by Gunnar Jaeck
Two men watched fireworks from a rooftop on the night that the alien landed. One man was Scott, who had inherited the house from his father, who had built it with his own hands and, according to his will, had been buried in its basement. Scott thought that was kind of weird, but those were the man’s last wishes, and last wishes are what they are. The other was Lucas, who had brought over the cooler full of Duvel, which the alien’s landing pod incinerated. After the alien slithered, skittered, or shivered out of the pod (it depended on which section of the alien’s body was exiting the hatch), the pod lifted off on its own and zoomed back up into the boom, crackle, and hiss.
Scott and Lucas backed up until they reached the edge of the roof. The alien waved feelers and glowed red from sucking orifices as it came closer. Scott had a feeling that the alien wanted to communicate, but its appearance was so terrifying he couldn’t think of anything to say. Lucas had some ideas of things to say but also thought the alien might be dangerous. Like, just look what it did to the beer.
Here was first contact with intelligent life from beyond our world, the most important event that had ever happened to anyone ever in the entire history of everything, but both men kind of wished it was other than it was. The alien sensed this telepathically, and obliged them by skithivering down from the roof into the attic, where it wove a cocoon for itself. Scott and Lucas climbed down the ladder after it.
The cocoon hung from the ceiling and throbbed accommodating shades of blue and turquoise with calm, floral scents. When it was done, the cocoon split open, unraveling to the floor like a spilt flag, and when the last alien folds fell away, a man Scott remembered from the war stood before them.
Scott’s unit had taken the man prisoner after a battle, his side’s sole survivor. On the journey back to base, he and Scott became almost friends. The man spoke pretty good English. When Scott’s rifle jammed and he couldn’t fix it, the prisoner told him how. The prisoner asked lots of questions about where Scott came from. They both knew the local authorities would execute the prisoner once Scott turned him over. The prisoner asked for pen and paper in order to write his mother at home and let her know. Scott couldn’t take that kind of security risk, so instead he recorded the address and promised to write her on the prisoner’s behalf. Before the local authorities took the prisoner away, Scott told him you are a good man. Scott never found out the prisoner’s name, only his mother’s. Scott watched the firing squad. He never wrote the letter.
Here was the prisoner, standing before them in Scott’s attic. Lucas asked is it him, the one you told me about. Scott nodded. The prisoner told them please, I must pray. Scott let him use a corner of the attic. Having prayed, the prisoner asked them—your mother and your father, are they fine? Do you have children? How are they, are they fine? And your cousins, are they fine? He was trying to understand who Scott and Lucas were. Scott and Lucas weren’t sure what their cousins had to do with that.
A man had returned from the dead. Even if you believe it’s happened before, and even if it wasn’t the most important thing that ever happened anywhere, let’s all agree: It was pretty damn close. Scott and Lucas still kind of wished it was different. He really doesn’t belong here said Scott. Maybe we should try to get him home. Lucas had other concerns about the prisoner. What does he know. What isn’t he telling us. Maybe you’re right and he’s a good man, but here he is, alive. Have the terrorists figured out the secret of resurrection or something. Shouldn’t we try to find out. When they asked the prisoner these questions, he said he knew as little as they did. Lucas asked Scott have you ever waterboarded someone. Scott considered asking Lucas why he’d never asked about that before. Instead, Scott just nodded.
The prisoner offered as little resistance as he had in the war. Call it resignation, call it resolve, he didn’t even seem scared as Scott and Lucas took him by the arms and brought him downstairs to the bathroom on the second floor. After Joanne left, Scott had knocked out the wall between the bedroom and her study. He found a narrow piece of left-over drywall and put it in the bathtub to use as the board, even though that kind of seemed like a bad pun. As Scott and Lucas tied the prisoner in position, he didn’t ask them to stop, he just asked them why. Scott tied the prisoner to the board, put a towel over his face and ran the water while Lucas asked questions. Instead of answers, however, what came away was skin. What came away was flesh. Scott washed more and more of the prisoner away, until someone different lay on the board. It was Joanne.
