by Michael Jess Alexander
I’m almost home, Hunter kept thinking. The promise of temporary respite from another day of surviving carried him on.
He navigated the bustling city sidewalk and, like a seasoned actor who could never fully shake his stage fright, he exuded a detached calm while his staccato heartbeat served to remind him that he, too, was putting on a show. Mindful to avoid staring too long into a passerby’s face because doing so might betray a human curiosity, he stared forward, allowing himself only the quick, occasional glance, which was still enough to recognize the uniform determination of the other pedestrians. This was an animal determination, born of allegiance to the collective and not marked by such motivation as greed or pride or spite. Hunter was a human pretending he belonged to an ant colony.
Allowing himself one such glance, he observed a woman’s face, immediately recognizing that shared expression, which somehow distinguished its wearer’s face even more than a trait like eye color or freckles.
Returning his gaze forward, he encountered a sudden impediment, a man standing in his way. Having nearly collided with the man, Hunter began uttering the usual empty niceties in a practiced, dispassionate tone but halted when the man gripped his right arm. Despite the man’s wiry build, his grip suggested strength. Meeting the man’s dark blue eyes, Hunter confronted a steely look.
“You dropped this,” the man said, his voice flat and unremarkable. He held a closed hand in front of Hunter, and Hunter, anxiously aware of the potential audience surrounding them, received the item without question.
“Thank you,” Hunter said coolly, careful to mask his surprise and confusion.
The man tightened his grip on Hunter’s arm, his measured glare unchanged. He then let go and disappeared into the mass of pedestrians, leaving Hunter to discover a folded piece of paper in his hand.
Hunter placed the paper in his jacket pocket and resumed his walk. Reaching the nearest alleyway, he casually stepped in and proceeded until he was near the halfway point. After a quick scan assured him of privacy, he retrieved the paper from his pocket, unfolded it, and silently read its contents.
I’m human, too. Meet me at 7:00 pm at 72 Deerfield Avenue. Knock four times.
Taking controlled breaths, Hunter waited for his heartbeat to slow. Once a relative sense of calm finally returned, he rejoined the throng and continued his way home.
* * *
About four months earlier, Hunter had made his bi-monthly visit to Aunt Becky’s house. During the subway ride there, he reflected on his Uncle Carl and Aunt Becky. His uncle and Aunt Becky enjoyed a long-term relationship prior to his uncle’s death from lung cancer. Two years had gone by since Uncle Carl’s passing and, while Aunt Becky wasn’t really Hunter’s aunt, he still routinely checked in on her, spending time with the person in the city closest to family. Recognizing her as a fellow loner, he believed this routine social interaction did them both some good.
As he traversed the crowded subway station nearest her house, he passed a newsstand. A casual scan of the weeklies on display reminded Hunter of the growing concern about a recent uptick in reports of mental illness, that is, reports of an affliction characterized by abrupt changes in behavior, such as apathy in previously outgoing individuals. One especially arresting headline read, “My Husband Has Become a Stranger! Medical Professionals Puzzled by Strange New Illness.”
Hunter’s mind turned to his co-worker Samantha, whom he could count toward the number of those stricken by this malady. Her sudden aloofness had actually led their supervisor to suggest she take time off to visit a professional. She refused, though, insisting she was fine.
After a brief walk from the station, he stood before the white-painted brick townhouse where his uncle used to reside and where Aunt Becky still lived.
Movement near the shrubs in front of the porch drew his attention. Between two of the shrubs, a scruffy stray cat stood, staring at him. No. It wasn’t a stray. It was Samson, Aunt Becky’s cherished housecat. Samson’s back was arched, and he hissed as Hunter approached the house.
Does Aunt Becky know you’re out here and in this state? She mustn’t. She’s always taken such good care of you. “It’s alright, Samson. It’s just me, Hunter,” he reassured the cat, and he walked toward the front door.
Despite the cat’s grimy state, Hunter recognized the familiar grey collar around the cat’s neck as he got closer, even though it blended with and was partially obscured by Samson’s matted fur. This erased any doubt the cat was Samson.
Concern on his face, Hunter ascended the steps and rang the doorbell. A little while later, the door opened, and Aunt Becky stared at him through the storm door.
“Hi, Aunt Becky.”
“Hello, Hunter,” she replied, her voice somewhat subdued.
“Um, do you know that Samson is out here?”
“Oh, is that so?”
“Yeah, he’s right over here in the bushes,” he said, pointing in that direction.
“Why don’t you come in, Hunter?” she said, too matter-of-factly, opening the storm door for him.
Knowing her to have expressed grave concern over insignificant matters regarding Samson, such as his not finishing a meal as quickly as usual, Hunter expected her to dash to the cat’s rescue, yet she appeared uninterested. The bottom of his stomach giving out, he followed her into the living room.
“Tea. You’d like tea,” she stated.
