Authors: Brian Martinez
Instead she says, "I'm a little tired is all," while widening her eyes. She wishes she knew Morse code so she could pass messages with the chattering of her teeth.
"I just thought of something," Officer Banks says, and Mary grows hopeful. "Can I come in and use your phone for a minute?"
Hope fades. "It's not working."
"What about your cell phone?"
"What about your cell phone," she asks. "Sorry, it's just I told you I was tired." Looking over her shoulder at the empty hallway.
"I left in a rush." Officer Banks appears annoyed. "To bring back your dog, remember?"
"Maybe you could use the one down at the station." Her eyes wider.
"That's a long ways away. Can't you just let me in for two minutes? It's an emergency." He reaches for the door but she shifts in the doorway, stands in his way.
"I told you I was tired, please leave and get help somewhere else. Tell them about the emergency." Hint. Hint.
Officer Banks is confused, as if a woman has never said no to him. "Sorry if I upset you. Is your husband home?" He shifts strategies.
"Afraid not, but he should be back any minute." She resists the urge to glance at the hallway again, at the thing she's lying about, a dead giveaway to a cop. Then she thinks maybe she should, but decides it's better not to, then curses herself for being so indecisive, then remembers that she's never been in this situation before, and in fact few people probably have and she should go easy on herself. Then she feels guilty for having this idiotic argument with herself inside her head while her husband is less than twenty feet away, in actual danger.
"You shouldn't do that, tell people you're home alone. It's not safe. What if I was a robber, or a rapist? Rapists thrive on stupid mistakes like that, and you never know who they might be. Some of them are the people you've known the longest. People close to you. Do you know anyone like that?"
Mary wishes the officer was as good at picking up hints as he was spilling them from his mouth. She's frustrated, and scared, and she wants him to go away, but she also wants him to stay, and it's at this point, when she's about to burst into tears, that a sound comes from the hallway behind her that ruins everything.
One, single cough.
The color falls from her face as she looks into Officer Banks' eyes. Sees the smugness there.
"I thought you said he wasn't home.”
"Yeah, I, I guess I was mistaken. Excuse me." She tries to shut the door but he sticks his foot in, over the threshold, and pushes his way in.
The first thing Officer Banks notices is the crooked frame on the wall, painted elephants with impossibly long legs trudging through a deep red landscape. He has no time to think about how strange the painting is, how odd people are who hang things like this in their homes instead of normal shit like mirrors, because he has to focus on the more important thing it says to him: clear signs of a struggle.
He looks around, scans the kitchen, checks for closets that can hide a man. "Where is he," he asks Mary.
"Get out. Please, you have to leave." Her eyes sunken in fear. The loser's done a number on her, he notes.
"Listen, ma'am, you don't have to be scared of him. I'm here now." He does his best impression of a super-cop straight from the late-night movies he watches so the bedroom isn't dark. The cops in those always talk like this, right before the scene where the leading lady who spent her money on fake tits instead of acting lessons lights a butt-load of candles and crawls into bed.
She looks shocked. "You mean you know?"
"I can read the signs. I've been a cop...long...enough..." He trails off at the sound building in his ears, whereabouts uncertain. "What is that," he asks.
Mary shakes her head, crying now, tears down her cheeks. "I'm begging you, get out before it's too late."
He puts his hand up to quiet her, listening to the noise which comes from the walls themselves. It's much too big, too loud, like watching an airplane crash into the ocean from the shore, all wet and explosive, and then the sound shifts into the floor and gets right under him.
He looks at Mary, the woman who begged him to leave, and wishes he'd listened to her.
The wall explodes behind him. It doesn't go the way it does in the movies, shrapnel and shards spreading through the air at the camera until it blots out and cuts to the next scene. Rather, it bursts into blood.
The plaster becomes meat that become a shroud, a deployed parachute of tendons that surround him; an octopus of inky heat. The concussive force slams him against the opposite wall and knocks the crooked painting down, glass shattering on the floor.
