Within the fenced confines of his back yard, Garver raked at a moldering pile of leaves still wet from October’s last week of rain. He inhaled the scent of rich soil and something like cheap cigars, the smell of dying and of life too, burrowing up from within, churning through the skin of what was. No matter how grand, in time all things withered in humble resignation.
He leaned on his rake and wiped his mouth. He wanted a smoke. How perfect it would be, the filter against his lips, the stinging inhale melting into a smooth wave. Close your eyes with that first breath and you’d feel as if you were floating. The second drag never managed the effect, but had its own subtle qualities worth savoring. It was a perfect day for a cigarette, and a perfect place too, but the stores had quit selling years ago.
In some ways it pleased him to know he had a habit that couldn’t be broken. He honored tradition. It was in his blood, thumping at his center, true-blue.
He slipped his lighter from his front pocket and felt its weight against his palm. His thumb rubbed over the remains of Old Glory, its enamel worried down to a bone-white surrender. With a flick, the lighter hiss-popped to life. Garver watched it for a moment and remembered. He snapped the lid shut.
He made a circuit of the house, two-story, navy with cream accents, as nice as any in the neighborhood. Only the security bars set it apart. He’d installed them himself over each and every window across both floors. They were strong. None of that decorative aluminum shit. These were of liquor store quality, tempered steel as thick as a broomstick, bolted into the house frame and clamped down tight from within. You’d crack your spine trying to bend them. Try yanking one loose and you’d herniate like a gonzo meathead just off the juice.
Garver gave practice shakes to each window’s grating. Solid. He looked for tell-tale scratches in the paint. Factory perfect. After he finished the first circuit, he retrieved the ladder from the shed and checked the upper story. Satisfied, he scrutinized the doors. Only the front opened. The rest were reinforced and fastened in such a way that they’d never budge again, but he studied each closely and checked for deliberate tampering. Everything seemed in place.
Lilly, his youngest, toddled up to the sliding door at the back patio. She plopped down on her diapered bottom and squealed. Her shrill cries pierced through the glass like a little siren. Garver chuckled and tapped on the window. See Daddy? See? He mugged a bit, but her eyes were pinched too tight to pay him notice.
Her brother Russel hurried up next to her. His hair was still the platinum blond of a four-year-old, scrawled upon his head in a haphazard mess. His lips were casually streaked with jelly or possibly candy, the usual mystery. When he saw his father at the door, he pounded on the glass with tiny fists and bounced from foot to foot. His cries joined his sister’s.
It could be anything. They could have either smashed a glass or have just been scolded by Tina. Perhaps she turned off their cartoons. There were any of a thousand-score nothings that could set two small children to screaming. But—
Garver saw fear in their eyes. True panic. They wanted out.
He hurried around the house, first at a jog, then at a run. This couldn’t be happening, not here and now, not to his family. No one was more careful than him. At the front door, he fumbled with his keys. He swore and fumed and sobbed through clenched teeth. The kids were at the front now, or at least Russel must be. The doorknob jiggled feebly back and forth. Garver worked at the deadbolts high and low. They clicked free just as some other mechanism in the door latched. Russel was fiddling with the locks from the inside, undoing Garver’s efforts.
“Kiddo, no!” Garver spoke with his lips right at the woodwork. “Daddy’s coming, just be still.” He wiped at his face and sorted through his keys.
The cries inside crested into an unhinged screeching as loud as tiny lungs could manage. Garver swore prayers. He had flaws. He hadn’t lived a saint’s life. He’d abused the bottle and his temper tended to flare with a white-hot intensity that blazed out at anyone nearby. He wasn’t even sure he believed, not with all that had happened. A man couldn’t help but question his faith when he saw the world’s wretched state. Yet Garver offered up promises and bargains and pretended to hear whispered counteroffers.
Anything, he’d give anything.
He fought with the locks and struggled against his son’s motions. The world receded. He heard only his own pulse, hammering inside in his ears. His throat tightened as if someone were throttling him with fingers of cold iron. He breathed in gasps and wisps. He dropped his keys.
