On the morning of May 13th, 1959 – a Thursday – an explosion shook the Wormhole and threw me and the kraut, Albert Lissner, through the air like a couple of toy soldiers in a child’s game of war.
“I’m gonna die now,” I thought.
Then my body slammed against the wall of the laboratory and I hit the floor like a slab of meat.
I didn’t die, but my glasses were knocked off and without them I was as blind as a bat. I wouldn’t have been able to see much anyway, for the laboratory was quickly filling with billowing smoke. There was a sharp smell of ionized air in my nostrils and my ears were ringing. I heard Lissner moaning low somewhere ahead of me. I wasn’t fond of working for the kraut, but right now Lissner was simply another human being, probably hurt, and I was damned if I was going to let anyone die on my watch, kraut or no kraut.
We were roughly two miles beneath the Nevada Test and Training Range, below the salt flat known as Groom Lake, in the top-secret military research facility ‘the Wormhole’, where we had been working on the William James Project for the better part of a year.
The Wormhole was a vast network of sterile, interminable white corridors and heavy metal doors barring the passage of anyone but myself, Lissner and the few other scientists allowed access. To the soldiers many miles above our heads, the Wormhole was merely a peculiar name to make lewd jokes about over their cigarettes, but to the few people who knew the purpose of the William James Project – and among them were none other than Eisenhower himself – the name carried a very special, hopeful significance.
My fumbling hands found my glasses – they were close-by, a dead plastic insect with its legs neatly curled up under it.
The lenses were cracked and I seemed to see the world through a spiderweb of fractals. I dared not think of the damage to the laboratory. The five-thousand pound magnet we had been using to generate a magnetic field three-times as intense as that of Earth’s, and Bertha, the supercomputer from MIT which had been working day and night analyzing the cosmic rays bouncing off the field… all of it reduced to shrapnel in the violent release of unfathomable energy.
But didn’t that mean the project was successful, the indomitable scientist in me wondered as I staggered through the smoke.
Somewhere, the sound of a fire-alarm mixed with the ringing in my ears. Undoubtedly, help was on its way and would be here in a matter of minutes. But those minutes might prove detrimental to Lissner.
The smoke cleared in front of me, like heavy curtains parting before a grand show, and I saw Lissner, unconscious, sprawled on the floor among shards of glass and plastic scorched and crumbled by the heat.
Something was standing over Lissner, poised on elongated goat-like legs, as if studying the kraut with wary curiosity.
My first thought was how, and when, a third person had gained access to the laboratory, but then the thing turned to look at me.
My brain simply didn’t know how to interpret the stimuli my eyes were feeding it. I was looking at something completely alien, a stranger to this world.
Somewhere behind the slender figure, partly obscured by the smoke, I sensed the presence of something my mind could not quite categorize, not as a sort of vessel, nor as a living, pulsating something that flickered, seemed to be there, yet not completely there, almost as if it would disappear if I were to look hard enough at it.
Without seeming to have moved, the thing I had seen standing over Lissner, appeared in front of me. It stood a good foot taller than me, and as I gawped at it, it seemed for a moment to be crawling with bees, and the next, entirely covered by buttercups. I feared my brain might start leaking out of my nostrils, yet I could not look away.
The thing’s head became a glowing spider standing on its hind legs with outstretched arms, spinning maddeningly around itself like a nightmare amusement park ride. It raised a finger-like appendage and gently tapped my forehead.
“#šh‘÷ÔÈḧ͖c̺̗͚h̠a͡t͑͒ͫ̉͊ͤͣ̓” it said to something dormant inside me.
Then I passed out, just as the rescue team started banging on the door.
Colonel Leary was sitting next to me when I awoke in a hospital bed.
Judging by the light it was late afternoon, but I had no idea for how long I’d been out. My head hurt so much I just wanted to bury it under a pillow, but no fabric in the world would be soft enough to ease the crushing pain.
“Marion and Junior are waiting outside. They came as soon as they heard. The nurse could hardly keep Marion out. You’re a lucky guy,” Leary said and pursed his lips.