He can't see whatever it is that hit him. Vision is blurry black from shock, but he can feel it lifting him in the air, holding him as it groans and growls, and behind it all the Robins woman is screaming. Then his eyes recover from the blast, and he wishes for the blindness back.
Intestines flap and flop in the air, reach out for him. A billowing, vein-riddled bag of hot air expands and contracts on the floor, wheezing, its purpose unclear.
The room is filled up with wretched flesh, snaked along the walls, writhing here and there. Mary crouches untouched in the middle of it all with her hands over her ears, her eyes down, her mouth frozen. Banks knows by looking at her that whatever this is, it's not her doing. She's just as scared as he is, but she shouldn't be- she's not the one wrapped in earwigs and toenails.
The pulsing bag of skin beneath him makes a sound like tearing damp paper into strips. The top forms sickly-yellow spots, and as they become paler it's obvious the sack is stretching itself until the very skin starts to rip. Along with noxious stink, something pushes through from inside, as a chicken or a snake would as it hatches from its egg. Soft, black quills over hollow bone poke through, just a hint at first but then more and more, a totem of feathers; two, three, four feet of oil-black wings sticky with afterbirth that rise above Banks the way cobras hover; constricted tension, the fearsome, breathless focus of a starving hunter. It cleaves up the center to reveal rows of teeth, sharpened bones that quiver and drip in the sunlight shining through the quaint living room windows.
“Please,” he says.
His plea means nothing. Four feet of the creature’s razors clamp down on the man. Like hypodermic needles made of bone they puncture his skin and muscle to a symphony of agony screams mixed with sucking and slurping. The feathery appendage wraps around his body, from his legs up around his back and chest, pushing its razors in the entire way.
The appendages split off progressively smaller, like the branches of a tree, a root system of arterial worms implanting into his skin, wrapped around his arms from the pits to the individual digits of his hands, the same for his legs.
Held in limbo, Officer Banks becomes aware of his own mortality. It's a concept he'd never considered, never allowed to creep into his thoughts when the house was quiet or he woke up coughing from a bad dream. He thinks back to the last real relationship he had, a girl named Emily he met in his first year of college. They went on three, hopeful dates before he dropped out of college, but his pride didn't allow him to call her or even answer the phone the two times she called. She would have been his wife, for sure, if he could have just forced himself to pick up that phone.
He realizes in this moment the saddest fact he’s ever known: that when he’s gone, he won't be missed.
He looks the creature in one of its eyes, half a crow's twitching face. "What are you waiting for," he asks it, his voice calm.
"Yourrr pieces," it replies.
Like a buzz-saw the appendages spin around Officer Banks, slowly at first then abruptly faster. The sharp bones cut his muscle with surgical precision. The pain is deafening. Banks' scream is cut short, not by anything so merciful as death, but by a thick, tube-like arm that descends from the ceiling to attach its gooey sucker to his mouth. It suctions on his nose and mouth.
He tries to draw a breath but can’t.
The station's door bursts open and a woman with brunette hair cut pixie short comes in like a lit-up bundle of nerves. Her eyes scan the station and don't stop until they land on Jake in the over-sized chair. She makes a straight line for the desk. The skin on her face is tight, her brown eyes bloodshot.
"He just showed up a minute ago," Butcher says to Elaine, her hands checking the boy for cuts and bruises.
“I was so worried, what were you thinking,” she asks the boy.
“I just wanted to see where dad worked.”
She wipes the hair out of his face. “Don't ever do that to me again, do you understand?”
He nods. She looks around the station, noticing all the stares from the other officers.
“Yeah, they do that,” Butcher says. “Maybe we should finish this outside.”
Still wrapped in fingers, Kevin can't see what's happening up the hallway in the living room. All he can do is listen to the horrific sounds, the wet sounds, the cutting and slicing sounds, and hope that none of it involves Mary, that all of the creature's attention is focused on the cop who, despite the way Kevin feels about him, doesn't deserve what he's hearing.