The rapid snap of latches jarred him home. A half-dozen locks clacked into place and the door opened. Tina stood before him. Her hair hung in dark, wet streaks, dripping as if she’d just climbed out from the shower. She stared ahead blankly, the smooth oval of her face passive, almost bored. Lilly was nestled in her arms.
Garver choked back a cry. Tina’s clothes were soaked—it could only mean one thing—and with Lilly touching her, pressed up so close, now they were both marked.
“God no,” he said. “Russ, come with—”
Russel wrapped himself about Tina’s leg and wailed.
In casual seconds, Garver had lost everything. His whole life had just flitted away. Despite his precautions and the efforts of all these years, everything now belonged to another.
Tina sniffed and seemed to gather herself. “You have to—”
“Goddamn you! This isn’t up for debate.”
“How did it get in?”
She didn’t answer. The tension about her eyes may have flickered away with a blink, but he’d seen it.
“I don’t know,” she said.
He eyed her coolly. The carpet about her feet had soaked into a darkened ring. She dripped a clear viscous liquid—a glaze. That’s what it was. It seeped into the meat, tainted it, gave it the flavor of another. It went right down to the bone.
“You know what will happen if you don’t.” She hoisted Lilly up higher. His daughter pressed her cheek to her mother’s and whimpered. Tina shushed her and spoke to Garver in a low whisper. “Quit being so hateful,” she said.
“Are you out of your mind?”
“This is how it is now.” She spun away and marched back upstairs.
Russel stood in the doorway. The boy trembled and gasped in soft stutters. He took a step toward Garver and opened his little arms wide.
Garver wanted to run. Russel was coated with it. His touch was poison.
Garver knelt down and let his boy come to him. He hugged him tight. “You went for help. Just like Daddy said to.”
Russel pressed his face to Garver’s chest and mumbled a response. The scent of that creature was in his hair. It smelled like roses.
“Don’t open your eyes,” Garver said. “Okay?”
A tiny nod came in answer.
“I won’t let it hurt you,” Garver said. “I promise.”
With his boy’s arms knotted about his neck, he took the stairs up to the master bedroom. The creatures instinctively found their way there. They liked to nest close to the brood.
The bed he and Tina had purchased together filled most of the floor. The two dressers and nightstand occupied the rest. Tina had picked out the set, and Garver hadn’t argued. Though the mix of buttermilk cream and stenciled flowers was a far cry from his style, when she’d insisted on the mirrored headboard, he’d given her the reins. It had been a wise choice, a standing triple in the wife-first world of acquiescing husbands.
For a while the sex doubled, both in frequency and intensity. She loved to watch, and he loved to see her do so. The coy glances she gave the mirror’s tangled bodies ignited something primal within him. He was brimming with satisfaction knowing that he met—and dare he think it, exceeded?—her desires. But the novelty wore thin as all novelties do, and now he found himself here.
The creature had found a spot in a high corner of the room, next to the door of the walk-in closet. Dozens of legs like long black piping had made a wreck of the sheet rock, chopping it into chalky piles of scrap upon the carpet. The creature had wrapped its legs about and through the wall studs, anchoring itself to its chosen nest. Its abdomen, as long and wide as a coffin, settled back into a mass of waxy sludge. A chitinous head tipped its chin over the bulk of its body. Mandibles sawed lazily at the air.
Tina knelt before it with Lilly cradled in her arms. She tilted her head back and let the creature shower them both with its secretions. A pair of fleshy pouches at its tail squeezed and pulsed, spraying out a stream of god-knows-what with the flow of a garden hose. Even from where Garver stood at the entryway, the carpet was sodden. It squished underfoot.
The flow faded to a dribble and Tina just knelt there, head thrown back and mouth open. Lilly had quieted in her arms and watched the creature with wide eyes. After a long while, Tina stumbled to her feet and lay down on the bed with Lilly at her side. The two of them drifted off to sleep.
Garver grimaced. To run was hopeless. He’d already been marked. The Hybrid hunters would follow his scent effortlessly and bring him down within the hour. He’d heard stories of what happened next, of extraneous appendages being chewed away, of creative bodily violations, of what use a screaming torso could possibly still have when it was dragged off to the cityhive.