I moaned, rubbed my aching forehead and struggled to form a sentence.
“Anyway,” Leary continued, “I thought it might be best if you and I had a little talk first. You know, get the facts straight.”
Leary always knew what was best. It had been he who had recruited me for the William James Project. He had shown up one day at the university in Cambridge where I had been teaching Physics, and invited me out for a drink, just as if we were old friends. He had a way about him, a comradely tone glazed over an air of authority that made you feel proud of having earned his attention and made it impossible to say ‘no’ to him.
In a shadowy bar on Massachusetts Avenue, Leary told me the military had taken an interest in me based on a series of articles I’d written for a scientific paper about the philosopher and physiologist William James. Though James was believed by many to be one of the most influential philosophers the United States ever produced, I had never thought anyone – save for a few professionals – would notice the articles, yet here was this old cowboy Leary talking about them as if he had doted on every word I’d written.
“We look to science now for the edge in military defense,” he said.
He told me how the people he worked for, people high-up I understood, had become interested in James’ theories of the multiverse – of the existence of parallel realities stacked ad infinitum against ours like books in the library of Babel – and of mining those realities for anything that could yield an advantage in the arms race.
I would be working for a prominent physicist, Leary told me, trying to create a temporal wormhole in the fabric of space and time. To pierce the veil between the worlds. The prospect was enough to make any scientist’s head spin, and I felt dizzy with the possibilities as I sat there in that dive bar in Cambridge.
The job meant moving with my wife Marion and my son Junior halfway across the country, giving up friends and colleagues, Junior’s Cub Scouts, the brisk air and the red maple leaves in autumn, for rocks, cacti, and prairie dogs in the Silver State. Not a tempting prospect, but I saw it as my duty, both as a man and a patriot, to do what was best for the country, and as a scientist, to strive for new discoveries.
“Of course,” Leary said, his glass paused halfway to his mouth, “now that I have told you all this, I will have to kill you if you decline our offer.”
Then his lips split into a convivial grin.
I joined in, a bit too late, and a lot more hesitant.
“You did it, didn’t you?” the hospital chair squeaked below Leary as he adjusted himself, “You broke through, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I think so.” I was going to nod, but realized it still hurt too much.
“Damn, you boys are too smart for your own good!” Leary said, and laughed that laugh of his that always sounded like something he pulled out of an old drawer on certain occasions.
“What happened to Lissner?” I managed to ask.
“Ah, he’s all right. Matter-of-fact he checked out of here a few hours ago. Guess those Germans are like cockroaches: hard to kill.”
Leary got up from his chair.
“Now, don’t get me wrong, we’re all very happy that you two are alive,” he said, “but all the equipment is trashed. No one’s going to get any useful readings out of them. No one’s saying that’s your fault, but it sure would be nice if we had something to show for it. Prove to Willis and the higher-ups that this hasn’t all just been a waste of tax-payers’ money, you know. Lissner claims he was unconscious the whole time, so it rests on you, Randy. Whatever you saw, if you saw anything at all, is going to have a whole lot of pull with the money men. Might determine whether the William James Project gets a second chance, or if we wrap it up now.”
“I don’t know …” I said. Part of me wanted to confide in Leary, to share what I had seen with someone, but it would sound as if I was mad. Maybe I was. I figured no one else had seen the thing that had come through, and that it had gone back to whatever sunless world had spawned it. Or maybe it was still out there somewhere, trapped in an unfamiliar world. I didn’t know which was worse. It hurt to think about it, like a smoldering chunk of coal behind my forehead, and I just wanted to bury the hurt and the memory somewhere far, far away where I would never have to go again.
“I’m sorry,” I managed, “It’s all a blur.”
Leary stared out the window at the desert landscape.
Then he smacked his lips. It was hard to tell if he was annoyed with me, it was always hard to tell what really went on behind his jovial good-old-boy humor and those cold, calculating eyes of his.
