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Asimov's Science Fiction Analog Science Fiction & Fact

Possible Monsters

Will McIntosh

Will McIntosh is a Hugo Award winner and Nebula finalist whose short stories have appeared in Asimov’s (where he won the 2010 Reader’s Award for short story), Strange Horizons, Interzone, Science Fiction and Fantasy: Best of the Year, and other venues. His first novel, Soft Apocalypse, was released in 2011 from Night Shade Books, and his second novel, Hitchers, was released in February of this year. A novel based on his Hugo Award winning short story “Bridesicle” is in the works, to be published by Orbit Books. Will is a psychology professor at Georgia Southern University; in 2008 he became the father of twins. In his poignant new tale, a man’s encounter with a strange alien leads to a bittersweet look at the roads taken and not and a gradual appreciation for the creature’s mystifying gift.

 

 

Mailboxes whooshed by in the warm night air. Cooper was tempted to stick his hand out the window, to feel the pressure of the wind on his palm, to feel something, but he didn’t trust himself with only one hand on the wheel. Not after four beers. What he didn’t need right now was to plow into a parked car.
This whole stupid all-night drive could have been avoided if the night clerk in that rickety hotel hadn’t asked what he did for a living. For the briefest instant he’d swelled with pride and opened his mouth to say he was a baseball player—a pitcher. Triple-A, going to be in the majors some day. Then he remembered he wasn’t any more. Palm-to-forehead, buddy—you just threw in the towel, finally admitted to yourself that you weren’t good enough. That’s why you’re checking into a hotel halfway between Zebulon, North Carolina, and home.
Cooper yawned hard. Now that the fifteen-hour drive was over and he was two minutes from his parents’ house (his house now, he reminded himself) he was past sleepy, into that hyper-alert headachy state.
He passed his old high school, his skin crawling as the sight fired off unwanted memories. They’d be all over town, his ex-classmates who hadn’t escaped this place, working in the auto repair shop where he’d bring the aging Mercedes he’d bought with some of his signing bonus, managing the diner where he’d choke down breakfast once the sun rose, and piled ass-deep at the Moviemail distribution center, the big employer in town for high school graduates who had no marketable skills, but could put things into alphabetical order. Julie, his ex-girlfriend, was out there somewhere as well, ready to gloat at his failure and humbling return.
Cooper pulled into his driveway, washing the house in white light. It had only been, what, eight months since he’d last seen it? Two weeks spent going through his father’s stuff, deciding what should go to the Salvation Army, what went in the estate sale, what he should keep. Good times. About as much fun as he was having now, pulling into his new old home.
As he pulled up to the garage he saw that it was damaged. The wood was bulging and splintered, like someone had plowed into it in a few different spots. Cooper pulled closer, cursing and squinting as his headlights flooded the little space. “What the hell?” Something squeezed out of the splits in the wall. It looked like glass, or ice.
He turned off the engine, got out, and took a closer look. Cursing, he ran his finger along a split. He was afraid to go inside. It looked like something had exploded in there, and he couldn’t afford major repairs. Heart hammering, he went to the side door, tried to put the key in the lock, but his hand shook so badly he had to steady it with the other. Yeah, highly coordinated professional athlete. He flipped on the light and turned toward the living room.
“Jesus.”
It took him a moment to make sense of it, his heart a wild animal in his chest. A third of the living room was encased in rough, glassy stuff.
Then he realized there was something inside it. It was a tangle of barbs and bubbles and edges, leaned up against his fireplace, which was on the other side of the glass divide. The thing’s eyes locked on him. It had eight or nine of them, and they looked like they were a million years old.
There was a ragged hole in the floor in front of the fireplace. The floor was concrete under the carpet, and shouldn’t be able to look peeled-up, like plastic wrap someone had poked a finger through, but that’s what it looked like. When he looked inside the hole he got dizzy and nauseous. His eyes seemed unable to make sense of what they were seeing in there.
Struggling not to piss in his pants, Cooper ran.
He was in his car, backing down the driveway with no memory of getting in the car or starting it. His cell phone was in his hand. He dialed 911.
“There’s something in my house,” Cooper said when the 911 operator came on. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s made like a nest in there—”
“I’m sorry,” the operator interrupted. “That’s not a 911 emergency. You’ll need to contact an exterminator.”
Cooper laughed harshly, hysterically. “No exterminator wants anything to do with this thing. It’s huge. Bigger than a person. I don’t know what it is.” His lips felt numb.
“Do you mean, like a bear?”
“It’s not a bear. It’s—I don’t know—it’s a monster, with all these eyes.”
After a pause, the operator said, “Can you give me your name?” The way she said it cleared Cooper’s head a little. She was going to send the police to pick him up, for psychiatric evaluation.
“Sorry to bother you,” he said, and disconnected. He needed to think this through. He needed a place to think this through, as slowly and calmly as possible. A hotel, maybe. Which meant he would be sleeping in a hotel after all.
Was there anyone in town he could call? His close friends had all moved away, gone off to college and started lives in Boston, Chicago, Jacksonville. A few of the guys he used to collect baseball cards with were still here. Shug. Stephen. A few of his high school teammates. His ex-girlfriend Julie. He guffawed at the thought of calling Julie and asking if he could crash at her place. Yeah, there’s something in my house. Can I sleep on your couch?
What the hell was that thing? It was like a giant sponge with broken glass and barbed wire tangled in it. With eyes. He pulled into a strip mall parking lot and called Shug.
Shug laughed when Cooper told him there was a monster in his house, but when he asked if he could crash, Shug said, “Sure man, come on over.”