“Don’t look,” he whispered. His son squeezed him hard.
Garver knelt before the beast and closed his eyes.
A river of shared thoughts swept him forward. He bobbed in a current of insect dreams.
Within a nightmare, the creature made him repeat its name a thousand times. He had no choice but to comply. It stripped him naked and mocked the frailty of his soft body, poking and prodding him with its legs. It scooped him onto its back and encouraged him to strike its shell. Garver thumped his fists down upon its carapace until his palms stung and his knuckles were worn raw. The creature click-clacked laughter.
With Garver holding on for dear life, it raced through the loamy darkness of alien jungles to show its tremendous speed. It spied a beast, an armored monstrosity a little like an elephant and an armadillo. In a heartbeat, it had pounced on the back of the unwitting prey and sliced its throat down to the spine. It showed Garver its strength by rending the still twitching beast into scraps.
The jungle melted away, exiting with a dream-logic assist, and Garver found himself hurtling through inky blackness. He floated before a vast machine teeming with a roiled insect swarm. The machine’s core hummed instructions as a living static. The Hive’s intellect was beyond the means of Man. A million articulated arms, some semblance of the creatures which built the machine, reached out to an orbital skin of faster-than-light particles. The arms harnessed each point’s bled radiation into an infinite propulsion. The iridescent bubble of the Hive’s sporeship hurtled past stars and through them to cross the galactic void as a child would skip over a puddle.
He was nothing before the Hive. A thought without meaning. A whimsy. A mote.
Garver awoke on his bed. Little Russel twitched in his arms, no doubt receiving dream clarification of his own place in this new family. Garver wiped away Russel’s tears and fought against his own. He’d been supplanted, replaced by one greater in every way. The insect’s thoughts were clear. He was no longer the father. He’d been demoted to groundskeeper.
Beside him, Tina showed a faint smile upon her lips. Her eyes were still closed.
The next weeks were like drowning. The world closed over Garver, smothering him down into a deep depression. He’d suffered through these same feelings a couple years ago when he’d buried his father; the big things weren’t real and the little things didn’t matter. He received his pink slip from the shop and numbly accepted his co-workers’ congratulations. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, they said. That had been enough to make him choke up. Amid their applause, he gathered his tools.
The Hive had more important uses for him than welding and tying rebar. For the insects, such mundane tasks served no purpose, and Garver didn’t need the paycheck. His bank account now received a generous weekly stipend in the new head of household’s name, enough to square away the bills, double down on the mortgage, and take a Pymatuning Lake vacation with all the perks. Not that he was going anywhere. Travel outside the city was forbidden to him. He had responsibilities.
The security bars were first to go. The insect saw no use in them and, if Garver understood the tickling warmth of its thoughts correctly, wanted the home to look inviting. It was important that every claimed nest be enticing, something that an onlooker would envy.
It took Garver a week of teetering atop the high ladder and countless struggles peppered with profanities to wrench all the bars free. Each agonizing effort was like tearing his arm from its socket. He’d forgotten about the steelwork welded into the house’s frame and had to slice those bars off with a torch. In a shower of sparks, he ground the jagged stubs down to the house’s stucco and spent an entire day patching scorch marks.
As he piled the steel scraps in the backyard for later recycling, he spotted Tina at the kitchen window. She smiled at him and mouthed three syllables: I love you. He winced and looked away.
She claimed that the bug had crept in while she’d been toting in groceries, but Garver knew better. A creature that size didn’t just waltz about unnoticed. The neighbors would have formed an impromptu parade route as it made its way down the boulevard. No, Tina had held the door open for it. Hell, she may have chauffeured it up to the front door and coaxed it inside.
A shrill one-two whistle sounded from the fence line. Norris, Garver’s nearest neighbor, leaned his balding head over the fence and motioned to him. Garver wiped his hands on his jeans and approached.
“Looks good,” Norris said, nodding at the house.
Garver appraised Norris’s buttoned polo and spray-on tan with suspicion. “What do you want?”