“Yeah, well,” he said and turned to me again, “You should thank me. I’ve convinced Willis to let you take a few days off. The white coats are stepping over each other’s toes to get to talk to you first, but I told them to leave you alone. Go spend some time with your family. And if you remember anything — anything at all — you call me, okay?”
The door flew open and Marion and Junior entered in a flurry of worried smiles and loving concern.
I felt myself disappear in Marion’s golden locks as she planted big, wet kisses on my cheeks and on my mouth, and when she straightened up again Leary was gone.
“Daddy, what happened to you?” Junior was asking. He was wearing his beloved suspender longies, and the cap Marion’s mother had given him before we moved to protect against the desert sun.
“Oh hush, baby,” Marion said, “You know daddy can’t talk about his work.”
She looked as fine as she ever had, tall and slim, her liveliness animated by the concern she felt for me. It felt good to be with my family again.
Marion made my favorite that night – meatloaf with mashed potatoes and peas – while Junior played with his new Lego set and I pretended to watch “American Bandstand”.
Jerry Lee Lewis was on, and normally I would have enjoyed his performance, but tonight my eyes kept drifting to the view outside the window, the deafening solitude of the desert and the boundless sky. There was something immensely sad about the way the sand drifted in the wind.
When we first came to Remand, the small desert town established by the military to house their employees and their families, we had all been impressed by the violent thunderstorms that sometimes rolled over the desert, the opulent, boiling clouds and the lightning that cracked the sky like a giant eggshell.
I remembered standing close together with Marion and Junior, looking out at the spectacle and counting the seconds between lightning and rumble, while the rain tapped on the roof above our heads.
There was no thunder tonight, the sky was a languid gray tinted-with-gold after swallowing up the sun. It was an altogether pleasant evening in Remand, yet I could hardly hear Dick Clarke speaking from the television set, for tonight the noise of rolling thunder was inside my head.
The more I turned the memory of what had happened that morning in the laboratory in my head – and I could not put it aside – the less I was able to make it fit in anywhere. It was a puzzle piece that didn’t belong in the big picture.
I considered calling Lissner. Somehow it worried me that I hadn’t heard anything from him. Perhaps I even hoped he would be able to convince me it had all been a hallucination, a result of hitting my head against the wall. In some weird way it felt like the two of us had done something wicked and had scurried away from it, ashamed to look at each other again.
“Dinner’s ready,” Marion called cheerfully and tore me from my inertia.
As I sat down at the dinner table and looked at the steaming pile of mashed potatoes, the roasted bacon crowning the meatloaf, and the familiar pitcher of lemonade next to it, I felt scared out of my wits.
The next morning I awoke to discover something had grown out of my head.
At the first glimmer of consciousness I only registered the weight, the strange warmness on my forehead, as if I’d fallen asleep with a slab of meat on my face. Staggering to the bathroom in frenzied disbelief I felt gravity tug at a new and unfamiliar weight.
In the bathroom mirror I saw them in all their glory.
Two horn-like formations the length of my forearms protruded from my forehead, just above my eyebrows. They weren’t hard, keratinous ones like those of a cow or a goat, but soft and flexible, meaty cylinders pinched at the ends where they split in two like the tongues of snakes.
And they seemed to be alive. Alive and sentient.
I forced myself to remain calm, to steer myself away from that edge which promised a plunge into sheer, raving insanity. The only way to avoid falling, was to hang on to the last straws of dignity and reason. There would be a solution to this, I knew. An explanation.
When my initial horror receded, I went back to bed and sat, cross-legged, and stared in astonishment at the slow, undulating motions of my new appendages, my new feelers. They were moving with a kind of revolting blindness, as if they were tasting the air of a new environment with worm-like curiosity.
It was a curious sensation to feel the light touch of air against the skin that stretched across them. It was my skin, undoubtedly my skin, but stretched across alien muscle. My hands found the stems, and I felt my own touch. The horns were truly part of me, twin aberrations grown from my own matter like tumors in the dark of night.
Where had they come from? Where had my body found resources to adorn me with such extremities?