Images again. Mary, suffering. Mary, screaming. Mary, bleeding.
Tears stream down Kevin's face and glide along the place where the fingers meet it. Even the tears, the creature takes. Out of the heating vent a bubbling, oozing surge of shimmering fly's wings gives birth to a woman's mouth on daddy long-leg stilts. "Whyy," the creature asks with the woman's mouth, "wwhy," the fingers sliding away from Kevin's face. He breaths deeply of the air and notices, with tremendous relief, that the mouth looks nothing like Mary's.
"Please don't hurt my wife. Not her." As he mumbles and begs, the mouth crawls up him on thin spider legs. It stands on his shoulder and leans into his face. Kevin winces from the smell of it.
"Whyyyyyyy," it whispers, and licks the tears from his cheeks.
"I can't see if Mary's okay."
The mouth twitches into a smile, something one might find in a crime scene photo. "Wannntt to seee?"
Despite understanding what it entails, Kevin nods.
The fingers wrapped around him slither and slide against each other until the friction is too much; their skin becomes loose and rubs off, grows bubbly scabs that harden and fuse them together into one, thick, opened-up snake of damaged meat. The sound alone, like sped up audiotape of botched medical procedures, makes Kevin taste the rise of bile in the back of his throat.
The new growth encases Kevin's stomach and pins his arms to his sides, the only thing he can be thankful for that it's not wrapped around his mouth like the last ones were, stifling him, giving him their taste. The creature pushes him onto his feet and drags him around the corner to let him witness its work.
The scene that meets Kevin is so busy that, at first, he can't make sense of it. Like red static behind the eyes, swirling brown and black. After a moment of adjustment he sees what's become of Officer Banks.
Held aloft like a crucifixion in space, his body is chopped and divided into pieces which are gobbled up by the creature's various transformations. Where a nerve is extracted, a mouth slurps it up like warm spaghetti. Where blood spurts, another tiny mouth drinks it. And all the while, at the center of it, Officer Banks is still alive.
Why hasn't he passed out from the shock, Kevin thinks. That poor soul.
"We keep him awaakke," the woman-mouth-spider says.
That was odd, Kevin thinks, it was as if the creature answered his thoughts. Obviously by coincidence.
Kevin remembers the visions, the flashbacks and shared emotions. With heavy heart and confused mind, he understands now- the creature can read his mind when it touches him, the contact opening up a direct channel of communication. Despite its barbaric nature, the creature is in many ways far more advanced than humans.
Officer Banks receives a new attack: a massive formation shapes itself into a serrated blade and, with one deadly motion like that of a scorpion’s sting, slices through his stomach from one side straight through to the other.
What’s left of his legs fall free and slump to the ground like a mannequin dropped by a careless department store employee. It would almost be comical, Kevin thinks, if it wasn't awful.
In the place where his legs were, a clear view opens up to Mary, crouched on the floor, her mind reeling, her face soaked from crying, hands clutched to her mouth- but alive. Kevin is so thankful for this, just this, that he lets out a small laugh like a cough, a reaction he himself doesn't understand. The familiar sound of his voice gets Mary's attention and she looks over to him. Their eyes meet in a moment of understanding.
Yes, I'm alive. No, I'm not okay. Yes, we'll get through this. We have to get through this. We haven't lived long enough, made love enough times, had children, gone to Japan, built a sandbox, sailed in a boat, seen all one hundred of the greatest movies of all time. It's not time yet. We have to get through this.
The moment is broken by the remainder of Officer Banks' organs falling out of him.
Crab-like growths push free from the creature, crustacean shells made of bone and cartilage and arterial puppet strings, and rush forth to gather the organs and legs up. Greedily they pull at the organs and limbs, pinch them in their deformed claws and scuttle away, pushing at each other, fighting to be first to bring the prizes back to their master, as if they don't have their own minds but rather a shared mind with simple, individual instincts.