“Been watching you work, is all, and was just about to hit the links. Sherry and the kids’re taking lessons too.” He waited for Garver to offer a comment. When none was forthcoming, he continued. “You built a pen.”
At the high end of the yard, under a copse of scrub oak, Garver had assembled a portion of the window scrap into a twenty by twenty enclosure.
“Beast likes swine,” Garver said. “Not my idea.”
“Sure, sure. Farm fresh, eh? Free range and all that.”
Garver spent more time than he’d like cleaning droppings from the turf. It was part of his evening ritual now.
“That’s really swell,” Norris said. “Ours is fond of muskies. Really has a taste for them. Swallows them whole and wiggling, squirts out the bones. Sherry’s always pickin’ them out of the carpet.” He laughed. “Real hard working gal. You’d like her a lot. You really would. You saw the pool?”
Garver had. It had been turned into a pond and stocked with tiger muskellunge. That implied Norris’s beast would enjoy the flavor of pike too—much easier to catch—but Garver didn’t mention it.
“Go fishing every weekend, up at the Kinzua tailwaters. It’s a dam.”
“Not really my thing, mind you, but a fellow does what he must.”
Garver really needed a smoke. He felt for the comfort of his lighter.
“You’ve got a mighty big yard,” Norris said.
“It’s why I picked the place.”
“That’s fine, right fine. Look,” Norris studied the clouds for a moment, “about the pen. I’m not countermanding or anything. I know my place, so don’t file a report, but…”
A smile crept across Garver’s lips. The first he’d felt in weeks.
“Do you think that,” Norris continued, “if I helped, you and I could maybe move it south?”
“Oh?” Garver asked. “How far?”
“To the other end of the lawn, by that pear tree. There’s a bit of shade there too.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Animals’ll clean up the fruit on the lawn, the rotten bits.”
“They already do.”
Norris squirmed and Garver couldn’t help but chuckle. Having a sty just upwind from one’s home couldn’t be pleasant, and if Norris didn’t remind him so much of middle management, if he wasn’t such an eager hiveslave, perhaps Garver would care.
“The beast wants it right where I put it,” Garver lied, and turned away.
“Wait!” Norris cried. He lowered his voice. “You shouldn’t call them that. They can hear. Yours can hear you, I mean, because of the spray. It gets in your head.”
“I know that.”
“You’d really like Sherry.”
Garver saw where this was going and didn’t care for it one bit.
“Ours is a layer,” Norris said. “And a fine one!” He gave a pop-eyed grin, as if he were projecting to the last row in a vaudeville theater. “Every eleven days, just like clockwork. I take each bundle right up to the hatchery, first class. My XJL has great suspension, rides smooth as butter. But yours…your insect—”
Last week, Garver had been ordered to remove all of the window coverings, starting with the bedroom drapes. The beast enjoyed sunning itself in the morning light. At night it chittered at the stars. It clicked pupal poetry and hummed songs of the larval womb. Garver watched each stanza play out behind his eyelids and hated the sight. Unless his presence was demanded, he slept on the couch.
He spoke with low menace. “Keep your eyes out of my bedroom.”
“I would never.” Norris raised his hands in mock surrender. “Sherry says it’s so.” He tapped at his nose.
All women loved the insects. The bugs’ secretions—part aphrodisiac, pheromone, and opiate—were tailored to bait them, and once tasted, to leave them in a lotus-eater daze.
“She says that based on the scent,” Norris tipped his head over the fence line, “you have a breeder.”
Garver squeezed his fists tight.
“Look,” Norris said, “I won’t beat around the bush. You know how women are.” He rolled his eyes. “You’d really like Sherry. As guardian of your nest, you’d find her an asset. If you’d like her to come over, tonight maybe—”
“She’s smoking hot in the sack. I mean, lately she’s been no-limits crazy. It’s because your insect’s so close, and budding too. So Sherry says. If you were to take her up there, and hint that her and your lady get wet and tangled. I’ll bet a two on one—”
Garver lunged for the fence and grabbed Norris by the throat.
“Psychopath!” Norris cried. Garver tore at his collar. After a brief scuffle and much swearing, Norris yanked himself away. “What’s your issue!”