When Marion awoke, she screamed at the sight of the feelers and jumped out of bed. Her face turned ashen and twisted in horror and disbelief as she pressed herself against the wall.
“Marion,” I said, speaking slowly and clearly, while looking into her eyes, “I need you to take it easy.”
She still wasn’t able to get any words out of her mouth, her lips reduced to a tight, white line.
“It’s obvious something has happened to me during the night,” I continued, “but since you haven’t been affected there doesn’t seem to be any reason to fear contagion.”
I climbed out of bed and once again was taken by surprise by the weight of the feelers, almost toppling over.
I walked around the bed to where Marion was standing, and took her in my arms. She couldn’t bear to look at me, and fastened her eyes on some spot on the carpet, shaking all over as if it was a winter morning back in Harvard, and not another sun-baked day in Nevada.
I was just about to say something when one of the feelers grazed her hair, and she tore herself from me.
“Get those things away from me, Randy!” she cried in a voice I had never heard her use before in all our time together.
“Dear God, what are those things?” she moaned as she shook her head, her face all screwed-up while tears started washing down her cheeks.
“Honey,” I said, “I don’t know, but please listen to me. There is a natural explanation for this. I’m a scientist. Maybe it’s some sort of radiation, like in that film we saw with the ants, remember?”
“They did something to you at that awful place, didn’t they?” she screamed and made for the door.
I grabbed her as she tried to rush past me, and held her tight. I didn’t like restraining her like that, against her will, but I couldn’t let her run. She might hurt herself or wake up Junior.
“Please,” I begged into her ear, “keep your voice down. Think of Junior.”
“We never should have come here,” she muttered through tears. Her strength was faltering against my grip, and I relaxed it a little.
“Junior’s going to be up any minute now. I need you to keep it together for his sake. Take a Valium and go out there and get him ready for school like you would on any other Friday, do you hear?”
She sobbed and hiccuped, but managed to nod.
“I love you,” I whispered and let her go.
She straightened up, closed her eyes for a moment as if to find some inner resource, then quickly and resiliently wiped the tears from her face with clenched fists.
“I love you, too,” she said, and slipped into the living room.
I waited behind, my ear to the door.
The sun was spilling through the window behind my back, showing me the idiot shapes of the feelers moving languidly like sea anemones on the carpet.
My own body had betrayed me. I couldn’t shake that thought. It had betrayed the regulation of my physiology, allowed something from another place to push through me, through my flesh, reaching out to taste a new frontier. I couldn’t wait to be rid of the feelers. I even thought about sawing them off with a kitchen knife, but vivid images of dark blood gushing over my face and my hands deterred me from the idea.
Soon, I could hear the patter of Junior’s feet scampering down the stairs. I don’t know why it was, but I found myself listening intently to the sound of his beloved Sugar Smacks ringing against his Roy Rogers bowl as Marion poured the cereal for him. He was speaking excitedly about his science fair project at school – building an X-Ray tube – and it made me smile. He took after me. Naturally gifted when it came to math, physics, and chemistry. Like me, he could see the beauty behind the numbers and the principles, the intricate mechanisms that explained the universe in equations and formulas. He might grow to become a great scientist one day.
Then the bus pulled up outside. Remand was too small to have its own school, so every day Junior rode the bus to the town of Carlin nearby.
The little morning ritual, so beautiful and touching in its mundanity, passed much too soon. I almost ran out the door to stop Junior from boarding the bus, so I could hug him and tell him I loved him. But I forced myself to stay put, and the bus drove off, the moment dissolving in its exhaust fumes.
I wrenched myself from the grip of those melancholy thoughts and jumped to my feet. After putting on a clean shirt and some dark pants, I entered the living room.
Our house was modernistic, having an open-ended living room with the kitchen located at the other end, and tall windows facing out towards the desert. Marion was in the kitchen, her back turned to me. She had cleared the table and was washing Junior’s bowl now, not acknowledging me in the slightest. I didn’t say anything, figuring the routine was helping her keep it together.