These are the kinds of things Kevin has to focus on or go insane. Try to figure a thing out, put his mind to it. Open up the panels. Strip the wires.
Butcher and Elaine stand by her blue truck, which was formerly his blue truck until he gave it to her. She'd refused it at first, until he insisted he wanted Jake taken to school in something which could survive her driving.
Jake sits in the passenger seat with a book in his lap.
“You could have called,” Butcher says.
“You told me not to.”
“Our eight-year-old running away is an exception. Any emergency is an exception, you know that.”
“Sure, until you argue with me over what's an emergency.”
Butcher's shirt is ringed with sweat, his eyes sunken in. “So you're still drinking,” she says.
He frowns at her. “Don't.”
“It's out of concern. Are you still getting the headaches?”
“I said don't, and what I meant is, don't.”
“I only went through with the divorce so you would take the time to get better.”
Officer Stroud walks around them on the way to her cruiser. Franklin nods at her and waits until she passes before he starts talking again. “So you keep reminding me,” he says in a lower voice.
“I'm at a loss here, Franklin. We're together and you suffer. We're apart and you suffer. I want to help you but I don't know how.”
“Don't worry about me. Worry about keeping an eye on our son.”
“That's not fair.”
“Isn't it? I didn't fight for custody because I thought he was better off living with you. But now, now I'm starting to think otherwise.”
“How dare you?”
“Because he's all I've got,” Butcher shouts. He catches himself. Elaine is taken aback. “Because he's all I've got,” he repeats quieter. “So if you really want to help me? Stay away.”
He walks back to the station doors.
“Stay far away.”
Officer Banks shouldn't be alive. He breathes because his lungs haven't fallen out. He has thoughts because his brain hasn't been removed by teeth and claws. He sees because mouths haven't sucked his eyes from the sockets.
The rubbery tubes pull themselves out of his throat and slip clear of his mouth, leaving it free to work again. He would scream except he doesn't have the energy, and so the only thing that comes from him is a wheezing gasp, a sound for the sake of sound, because he knows very soon he'll never make another sound again, not in this life, and he thinks he should give it one more try, that he owes it to himself to take every second he has left to try, to say something, to be something, to be a human being, God damn it, with a brain and a personality who was here and did some things worth remembering.
One of the thicker appendages moves toward his face, stopping just an inch from it. Out of its hollow end something pushes forward as if defecated. Instead of shit, a face. A soft face, pruned the way skin gets after being in the water too long. The face is one he hasn't seen in a long time but is unmistakeable: a child who went missing a few months ago from a neighboring town. An unsolved case that never made any sense until now. Banks tries to recall the boy's name but the best he can do is be sure it started with an R.
R's face says, "Youu will jjoin The Self nnow. It is an honorr to jjoin the sellf. Youu arre honoredd." The voice isn't a child's at all.
Officer Banks summons every bit of strength he has left, all he'll ever have again, and pushes it into his lungs for one last whisper.
He says, "Fuck you, kid."
The child's face scrunches, squishes, reforms into an approximation of anger, and the eyeballs swell and shake in the skull like they're boiling on a skillet turned up too hot. They burst from the sockets, spraying thick jelly as bone and muscle protrusions push through from behind, articulated fingers like the ones that wrapped Kevin except they have sharp needles at the ends and suction cups along their entire length; modified octopus arms. They move around either side of Banks and rush forward, stabbing him through both shoulders. The needles pierce through, split and expand to lodge into place, like grappling hooks of shattered bone.
More push through from the child's ears and the soft, underdeveloped top of its skull. The child-thing opens its mouth and a dozen more needle-fingers surge from inside. Each one finds its real estate on Officer Banks' head, neck and body, pierce him again and again, attach to him like truck chains ready to free a stuck car from the mud.
With one simultaneous motion, they pull.