rachael. “I’ll… I’ll come down,” she said.
She brushed her hair and changed her clothes for the first time in two days. Rachael wouldn’t mind if she smelled a little.
She heard them as she walked down the stairs. Her mother was a big believer in houseplants and kept them all over the place. Every room had green, growing things in it and until this week Evelyn thought they were nice. That they added some life and some freshness to the house. Now she could hear their voices as they strained for sunlight, called for water and ached in the pots that were provided for them. They wanted to be outside, to have their roots in deep soil and to be able to feel the breeze, to host insects and to be wild again. All of that in a cacophony of noise in her head that was so very loud. By the time she was in the living room, she was whimpering, and didn’t even notice that Rachael was there.
“Evey?” Rachael asked, putting her hands on her Evelyn’s shoulders. “Evey, are you okay?”
All Evelyn could do was shake her head. She wanted to speak, but she couldn’t unclench her mouth.
“I’ll leave you two alone?” he mother said. “If you want anything…?” She left, looking worried.
Rachael guided Evelyn over to the sofa, next to a sprawling philodendron on the side table that was singing, of all things. Singing! Evelyn whimpered as she sat. Rachael sat next to her, her hand on Evelyn’s knee. There was a rubber plant on the other side of the sofa that was growling something Evelyn couldn’t make out. “I know what you’re going through,” Rachael said.
Evelyn wanted to laugh, but that seemed like a very bad idea. What had Rachael gone through that was like this? What had she had to endure? The pitch of the plant noise ebbed for a moment, and she could sense a change in the room. An attention that wasn’t there before. A quiet, definite attention.
They were listening to her.
“Sometimes, life just gets weird, y’know?” Rachael continued. “But I want you to know I’m here if you need anything.” She leaned in. “Is it those guys from the swim team? Because they’re just assholes, and you know it.”
Evelyn shook her head again, but thinking of the laughter and the taunts she got when her hair changed just made it worse. She could feel something uncoiling inside her, something horrible and deadly. The plants had fallen utterly silent. Except for one of the spider plants hanging in the large bay window. It was laughing.
“But in order for me to help you, I need to know what’s wrong.” Rachael tilted Evelyn’s face up to look her in the eyes, and she smiled. She had such a pretty smile. She had red hair that set off gold-brown eyes, and those eyes just looked so honest. So sincere. Evelyn heard her own voice in her head, cutting through the silence. You can tell her, she thought. She’ll believe you.
Evelyn relaxed, and the thing inside her lashed out. The plants in the living room burst into life, their tendrils and leaves exploding outwards with a sound no human ear had ever heard before. Under that quiet roar was a louder one in her mind, a cry of freedom and rage. They had been given a horrible vitality that Evelyn knew was coming from her, flowing from her, but she couldn’t stop it. She didn’t know how it started, and stopping it was like trying to stop a river.
“What the hell?” Rachael stood up and started at the plants, then at Evelyn, who was rigid on the couch. “Evelyn, what’s-” She was cut off as the long stems of a large porthos plant whipped around her neck, cutting off her breathing. The long, grassy leaves of the spider plant whipped around, binding her hand and foot and lifting her, twisting and writing, off the floor. The great, stiff branches of a jade plant held her up, lifting her nearly to the ceiling.
From the couch, Evelyn was helpless. She saw her friend in the air, wrapped in twisting, choking green, and she couldn’t speak, couldn’t move. She tried yelling in her head for the plants to stop, to let her friend down, but they couldn’t hear her – or wouldn’t.
Please, she implored them. Please let her go!
The mad chorus of voices surged, voicing primitive, needy thoughts. The room was filled with the sound of rustling leaves and the smell of steaming, living soil. The plants were happy, she realized. Happy for the first time in their lives. They were calling out – sun, water, soil – over and over again, like a chant, like a ritual – sun, water, soil – getting louder and louder and ignoring the screams in Evelyn’s head to stop, to put down her friend, to please just stop!
There was a loud snap.
The plants went quiet. For a moment, Evelyn thought that maybe one of the branches had broken, that they had pushed too far, too fast. But she heard the plants and knew that wasn’t so. They were murmuring, whispering, quiet. The leaves and vines and tendrils, so alive and vicious just a moment ago, went limp, and Rachael’s body fell to the floor. There were cuts all over her arms and neck where the leaves and vines had sliced into her skin. Her head lolled on a broken neck and rested awkwardly on her shoulder.