Scott rushed to unbind her. Lucas looked away, since she was Scott’s wife, not his. Joanne wrapped herself in a towel and followed Scott to the bedroom, where he got out some clothes she’d left in the back of the closet. She asked him why did you take the wall out, and then she got dressed. He said it was just taking up space. She said I liked it better the way it was before, and he smiled. She sat on the bed and toweled her hair and asked him is the home doing a good job taking care of your mom. He nodded. She asked him to show her the new model train set he’d built where her study used to be. When he showed her a car, she asked him what period is it from and when he showed her a hill she asked him what did you make it from and when he showed her a house she asked him who lives there, and he laughed. She told him he was great at seeing very small things, and that was something she would always love about him, no matter what happened between them.
Lucas, who had started to feel that not interrupting them was more awkward than interrupting them, came in with two glasses of Le Fin Du Monde, and gave one to Scott. Scott sniffed it, took a swallow, and remarked that this isn’t my favorite Belgian. The fruit notes are too pronounced. Lucas shrugged and kept drinking. Joanne sighed and turned away. What asked Scott. She told him it’s the same thing as always. Panic, pneumoniac, began to rattle in Scott’s chest. Lucas shrugged again and again he drank. Scott considered doing the same thing, but instead he again asked what. She told him exactly what. It’s the way there’s always something wrong even with things you like. Like you can’t seem to love anything completely if it isn’t completely perfect. It’s not hurting me, but it’s hurting you, because nothing’s perfect, not completely, and you’re missing so many wonderful things because you can’t see past this. She said more, but with each word the panic rattled louder, until Scott could no longer hear.
Scott had missed her, but he didn’t see what gave her the right to criticize him, and he said so. Lucas had missed her too, in a way, but what he hadn’t missed was the fighting. As if it wasn’t creepy and awkward enough for them to have a fight while he was right there. Joanne’s attitude pissed him off. She never let Scott explain anything. And Lucas said so. He said it to Scott, but before Scott could agree with him, Joanne told Lucas if you like explaining things so much, how about you go back to your own home and explain them there. Joanne said this in a way that suggested it was much nicer than some of the other things she could think of to say.
Here was Joanne, and that was at least as impossible as the arrivals of the alien and the prisoner, but Scott and Lucas both wished it wasn’t like this. When neither of them said anything more, Joanne figured out what kind of story this is, and made a break for the stairs. She tripped on a tricycle that would never have been left out in the hall, let alone allowed upstairs, not while she lived there. Scott caught one of her arms. She took a swing at him, but he held on. Lucas got the other arm. They pulled. Her bones crackled. Her body hissed. Her life went boom. Joanne screamed. Scott and Lucas ripped her in half. One half went flying into the bedroom and landed gorily on the bed. The half of her that remained was Roland, and tumbled down the stairs.
Heedless of his own safety, Scott took the steps three at a time. Lucas just looked on, because Roland was Scott’s son, not his. Scott checked Roland’s neck, his back, his head, his arms and legs, his breath, all of which were there. The boy had a couple small bruises. The only thing that bled was a rug burn. His pupils contracted normally, and soon focused on Scott. Roland spread his arms and frowned, but was brave and didn’t cry, even though it hurt pretty bad. Scott gathered him up and carried him into the kitchen. Roland still seemed light, even as a healthy-sized kindergartener—less an actual mass than a soft, grabbing area of warmth that hovered within Scott’s arms and billowed onto his shoulder. Scott would notice the weight only if he tried to carry Roland for more than a minute.
Roland asked where’s kitty. Scott said there were some visitors here before, so Oreo’s probably hiding somewhere, or he might be chasing a squirrel outside. Roland asked can I have a snack please and Scott went to look through the pantry. Lucas came in with some band-aids and hydrogen peroxide and tended to Roland’s rug burn. Roland stared at the bubbles and asked Lucas do it again. Scott brought some crackers, but Roland said can I have apple sauce please. Scott reminded him it’s way past bedtime, but got apple sauce out of the fridge and ate the crackers with Lucas, who poured himself a glass of Ommegang.