“Yeah, that’d be fine,” he gently replied, his face twisted into a subtle grimace as he watched her walk to the kitchen. He took a seat on the couch.
Gazing at a blank television screen, he brooded over the uncharacteristic reception he had just received. My God, Aunt Becky’s got it, too.
Gagging sounds from the kitchen interrupted his rumination. He got up, walked to the kitchen, and found Aunt Becky looking down on a viscous purple orb cradled in her hands. She looked up, drooling, purple mucus around her mouth and on her chin.
“Aunt Becky?” he muttered, taking a step back.
Tendrils hanging from the orb stirred at his voice and shot toward him like streams of electricity.
The fleshy threads were about half a foot shy of reaching him. Aunt Becky began to step closer. Hunter backed up into the living room, begging her to stop. She ignored his pleas and advanced not maniacally or angrily but with dispassionate resolve.
Avoiding the tendrils as though they were rattlesnakes, he grabbed a snow globe from off an accent cabinet and hurled it at the orb. The globe struck the orb, which fell from Aunt Becky’s hands and landed violently on the hardwood floor. The globe shattered, but the orb burst open, spilling soupy, stringy insides.
Aunt Becky looked to the ruined orb and sprang upon Hunter, her expression unchanged. She gripped his head and pressed her thumbs into his eyes. He threw her off, and she tumbled backwards, slamming the back of her head against the doorway. She slumped to the floor.
Certain he had killed her, Hunter left Aunt Becky’s house in a state of shock and returned to his apartment, where he waited for the police or others like Aunt Becky to arrive, yet no one did.
Unsure of just how widespread the situation was and petrified by the possibility of revealing what he knew to one of these beings in a position of authority, Hunter vacillated between fleeing the city and exposing the threat.
A modest tenacity led him to stay and spread awareness by anonymous means. Utilizing various channels but relying most heavily on printed letters mailed without sender information, he endeavored to open as many eyes as possible; however, these efforts bore no fruit, and before he knew it, the city was overrun, and he was outnumbered.
He soon realized, though, that he could fool the beings by mimicking their behavior; they only ever “corrupted” those who, through open expression, bared their humanity.
* * *
Hunter thought back to Aunt Becky and then wondered whom the man who had given him the address had lost during the takeover. Perhaps he and the man would forge a bond through shared grief.
Most of the city was quiet after dark. By then, all entertainment venues were either closed or repurposed, leaving night-shift workers and, perhaps, the occasional human insurgent as the only individuals out and about. Hunter, therefore, stayed in the shadows, walked empty side streets, and wore his maintenance uniform to avoid suspicion.
With about ten minutes to spare, he arrived at the address on the paper. Across the street, bearing the number “72,” stood a brick, two-story tenement house. Under a flickering streetlight, the ramshackle structure resembled a crime scene fitfully illuminated by a photographer’s flash.
Regardless of its seeming unlikelihood and out of a recently developed habit, he had considered the possibility that the man was in cahoots with the invaders. But he then discounted any interspecies conspiracy with the realization that, in the course of taking over the city, the invaders had never shown any need for human confederates, much less a willingness to tolerate, even temporarily, a person maintaining his or her humanity. Hunter had only ever witnessed quick and eager replacement. All the same, a small revolver sat in his jacket pocket, the heft of which made him constantly aware of its presence.
Crossing the street, he noted the house’s dark windows. On the stoop, he gazed at the front door’s peeling paint and listened for any sounds that might indicate someone was home. Somewhat lulled by the dead stillness of the dwelling, he had the idea of returning to his own home, of retreating to his bed and getting a reasonable amount of shut-eye, the better to survive the coming day. However, stronger notions kept him rooted to the stoop: the promise of a shared cause, the promise of shared burden and, most tempting of all, the promise of companionship.
He gave the door four distinct and deliberate knocks, then closed his eyes and listened for movement. The quiet of the house suggested it was as active as a tomb.
Five long, empty minutes passed on the stoop.
Hunter’s stomach began to churn at the thought of so nearly gaining a compatriot and then failing to do so in such an anticlimactic fashion.
His hand crept to the doorknob. He twisted it, found the door was open. He let go, as if the doorknob were scalding. A surreptitious glance revealed no onlookers. Checking his watch, he saw that it was three minutes till the hour. Maybe he expects me to let myself in. Spurred by the notion of surviving even one more day on his own, he opened the door and entered the somber building.
He advanced a little, the floorboards creaking under his cautious footsteps, and he scanned the unlit foyer. As his eyes adjusted to the ambient light, he discovered a cluttered interior. Boxes and makeshift shelves lined the walls, upon which sat assorted detritus mostly indiscernible in the dark; atop a waist-high box to his left, he could make out a pile of newspapers and a couple of tin cans.
“Hello?” he murmured into the quiet gloom.
Copyright © 2021 by Michael Jess Alexander