“Keep away from my family.”
“The hell, you say! Just being neighborly.”
Garver made another swipe over the fence but Norris jumped back.
“Goddamned Tina brought it in,” Garver growled. “She betrayed me.”
Norris tugged his shirt back in place. “You get a gift like that and don’t even appreciate it. Imbecile.”
“Gift? You are out of your mind!” Garver raved and shook at the fence. “My wife wants to screw that fucking bug! God, I think she already has.” He choked.
“Well certainly, what did you expect?” Norris asked.
“It’s wrong. I don’t care what poison that thing pisses over your soul. She is greedy and debauched and if it weren’t for my kids, I’d—”
“Wait, wait, wait a minute.” Norris smoothed his collar down and took a deep breath. “Okay. I shouldn’t give you another second of my time, but—hey, if you want to take Sherry for a roll and tumble in the spray, the offer still stands. No, don’t say it. I shudder to imagine being a cohusband with you.” He sneered but then shook the look away. “Do you even talk to your wife? Because you don’t grasp much.”
Garver glared. Tina spoke to him but he rarely answered. He kept himself distant and it shamed him. Her newfound attraction to him, even if chemically induced, to her was honeymoon genuine. She kept trying to tempt him into the bedroom. The bed would be their stage and that insect would be their audience. Garver had seen the TV dramas and knew how these things played out. The insect would do more than simply watch. It would give its silent cues, puppeteer their motions and reward their obedience with a squirt from its glands. Garver pictured it up there in the corner with its legs tweedling over its abdomen and its eyes jiggling like a tosspot’s, assessing them, staring down over its immense girth like an alien Buddha.
“You don’t, do you?” Norris laughed. “You are shit stupid.”
“What are you on about?”
“My Sherry can tell, clear as a summer sky. The scent your insect is giving off—your wife didn’t choose it. You did.”
Garver drove his pickup to Little Burrows Learning Center in pained silence. The insect had demanded the children be brought here seven days a week. Garver milled about the lobby with the other parents, nodded at small talk, and picked up Russel and Lilly. Russel chattered on about how he had played with spider-pups.
“They’re all fuzzy!” He crowed details in a jumbled happenstance, painting Garver a mental pleasantry somewhere between an obscene Picasso and a pile of twitching offal.
Garver put both kids in their car seats. Lilly was asleep and wrapped snug inside a soft cocoon. Only her chubby face showed uncovered. The effect was not unlike that of a kiwi.
Garver let Russel drone on, offering daddy uh-huhs at strategic points to keep the boy distracting himself. He followed the business route downtown, and, after parking, took Lilly’s carrier in one grip and Russel’s hand in the other. They entered the Office of Interspecies Viability Assessment and Garver made his requests. His scent trail served as his identification.
Yes, his mistress-master had made the inquiry long ago. No, he wouldn’t dare dishonor her-him by shirking his duties. Certainly, he knew the pledge.
Glory be to the Hive.
Upon the nectar of my own being,
I serve as drone and worker.
While he waited for the woman at the counter to print out his genetic meat rating, he tried not to catch the eye of the Hybrid guards flanking the door. The pair of them, each a mirror of the other, hunched their long naked bodies forward. Their limbs were like bullwhips ending in scythes, dipped from tip to end in black chrome. Their hairless skulls belied human genetics. High cheekbones topped a pair of long wet lips. They had no eyes, at least, not on their faces. Atop their flattened foreheads, a mass of gnats seethed and whispered.
The Hybrid to the doorway’s left raised a single mantis forearm. Garver seized cold. The beast could clear the room’s breadth in a heartbeat. It could desegment his body at each joint before he managed two blinks.
But he wasn’t the target. Little Russel was waving and the creature had returned the greeting.
“My teacher says they only hurt bad guys,” Russel said. “And I’m not one.”
“No, you’re not.” Garver tried to will his heartbeat out of the red-zone. He knew the Hybrids could feel it. They could smell his perspiration, the contents of his stomach too. When the paperwork arrived he left with a cautiously measured gait.