While they ate, Roland told them me and mom went to the natural history museum. There’s a lot of TVs there (unlike at Joanne’s house, where there were none, he didn’t need to add). There’s a salamander and she’s the most recent common ancestor (as he said most recent common ancestor, he paused and thought carefully before saying each word) of mammals and dinosaurs, so it’s like she’s our and the tyrannosaurs’ great-great-great-great-great grandma, so us and tyrannosaurus are sort of cousins. There’s a brontosaurus skeleton there and it’s so big that it takes to the count of eleven a bunch of times to walk from one end of it to the other. It’d be faster to run, but mom only lets me run in the park. There’s dioramas and they have australopithecuses (he stopped to think before each syllable) and a saber-toothed tiger and a woolly mammoth and to get inside you need to find a secret door. There’s a magic key that goes to it. Scott asked Roland would you like to go to the museum again tomorrow, but this time with me. Roland said no, can we go fishing. Scott didn’t fish, but Lucas did, so they agreed to take Roland fishing together. Scott asked Roland would you like to go to a movie after that. There’s a new Star Wars movie, just like the one that was my favorite when I was little. Roland asked can we go to the library instead and get books. Scott asked do you want to play with the trains before bed, but Roland asked will you read to me. Scott had read the new Harry Potters and thought Roland would really like it, and he said so, but Roland wanted The Neverending Story.
Here was Roland, which was always the most important thing that had ever happened, every time it happened, even though it happened twice a month. Scott always looked forward to it. And yet, he wished it could be another way. Lucas, for his part, liked most of the same things Roland did, but he tried not to get too attached, because whoever Roland was, he was guaranteed to be someone else before long. He had pointed this out to Scott on several occasions.
Still, Lucas did think it was a little extreme when Scott plunged his hand into Roland’s chest and tore out a vital internal organ. The way the boy screamed before collapsing on the linoleum with a lifeless splat unnerved Lucas, he had to admit. To boot, the vital internal organ in Scott’s hand was not a heart or a liver or a stomach, but rather Oreo. No one had seen Oreo for a day or two, but he wandered off all the time. And he always came back. Here was Oreo, but so what. Lucas said he was tired, finished his beer and went home.
Something was wrong with Oreo. He was emaciated. One side of his face drooped and his lips hung slack around his tiny fangs. Leaves clung to his back in a sticky swathe, probably a wound. Scott knew the right thing to do for an animal in this condition was to put it to sleep. But he wished otherwise.
When Scott and Joanne moved in, the first thing they did was finish the basement. It had a nice carpet, a big TV, a comfortable couch and Scott’s older train sets. After shutting Roland’s body in the pantry, Scott went down there, put Oreo on the floor, and fell asleep watching Game of Thrones. Oreo took small breaths while the plasma screen flickered blue on his damp, black fur. When the episode ended, Scott part-woke and dangled his hand from the edge of the couch, fumbled about for Oreo. Oreo crawled, limped or staggered away (this does not mean it depended on what part of his body was moving, it just means it hurt a lot to move). He smeared red up the basement stairs. He made it back up to the kitchen. He scratched at the pantry door. Blood not his own dripped from above. Oreo struggled up the next flight of stairs. The higher he went, the heavier it dripped. Eventually he reached the bedroom and managed to pull himself up onto the bed, because it is amazing how an animal can fight when it is mortally injured, but really doesn’t want to die. Oreo tore away tiny pieces of Joanne on the bed and swallowed them painfully.
There was nothing else for Oreo to eat, and Joanne’s body couldn’t last forever. Eventually Oreo succumbed to his wounds, or to hunger. Either way, he was already dead when Scott found him. Scott picked up Oreo’s body and carried it down the stairs, over all the ruined carpet, through the empty kitchen and back into the basement. He pulled aside the train set that stood over the gap in the foundation, tore up the floor with his tools and buried the cat there, where his father lay.
Gunnar Jaeck’s fiction has appeared in SLAB, Infinity’s Kitchen, Used Gravitons, and decomP. The University of East Anglia gave him an MA. He lives in Tacoma, WA. His blog is Metal Reality.
Illustrations: Featured image by Emma Hamilton, second by Courtney Bennett