I didn’t have the necessary equipment to analyze my mutation here. I would have to go back to the Wormhole. Except everything was trashed after the explosion, Leary had said.
I decided to call Lissner instead. He picked up after three rings.
“Carter.” His voice on the other end was not much more than a whisper. “I thought you might call.”
I was momentarily distracted when the feelers started investigating the Bakelite’s receiver, and found myself at a loss for words. But Lissner didn’t ask for any explanation. Right then and there, I became convinced he too had been affected. A chill rose up my spine even though it was already a hot day. It was a coldness that lived inside, that had nothing to do with temperature.
“I thought we should meet and talk about what happened yesterday,” I said, forcing my concentration back to our conversation.
“Oh yes, indeed,” Lissner agreed, “Can you come by my place in, say, half-an-hour?”
And it was settled. After hanging up, I realized I should have asked Lissner to come here instead – that the drive across town presented a curious obstacle with my changed appearance. However, I was not inclined to surrender. It seemed vital not to let the changes control me, so instead of calling Lissner again, I decided to solve the problem by wrapping a towel around my head like a big, terrycloth turban.
“I’m going over to Lissner’s house. He is going to help me sort this out,” I told Marion’s back.
“Will you be back for lunch?” she chirped, seeming to have regressed into a state of complete denial.
“No,” I sighed, wondering how many Valiums she’d taken, “probably not.”
Lissner and his wife lived on the other side of Remand, which luckily meant only about a five-minute drive. It was only half-past eight, but already the sun was burning down on the desert, making the air shimmer above the bitumen. The terrycloth around my head made my scalp itch, and sweat poured down my face, while the feelers squirmed restlessly underneath. I wondered if they resented this restraint on their freedom?
Even though I had never been fond of working for Lissner, I was looking forward to examining my predicament with him. Originally, the irony of moving across the country to do my patriotic duty, and then being told I was going to work for someone whom less than a decade ago we had been taught to hate and despise, had eaten me up. Leary had told me the truth about him shortly after I’d come to Remand. There had been a lot of waiting around at first, before the William James Project could start properly, and there wasn’t much to do around the base other than drink and talk. One night, sitting atop boxes of laboratory equipment yet to be unpacked, Leary poured me a whisky and told me about Lissner.
He had been a prominent physicist in Nazi Germany and when the war ended the Office of Strategic Services had recruited him to work for the United States military. The great American Eagle had swooped down and pulled Lissner out, as Leary said. His past had been erased, he had been given false papers and a home in Remand with his wife. ‘Operation Paperclip,’ they called it.
Leary knew a lot about those kinds of things. Perhaps that was one of the reasons he liked his drink so much.
However, Lissner really was a good scientist, I had to give him that. Furthermore, he was truly a man of science who believed in the scientific method above all else, and who could be trusted to remain calm and levelheaded, no matter what.
At a crosswalk, I stopped for a red light. A young woman with a baby stroller crossed in front of me, offering me a polite smile that turned into a frown when she saw my headwear.
I returned the smile, pretending nothing was wrong.
Remand was small, and full of bored housewives who had nothing better to do while their husbands worked than spy on each other. If I wasn’t careful, the whole town would be boiling with gossip before noon.
It was Lissner’s wife Dora who opened the door for me, and led me through the house to her husband’s study.
She had a couple of years on Marion, and a few silvery streaks in her short, bouffant hair, but nonetheless she radiated a powerful, warm sexuality. You only had to throw one glance at her to know she was a strong-willed, self-assured woman who wasn’t ashamed of her roots.
“Mr. Carter is here, mein schatz,” Dora said when we’d stopped outside the door to the study.
She pushed the door open and motioned me to go inside. For a moment I thought I saw a kind of knowing smile play on her face, and I got the unnerving feeling she and her husband were playing some sort of trick on me.
The study was a lofty room about twenty-times-thirty feet, bounded on all sides by heavy-set wooden bookcases filled to the brim with many leather bound volumes.
The curtains were closed, allowing only a minimum of sunlight to penetrate the shallow dusk of the room. I could only just make out a small black and white picture on the wall, showing Lissner and a group of other scientists posing for the camera outside the Zeppelin Grandstand.