He returned home and read the papers in the driveway, leafing through GMR charts and reading aptitude surveys of shocking exactitude. He stuck to the English callouts since the insect script was beyond his means to decipher. Its ink shifted into new forms depending on how close it was to the eye. The kids’ restless squabbling from the back went ignored. Only when Tina stood on the house’s front step, looking nervous and wiping her eyes, did he exit the front cab. She hurried up to him.
“I made your favorite,” she said. “It’s getting cold.”
“It needed those papers,” he said. “Went downtown.”
“You did? I’m so proud of you!”
He’d been putting off the task for a long while.
Tina had shifted to June Cleaver-inspired attire. Gone were last week’s yoga pants and bare midriff. The easy-catch approach had been a failure and she knew it. She’d switched to fuzzy sweaters and wrapped her hair in a prim bun, though she’d found a skirt far shorter than what a 60s TV exec would allow. Garver had to admit, the combination was not displeasing.
Over dinner, he watched her from across table. She returned fleeting glances and made off-and-on idle talk about the neighbors, always carefully chosen so as to avoid sensitive subjects. Joyce has a new sedan and has already dinged the front side. What do you call that part? Wilkes is putting up a picket fence to keep the Thompsons’ patterdales off his lawn. Don’t you think they should be leashed?
Underhand lobs to get him swinging.
When Garver finally broke his silence to congratulate her on a wonderful dinner, her eyes welled and she hurried away to the kitchen. The old Tina would have replied with a sarcastic quip. After a verbal tussle, she’d give a wry smile which only he would have known to be affectionate. He’d rather have that again.
But who was he kidding? He wasn’t remembering weeks ago; they were years past those days. The screaming, the arguments. Lately it felt as if one only interrupted the other. He’d thought Lilly would fix everything, make Tina feel complete, but she hadn’t. It took more than a second child to compensate for his failings as a father and husband. He’d kept the family in its station. He’d made Tina envious and resentful and—
He’d chosen it.
He stared out the window. A lumbering sofa-sized beetle, tiger-striped green and yellow, was making its way up O’Toole Avenue. A retinue of neighborhood kids marched before it, laughing and cheering and pumping their arms in the air like drum majors. Garver sat at the dinner table and listened to Tina deal with the kids in the bathroom. He focused on Russel’s story, now being repeated with gusto from the tub for her benefit. Garver thought about helping her put them to bed, but let his intentions lay silent.
She took the kids to go say goodnight to the bug. Garver cradled his forehead and closed his eyes. He’d pray if there were a chance he’d be heard, but there was nothing beyond the now. The past was forgotten. Tomorrow didn’t exist.
After a short while, Tina touched his shoulder.
“How’d it get in?” he asked without looking up.
“I’ve told you before, the backseat.” Tina sat down in the chair beside him.
“And you didn’t even notice.”
“No, it’s just like I said—”
“Shit!” He pounded his fists on the table. “It isn’t a goddamned handbag. You had to see it!”
Tina cringed and averted her gaze.
He rose from his chair. He exited to the garage and returned with a dusty bottle of Polish vodka. Tina raised an eyebrow but didn’t speak. After his past issues, he’d promised to keep alcohol out of the house, had, in fact, sworn to it on his father’s grave. He poured himself a glass.
“Well?” he asked.
She folded one hand over the other on the table.
“Look, I’m a liar.” He threw back his drink in one swallow and inhaled through gritted teeth. “God, I miss that.” He slammed his glass down to the table and filled it again. “Aren’t you going to yell?”
“But don’t I deserve it?”
“I’m tired of fighting,” she said. “Aren’t you?”
He blinked and rubbed his eyes hard, because of the liquor, and not.
“I’ve been hiding that from you,” he said.
“Not very well,” she said. “I found it last Christmas while looking for boxes.”
If he defied her and started drinking again, she’d promised to slap the shit out of him, her words, and take the kids. But she hadn’t. They sat in silence for long moments.