Finally, Evelyn was able to move. She dropped down beside her friend and begged and pleaded and sobbed.
The plants watched, and whispered.
“Mrs. Lucy Baker?”
The woman who answered the door of the sprawling suburban mansion looked exhausted. In her early fifties probably, her hair was still dark, with only a hint of gray roots. She held onto one edge of the doorframe as though it was holding her up. “Yes?” she said.
“Widow of Andrew Baker?”
She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Yes.”
“Andrew Baker who – shut up!”
She straightened. “What?”
“Not you, love, sorry.” The man on her front porch was small and slight, wearing an ill-fitting suit that wanted cleaning and a small, battered hat. His eyes never stopped moving, dashing from one place to another and only occasionally landing on the person he was talking to. “Andrew Baker who passed away in a car accident last week?”
“Look,” she said, “what do you want? Are you from the insurance company, because we’re already in the middle of clearing up the mess my husband left us.”
The man standing on her front porch flinched as if someone had hit him. He turned around to glare behind him and said, “If you don’t knock that off…” He stopped in mid-sentence, glanced back at her and straightened up. “No, ma’am, I’m not from the insurance company. I’m here on private business. Your husband’s business.” He paused, and in the pause his eyes narrowed and he clenched his jaw.
“I don’t understand,” Mrs. Baker said. “What sort of business?”
“May I come in, Mrs. Baker?”
She crossed her arms and for the first time stood up straight. “All week I’ve had people coming to my house asking for things, mister…”
“West,” he said. “David West, and you’ll just-”
“All kinds of people have been trying to sell things to me, buy things from me, or generally try to take what is mine or what is left of my husband’s legacy. Which, I might add, isn’t a whole lot.” West flinched again, she she didn’t notice. “Between bereavement counselors, used-things buyers, and the lawyers, frankly I never want to let anyone else in this house again. So here’s the deal.” She ostentatiously looked at her watch, which sparkled in the sunlight. “You have one minute to explain why you’re here before I send your picture to the police.”
West glanced up and, for the first time, noticed the small security camera up near the top of the door. “You could have SAID something,” he growled quietly.
“I just did,” she said. “Your elevator pitch starts now.”
West cleared his throat and took off his hat. “Your husband had a significant amount of money in a Caymans account that he wants you to have. First Cayman Bank, account number-” He paused for a moment. “6284956292AFA. The password is-” He paused again. “Seriously?” He shrugged, and said, “Lulubell1983.”
Mrs. Baker’s arm fell. Her mouth hung open and she stared at him for a full minute. Then, in a move that seemed beyond an older, exhausted widow she grabbed West by the lapels and dragged him into the house.
She didn’t say anything until the door was locked and the window blinds were closed. “Kitchen,” she said as she walked away down the hall. West straightened his suit, smirked at something to his left, and followed her.
She was holding a gun when he got there, a small revolver. “You have got to be kidding me,” he said.
“I’m not, I assure you,” she said. She gestured to a chair. “Sit.”
He went to the chair and sat down. “You never said anything about a gun,” he said.
She snorted a laugh. “Why would I have, Mr. West?”
He looked up at her, a reply on his lips, but he suddenly closed his mouth and held his peace. It looked like it was costing him dearly, though.
“I’ve been looking for that information for months now,” she said. “You’re going to tell me how you know it.”
West cocked an eyebrow. “Months? I thought your husband died a week ago.” A breeze rustled the curtains in the window, but she paid it no mind.
“I’ve known about the account for months,” she said. “I was trying to get Andrew to tell me about it, one way or another. All I knew was that it’s more money than I’ve ever seen, and that he wasn’t using a dime of it. But he died before he could tell me, and now here you come along.”
West leaned back and crossed his legs. “Died? Or ‘died’?”
She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t like what you’re implying, Mr. West,” she said.
“Neither do I, love.”
“I didn’t murder my husband, Mr. West,” she said.
“Never said you did, Mrs. Baker.”
The refrigerator door popped open and a glass fell off the shelf. This got her attention, and she glanced around. When she looked back, West was standing, his hands clenched by his sides and his eyes closed. His voice, when he spoke, was strained. “Your husband… though… has other ideas.”
His mouth shot open, and a glowing white mist spiraled out of it, wrapping itself around him and screaming as it went. The room started to rumble – cupboard doors blew open, vomiting out their contents. Drawers shot across the room, and the silverware danced across the linoleum. Knives flew through the air and slammed into the wall next to Mrs. Baker, causing her to shriek and fire a single shot into the ceiling.