The centerpiece of the room was an antique writing desk behind which Lissner was sitting, a small and lonely majesty among the reminders of a past life.
Lissner was a man of about forty, with a round face, short dark hair on hasty retreat atop a high forehead, and a pronounced eagle nose. He had wrapped himself in a heavy woolen robe and I couldn’t help wonder if he wasn’t hot. There was a bottle of whisky on the table, and a half-empty glass in his hand.
“Ah,” Lissner exclaimed and jerked to his feet when he saw me. He threw one glance at the towel around my head with those dark, piercing eyes of his, but didn’t say anything.
“Come, come, sit please, my friend,” he waved me closer and motioned me to sit down opposite him.
He offered me a drink and I welcomed the piquancy of the whisky, allowing it to shore me up against the storm.
I was relieved there didn’t seem to be anything changed about Lissner – that he hadn’t sprouted an extra pair of arms or another head during the night – but I couldn’t help notice how he seemed almost giddy with excitement, as if his hands were itching to peel away my towel.
“I must confess, Randy, I was expecting your call when I realized what was happening … well, I suppose you know better than anyone.”
“I don’t know anything,” I said, frowning.
“All I can be relatively sure of is that something happened in the Wormhole yesterday. Something that has caused … this.”
I started to unwrap the towel, while Lissner watched, sweaty-faced and wide-eyed, not so much afraid as expectant.
The towel fluttered to the floor. The feelers stretched in their new-found freedom.
“Mein Gott,” Lissner whispered.
The absurdity of it all, the way he looked at me, set my cheeks ablaze.
It didn’t help when he got up and asked if he could touch them.
“Das ist unglaublich …” Lissner muttered as his hands traced the feelers’ shapes. He was standing so close to me I could smell the mothballs in his bathrobe, and behind that smell, something else, some subtle exudation from the German’s body registered on the edge of my awareness.
The feelers didn’t seem to mind Lissner’s touch. They continued their undulating dance, but the sensation of his hands on my flesh made goosebumps rush across my skin.
“They’re magnificent …” Lissner’s shameless curiosity was starting to get to me, and I brushed his hands aside.
“Please Dr. Lissner,” I begged him, “If you know something about this, for God’s sake, tell me. I’m at my wit’s end.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Lissner said as he returned to his chair.
“But first, tell me what happened in the laboratory after I passed out.”
I told him. It was relieving to put into words what I had hidden away in my head. And yet it was also terrifying, as if by turning my thoughts into words I was lending the events a validity I had been able to withhold until now.
“I assume you ascribe your … changes to the encounter with this … creature?” Lissner asked when I had finished.
“Actually,” I said, “I was thinking maybe the radiation caused me to hallucinate …”
“Hmm,” Lissner shook his head. “Perhaps. It is possible, I assume … but that wouldn’t explain the … changes, would it?”
“Maybe a new kind of radiation,” I pressed on. “An undiscovered kind of cosmic ray? Bertha was registering all kinds of exotic matter in the time up until the explosion.”
“We did no doubt detect states of matter and particles not commonly encountered,” Lissner agreed. “But you are overlooking another explanation, which, incredible as it is, might be closer to the truth.”
“Well, we know the human body sometimes exhibits quite astounding levels of ingenuity when it comes to improvising on its form. The body can sometimes even become our enemy. Just think of common allergies. And what about hypertrophic scarring? Or in more extreme cases, mutations such as hypertrichosis – der werwolf syndrom – which causes excessive hair growth on the face. We really don’t know why the body reacts the way it does in certain cases. We might as well ask why one man has blue eyes and another brown. The answer to these magnificent mysteries lie buried … in unserem fleisch … how would you say, in our flesh. We need not look to space or the depths of the oceans for uncharted territory, there are latent mysteries within our very flesh.”
“That’s all very well, Dr. Lissner, but you must admit this is a bit more extreme than a case of hay fever.” I indicated the feelers, which were waving restlessly in the air like a pair of hand puppets.