He couldn’t consider the what-ifs anymore. He sagged forward over the table. “The reports…”
The yearly surveys which the cityhive forced upon all residents had come back in his favor. He always fudged his answers and made sure he was less than optimal, a blue-collar nothing that the insects would tolerate and yet ignore. But somehow they’d seen through his ruse. His mechanical aptitude was off the charts. Spatial reasoning and abstract concepts showed a potential many deviations above the norm.
“I should’ve been an engineer,” he said. “And not just a by-the-numbers lackey, either. I mean world famous. Can you imagine? I could be making something wonderful.” His voice tightened and he gathered himself before continuing. “I didn’t even know who I was, but they still found me.”
She placed her hand over his. For once, he didn’t pull away.
“But the clincher,” he said, “was the written response.”
“Yes, the last page. Mine had one too.”
“What do you want most?” he recited. “On that one I told the truth—my wife, my family.” Her hand squeezed his tight. He picked up the papers and scanned the summary lines. “Habitation will be mutually beneficial…an optimum arrangement for all parties, insect and human.” He tossed the papers back on the table. “So, it wanted in here because of me. It even thinks this is a sick sort of favor. Now you know, if you didn’t already. I’m hiding nothing, and I’m asking you again, did you see it?”
Tina concentrated first on the scattered papers and then on his drink.
“Yes,” she whispered.
He eyed the scratches on her neck. Though she’d tried to cover them with makeup, he could still see them trailing away below her neckline. Did it do it with its legs, its mouth?
“To be with it,” he growled. “You’d rather have a fucking cockroach than—”
She glared at him and for a moment he saw her as she used to be. Her quick temper, the equal of his own. During the good days, it had kept his in check.
“Then why?” he asked.
“It was the only way,” she said. “I wanted to love you again. And now I do.”
The insect’s thoughts crinkled about the back of his head, like beetles nesting in dry leaves. It was watching these proceedings with great interest. Certainly it was peeking out from behind her eyes too.
A flash of an image, of the first time he’d seen her, sunlit and gorgeous, sitting on a park bench at the foot of the stone steps. He’d been daydreaming about the scent of her hair and how it would feel to kiss her, but knew she wouldn’t bother with a guy like him.
Tina’s eyes went wide and he knew she was seeing his relayed thoughts.
A handsome guy was looking down at her, and she wished he’d come speak with her. Hold her—did she dare? If he knew her, he’d love her. She was so tired of being alone.
“Downstairs,” he said. “We can—”
She turned her head to the bedroom.
“Please,” he said.
She considered for a moment and then nodded. “Just us.”
She rose and led him away.
The next morning, he awoke on the couch with Tina wrapped naked and warm around him and gave thanks that Russel hadn’t come down early. In this day and age, what was a father to say?
He dressed, did the farm chores, and set the pigs loose across the lawn. Norris spotted him and started another senseless over-the-fence barter which Garver ignored. Eventually, the guy sulked away to his pool pond.
Garver frowned at the thinning grass. After cornering the most obnoxious pig, one with a particularly guilty mien, he stunned it with a hammer blow between the eyes and hauled it to the garage. He hung it from the rafters, slit its throat, and let it bleed out into an oil pan.
Killing the first animal had left him light-headed. He had no problem gutting a fish, but dispatching something of this size left him queasy, or it had. The slaughter had gotten easier with practice.
He held the butcher blade in his hands and imagined how it must feel. It slid through with such ease, like slicing a pot roast. It probably just stung a bit at the end. He touched it against his neck but then tossed it aside.
“Coward,” he said.
After a quick wash he took the kids to the center. Along the way, Russel told of a dream he’d had. The mighty bugs had found a tiny planet of four-legged hump monkeys who ate green jelly.
“They could talk, but they were still stupid,” Russel said. “So they got eated.”
“You’re a good boy,” Garver said. Russel rattled on without pause.
When he returned, Tina was eager with her affections, pecking kisses on his cheek and giving him a squeeze whenever she drew near. She promised him a wild time after she got back, but she had to leave for her required class, Larva to Imago.
With the house empty, Garver filled the extractor to the brim with solvent. He fired it up and vacuum-scrubbed last week’s drippings from the bedroom carpet. The insect watched him take the machine in slow passes across the room. The air took on a cloying chemical sweetness, a bit like a shampooed dog. Clean, but not really.