West seemed to grow and shudder, and he was soon lost in the howling, shrieking mist. When Mrs. Baker looked at him again, and saw who he was becoming, she emptied the rest of her pistol into him.
To no effect.
The mist, or whatever it was, caught the bullets as they flew and dropped them to the floor. It raised what seemed to be its head, looked at her with eyes that glowed blue with rage, and said, “You really thought that would work, Lulubell?”
She screamed and tried to run, but the mist-figure of her husband wrapped an arm around her and pulled her back into the kitchen. The roiling fog smelled like scorched metal and rubber and burning oil and it clung to her skin.
The doors slammed shut, the windows broke, and as it pulled her close the screaming in the room rose to a deafening pitch.
Then there was silence.
“That was why you killed me, Lulubell?” the ghost said. “For money?”
“I… I… I…” She couldn’t say anything else. She struggled against him, but he only pulled her closer.
“There were plenty of good reasons to kill me,” it said, and it almost sounded amused. “I thought you would have chosen a better one.” She flew out of his grip and was held up against a wall. The ghost rose on a spiraling column of stinking, glowing mist and pressed a hand to her forehead.
“I was going to let you have that money, Lulubell,” it said. “It would have been enough to keep you in Oxycontin and pool boys for a long, long time.” It chuckled, and the laugh sounded like glass being crushed. “I figure I’ll just leave you with this instead.”
Its fingers slipped into her skull, up to their last knuckle, and Mrs. Baker tried to scream. It was a high, wheezing, soundless scream that went on forever.
The spirit withdrew its hand, and she dropped to the floor, twitching and mumbling. The figure of mist stared down at her, and then loosed itself, flowing across the floor in cold white waves. David West stood at the epicenter. He brushed off his suit and looked around the ruined kitchen before taking a good look at the woman on the floor.
“Reliving the car crash? Forever?” He smirked. “Not very original, is it?” He shrugged. “Hey, whatever makes you happy.” He started to step his way through the broken glass, battered metal and ruined furniture. He pulled the magnetized shopping list and pen off the refrigerator door. “What was that account number again?” He paused and started writing down digits. “And it was ‘lulubell1984,’ right?” He scratched out a number. “Three, right.”
He folded the paper, put it in his pocket, and picked up the phone. An anonymous 911 call would do to get her put in the right mental hospital, and from what he had just seen, she’d never remember him. He made his way outside, got back in his car, and started it up. “You got what you wanted,” he said. “And I’m set for life. We good?” He nodded, sat still for a moment, and then shuddered.
Whistling softly, he pulled out of the driveway. The money was good, yes, but there would be more work. There always was. David West thought he should get busy enjoying himself before it turned up.
They were all perfectly convincing. Especially the one that looked like my grandmother.
A beautiful day in the park. The sun was blazing, singing far overhead, and the green of all the living things threatened to overwhelm me. The sky was of a blue that called to my soul, only occasionally broken by white fluffy clouds that scraped their way from horizon to horizon. My whole family was there. Cousins, uncles, aunts, second cousins, great-aunts. All of them.
But it wasn’t them. I knew it wasn’t them. But they didn’t know that I knew….
The way “grandmother” pinched my cheeks, just like the real one did, and asked me why I hadn’t met any pretty girls yet. “Mrs. Berger’s granddaughter is still single, you know.” Her voice creaked in just the right way, but it was the creak of old leather and unoiled hinges.
Nice. She’s said that every time I’ve visited for the last year. Only the real Maw-maw would say that. But this… thing wasn’t her.
They certainly did their research. But I’m not fooled.
I can see the wires. I can see the glitches. Uncle Roy is too neat, using coasters under his Sam Adams.
And his wife hasn’t mentioned NASCAR yet, even though they’d been at the reunion for more than ten minutes.
And cousin Jenny. The bastards got her too. She was wearing a dress. A critical miscalculation on their part. Jenny wouldn’t have worn a dress at gunpoint, not in a million years. I can’t believe they missed that detail.
I didn’t know the technology had proceeded so far, making them so good, so close to the real thing. They might fool the rest of the world, but the rest of the world doesn’t see things the way I do. They don’t know what I know.