“Carter,” Lissner said, “Allergies, like I mentioned, occur when the immune system reacts to a normally harmless substance in the environment. If indeed we encountered something from another world that day in the laboratory, if we punched a hole in reality and something from outside came through …I think it is possible for this being to be so profoundly strange, that by its mere presence it inspired a revolution of our bodies. Made our flesh attempt to … to sing in unison with it.”
Silence settled over the study when Lissner finished. I had been staring at the carpet for a while, but now looked up at him.
“You keep saying ‘we’,” I said.
Lissner took a deep breath.
“Ja, I too have indeed been touched,” he said as he stood up. I watched as he undid his belt and exposed himself to me.
The thing that immediately hit me was Lissner was wearing a purple brassiere and matching panties – I wondered if they were Dora’s – and then I noticed the fullness of the breasts cupped by the brassiere, and the absence between his legs.
“Jesus,” I whispered. I felt repulsed, unclean, just being in the room with Lissner now, “It’s horrible.”
“You see,” Lissner said, still holding out the sides of his bathrobe like some sideshow attraction, “I too have been affected, albeit in a very different manner than you.”
“All right, Dr. Lissner,” I managed, “What do we do? How do we reverse this?”
Lissner blinked a few times, then folded the bathrobe around himself with an almost disappointed look on his face.
“But Carter, why are you so quick to dismiss these changes? Our visitor has shown us potentials we never knew ourselves capable of. This isn’t just something to be removed or burned away. Don’t you see? This is an unparalleled chance to enter into a dialogue … with our bodies.”
It was obvious the changes had gotten to Lissner’s mind. He had talked himself into a rapturous state, and I realized I couldn’t count on him any longer.
I felt overcome by lassitude, of an inability to fight against the torrent of futility that suddenly washed over me.
“Besides,” Lissner’s hands found his new shapes, caressed both absences and additions, while an elated expression rolled over his face.
“I’m quite enjoying the new possibilities,” Lissner continued, as one hand disappeared down the front of his panties, into the silk-covered mystery or ruin – whatever lay there.
“And Dora is not complaining, either,” he added.
That was when something finally broke apart inside me. I got on my feet, feeling dizzy, mumbled some excuse about having to use the bathroom and stumbled out of the study.
Dora was sitting in the living room, smoking, still with that knowing smile on her lips, as blue puffs of smoke rose above her head and dissolved in the sunlight.
The bathroom. I guessed, found the right door, saw tiled floor and a cistern, shower curtains, and a mirror that threw back my deformed countenance. Then I threw up in the sink. The feelers twisted, as if they too felt my suffering as bile and half-digested food left me through my mouth and my nostrils.
When there was nothing left to regurgitate I turned on the faucet and splashed some cold water in my face.
I stood there for I don’t know how long, watching the rivulets trickle down the concave inside of the sink and disappear down the drain. Then I heard cars pull up in the driveway. Several of them, and big, by the sound of it. Military vehicles.
There was a small window in the bathroom facing the driveway in front of the house, and when I looked out I could see three military trucks pulling up to the house. It hit me like a hammer-blow. They had been watching us the whole time. Of course they had. I felt betrayed, not by my body this time, but by Leary, that son-of-a-bitch, whom I’d allowed to get close to me with all his fake camaraderie. I cursed myself for my weakness, for having felt like I needed him, for having cared so much about his opinion.
Now armed soldiers spilled out of the trucks, and I heard a violent crash when they broke into the house. Dora screamed. Then followed a lot of heated shouting back and forth. Lissner’s voice mixed with those of the soldiers, but he was speaking German now and I couldn’t tell what he was saying. There came a sound like something being knocked over, and that woke me. I thought about Marion home alone, and I imagined a similar scenario playing out at our home, with Leary shouting at her, asking her where I was hiding.