The insect didn’t budge. It couldn’t. It had committed to its spot in the corner and wouldn’t dislodge until it had mated and molted free.
Garver finished with the floor and tacked down new plastic sheeting under the insect to catch the splatter.
“Ready?” he asked. “Soup’s on.”
A hooked leg as long as a pool cue brushed his face. He jerked back but another half-dozen were behind him. The back of his skull itched, and he prepared for clicked instructions, but instead a woman’s voice murmured.
I helped you.
The bug had rifled through his thoughts and assembled this, a voice sculpted to entice him and only him. Feminine, teasing, with an exotic accent. These were pure fantasies he’d tucked into his hidden core. He felt his guard melting away. The insect spoke again.
Don’t fear me.
With that tone, like the girl next door daring to be sultry, he didn’t, he couldn’t. This was what Tina felt, complete desire. The insect innately understood the scents needed to attract a woman, and with time and study, learned to craft the sounds to attract a man. It mimicked a goddess, a muse of pure passion.
“I can’t,” Garver choked.
He struggled back—the horror of the insect’s form was too much to bear—but its free legs held him firm. They tugged at his clothes. Tatters slipped away. He fought against this affront but his arms were pinched tight. He cried out.
A picture flashed through his mind. A Hybrid. It was near, just a few blocks away. It perked up, sniffed the air, and loped off in the direction of Garver’s home. It sensed the insect’s need for assistance. Another joined it. And another.
“Call them off!” Garver pleaded.
Breed with me.
“Make them stop!”
It didn’t answer. It tore away the rest of his clothing. His arms were numb in its grip. He clenched his fists tight.
The carapace of the insect sawed apart, cracking open wetly, like sticky lips. Within its soft interior, pulpy bits shifted and stirred, the mass tonguing itself forward, bloating and squeezing into an exquisite form. A face pushed outward, so close to his own, and the girl of his dreams took shape.
The insect had read his mind and sculpted its innards into an alabaster angel, a feminine impossibility, a total amalgamation of every fantasy he’d ever had. Hula girls, pin-ups, a pornstar or two, his mother? He couldn’t bear it. The gentle curve of her neck, the full swell of her breasts, and the sweep of legs like a dancer’s, so long, nudging behind him and wrapping around his own. It had stripped his mind naked to make this. The angel’s lips parted and she spoke with the clarity of a bell.
He fell into her arms and her thoughts pushed into him. The insect’s pride in its conquest washed over him. Its ambition to climb the Hive hierarchy and establish itself as a worthy duchess. Its fear of his rejection now turned to delight in this perfect seduction. It dreamt of their brood. His seed and its spore would become one. His wife would bear the fruit of their labors, and soon, the neighboring women too. They would commune as one nest.
A warning tickled at the insect’s perception. Garver’s raveled thoughts felt it too. If the bug hadn’t been so preoccupied, it would have heeded the summons long ago. The Hybrids with those delicate noses—so sensitive—even a block away they could sense danger. The creatures scurried forward and screamed silent warnings. A pity the bug lacked their precision. With the carpet-cleaning fumes in this room so thick, and the insect’s attention elsewhere, it hadn’t given a single thought to ulterior motives.
Garver opened his fist. The insect saw what he’d brought and now it smelled the gas leaking up from the basement level, long flooded. Garver had been very careful with his tools, and quiet too. The cloud had been building for hours. The insect’s guard was down and it couldn’t seal itself, not with him still inside.
“You can’t have them,” Garver said, and flicked his lighter to life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rhoads hails from Colorado, where he lives with his wife and son. His morbid fascination with horror and weird fiction takes his writing down paths he’s perhaps too willing to follow. Somehow, his work has seeped into this publication and other unsuspecting venues, including: The Best Horror of the Year, vol. 7 (edited by Ellen Datlow); Apex Magazine; Death’s Realm (Grey Matter Press); and SQ Mag. His new Gothic adventure/horror novella series, The Ladies Bristol, is slated to be released this summer by Grey Matter Press.