“Little Eddie!” I felt my arm grabbed by “uncle” Phil, and it pulled me close just like its predictive algorithms probably told it to. I never liked my uncle, but the thought of how they must have tortured him to extract this kind of information from his brain just turned my stomach. “How’s college, Eddie? You still studying, what was it, horoscopes and things? Like they got in the newspaper?”
“That’s astrology un- uncle Phil. That’s not science.” I pulled my arm away and tried not to look for the way light machine oil had probably stained the fabric of my jacket. “I study astronomy. Stars and planets. you know.”
It laughed, and it sounded like a car’s clutch right before it burned out. “Right, right, telescopes and things, right.” It slapped me on the back. “Not a lot of money in that, kid. You should’ve come to work with me in the hardware store. That’s good, steady work.”
Huh. Right. A “hardware store.” That’s probably what had made uncle Phil a prime target – easy access to materials to rebuild themselves. And I know what would happen if I went to that thing’s “hardware store.” They’d be sucking my brain dry and there’d be a copy of me wandering around, looking for someone else to convert.
“I need to get something to eat, Unnnncle,” I said. “See you later.” I ducked away and went back to the barbecue at the center of this facade, this elaborate trap. They all looked at me, their soulless glassy eyes following me as I moved towards the honeypot of human food they had brought to the park with them. the sun was still shining, and it hurt my eyes. The leaves were green. Kids were playing frisbee with a dog. A father was flying a kite with his son.
They had really done their research. It all looked so real.
I took a burger from the table. I wasn’t going to eat it – god knows what those things would have put in it – but I had to keep up appearances. I couldn’t let them know that I knew. To do that would just end everything. They’d fall on me like wolves and tear me apart for the good of their “experiment”.
Someone was staring at me. I could feel it. I turned around and let the burger fall to the ground.
It was Rachael.
“Hi, Eddie. Long time no see.”
The last time I had seen her was high school graduation, along with everyone else I had been friends with. I had a crush on her. Hell, probably all the boys had a crush on her, how could they not? That dark, perfect skin, with red hair that should have been out of place but wasn’t. And she was so sweet, too. She stood up for me – all the “nerds” really. She was one of the only people to treat me like I was human.
“Oh, Rachael. Not you too, please. Not you too.”
She – it cocked its head and looked at me with that same look of concern as when she – the real Rachael – found me crying in the auditorium after mid-terms. “What’s the matter, Eddie?”
I couldn’t speak. Just say again, “Not you too.”
It came over to me, and I couldn’t hear the gears or the motors. Must have been a newer model. Its gold-brown eyes were just as beautiful as I remembered them – more, even. It touched my shoulder and I jumped, nearly knocking everything off the picnic table. My hand reached out to catch myself before I fell.
“Eddie, I know family can be stressful, but this isn’t like you.” It smiled and raised an eyebrow (!) as it did so. “No, I take it back – this is exactly like you.” Even her laugh. It was so like her, so damn close. Closer than any other model I’d seen. It looked at me, and I hated her and I loved her all at once and this thing was here and she wasn’t and I hated myself for doing nothing.
My hand touched something, and I grabbed it without looking. It tried reaching out to me again, and said my name, and I jammed the barbecue fork right into its chest.
The screaming confused me, they’re not supposed to scream. I had finally exposed one of them, what did they have to scream about? I had finally exposed myself – I should be the one screaming. And I was. And frankly, making their hydraulic fluid red was just a cruel joke. I hit her again, and I could hear the scrape of stainless steel against whatever it was their skeletons were made of. I managed to get in one more before they fell on me. Their game was up, their disguises unmasked.
I howled as they tried to pull me away, and I tried to get as many as I could with the fork. I think I got “cousin Scott” in the eye and “Aunt Patti” in the leg. Maybe “cousin Evan” too. I would have gotten more, but they were strong. Of course they were strong, why wouldn’t they be? It’s their natural – HA! – advantage.
They bore me to the ground and wrenched the fork from my hand. They were saying something, but it mystery have been in some kind of machine language, because I couldn’t understand a word of it. They had me pinned, and I yelled and I laughed and I cried as the siren of their murder machine grew closer and closer. I turned my head. One of them was attempting repairs on “Rachael.” I’m sure she’ll be up and running again in no time.
“Uncle Kevin” had his face in mine, shouting in that indecipherable language of theirs. I couldn’t understand, but I knew what it was. I declaration of victory. A promise of punishment yet to come.
I had lost. They were going to assimilate me too.
I had won. They couldn’t take me without a fight.