Lissner had to take care of himself. Let him try to convince Leary of the wonders of his new body, I thought as I undid the latches on the bathroom window. I threw a quick glance outside where my car was parked next to the military trucks, but all the soldiers had run into the house it seemed. My heart was pounding in my chest as if it was trying to break free when I hefted myself up into the windowsill, swung my legs over the edge, and let myself drop down to the dry, dusty ground outside.
I ran over to my car, crouched down by the door while I prayed they hadn’t seen me. The key slipped into the lock and I could crawl in. To hell with the towel, it was still lying on the floor in Lissner’s study, probably being trampled by the soldiers’ boots, but I couldn’t care less. I was beyond that. I started the engine and sped out of the driveway, headed for home.
On the way, I was seized by a dread that curdled my blood. I felt so small, so insignificant, a stranger and alone in a world I did not make. The town of Remand, the houses, the white picket fences, the vulgar flowers in the yards, they were nothing more than a backdrop to cover up a horrible void.
I only had Marion to fix my thoughts on, my lighthouse in the storm.
When I pulled up in front of my house, I saw that the familiar building had been hidden behind plastic sheets in crass colors screaming warning. It was a convenient cover-up, of course. They wanted our neighbors to believe we had been infested by pests. It would explain our sudden “disappearance”.
But the only pests I could see were the soldiers, barely disguised as exterminators as if they hadn’t really bothered to make an effort, and Leary, with that somber look on his face, standing there on the seared grass, waiting for me like a disappointed father expecting the return of a wayward son.
There was no trace of Marion. I stormed out of the car like a madman, finally letting it all go. I screamed and thrashed as the soldiers seized me, my feelers even squirming in solidarity with me. I spat insult-upon-insult at Leary’s stony face, wanting to rip out his throat with my teeth and choke the life from his body.
They put me in a cell somewhere I guessed was underground, maybe a part of the Wormhole I hadn’t known about before. Maybe they kept Marion and Lissner prisoners in other cells, or maybe they were dead. The soldiers refused to tell me anything, just watched me through the glass and took notes.
In the beginning, I screamed and raged, threw myself against the wall till my skin turned black, or flung my own feces at their blank faces.
Now I mostly just think. I have plenty of time for that.
How conceited we are, desperately covering our world in a pretense of understanding. We convince ourselves we can impose order on the universe, cling to our science, our religions, or our flags, and believe we have tamed the void.
We are flashes in the pan, insects flying through darkness. Ironic, to be so insignificant and still suffer so much. And for no reason at all. Marion and Junior: I let you down.
Did they try to find me? Or did they just accept whatever lie Leary told them, packed up their things and moved back to Massachusetts, chalking up the months in the desert as a dark chapter best forgotten?
Even if that was the case, Marion had been a good wife. She gave me a beautiful son and we loved each other. In the end, they really were the only ones that mattered.
One day I woke up to find my feelers gone. Instead, I swelled up like a giant rubber ball, and the scientists who monitored me came and prodded me and rocked me back and forth and scratched their heads.
Another time I sprouted thorns all over my body, like a human gorse bush. Had Leary entered my chamber that day I could have torn him to threads with my bare hands.
But even my hatred for Leary began to fade. I no longer knew who I was, and I didn’t care. I was merely a pattern in the ebb and flow of flesh, growing ever more obscure.
There, in the whiteness of my cell, under those indifferent white lights that shone so deep below the ground, I found myself longing only to see the strange visitor who had bestowed his gift of changes upon me.
Secretly, I waited for that cryptic God who had sung to my body to return, to be reminded again of the hidden potentials of my flesh.
Lars Kramhøft is a writer of dark, weird and macabre stories as well as an occasional artist. He wrote the script for the graphic novel “Made Flesh” which won the award for best danish horror publication in 2013. He has also written several short stories which have appeared in various anthologies and e-zines, most notably a number of publications from H. Harksen Productions and the upcoming annual anthology of new Danish fantasy. He lives in Copenhagen and is currently working on his first novel as well as co-writing a book with Henrik S. Harksen. He tweets at https://twitter.com/LarsKramhoeft and can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/larskramhoeft.
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Story illustration by Dave Felton.