Shug frowned mightily at Cooper. “Are you sure about what you saw in there?”
Cooper felt like he was falling into a black pit. The one thing he had was the house. He sighed, dragged his hands down his oily face. He needed a shower. “Yeah, I’m sure. You want to see for yourself?” Cooper could unlock the door for Shug and wait outside.
Shug leaped up and grabbed his hat. “Let’s go.” He looked like a kid on Christmas morning, waiting to go downstairs and see what Santa brought him. He didn’t seem to understand that Santa had brought a nightmare.
They talked baseball cards on the drive over in Shug’s old Chrysler New Yorker, how professional grading had ruined the fun. Shug talked about cards, anyway. Cooper grunted occasionally while his palms sweated.
Shug whistled as they pulled into the driveway. “God damn. That’s a mess.”
“Wait till you see the inside.” Cooper was beginning to doubt what he’d seen earlier. Was it just some sort of big animal? A big possum or beaver that built strange nests or something? He prepared himself for the possibility that he was going to feel very stupid when Shug got a look at it. Still, when Cooper unlocked the door he didn’t go in. He just pushed it open and waved Shug in. Shug waggled his eyebrows and stepped inside.
Shug shrieked. A second later he flew past Cooper on his way to the car. Cooper jogged after him, afraid Shug would strand him there.

Cooper wasn’t sure what to do. Should he call the FBI? The army?
“Don’t call the law,” Shug said, shaking his narrow head emphatically. “When they see what’s inside they’ll run yellow Police Line, Do Not Cross tape around your house, then the feds will come, and they’ll confiscate your house and you’ll be fucked.”
He suspected Shug was right; as soon as the authorities saw it they would cordon off his house and Cooper would have no say in what happened after that.
“It’s got to be worth something to someone. Worth a lot, maybe. Millions.” Shug was on his sixth beer. His hand was still shaking.
Selling it would solve two problems, because whoever bought it would have to catch it and haul it away, leaving him with money to repair his house and maybe live comfortably for a while.
“You can’t tell anyone else about this,” Shug said, eyeing Cooper over his beer. “Word’ll spread until it’s out of your control and the jackboots come and kick in your door.”
Cooper nodded.
“I’ll help you figure it out.” He motioned toward the door with his chin. “Let’s go look at it again.”
Cooper gawked at Shug like he’d just suggested they drive off the Menands Bridge.
“I’m serious. I barely saw it last time. This time I’m prepared.” Shug lifted his beer, drained what was left in one long pull. “Come on.”
Cooper turned the car around.
“So besides selling this thing, what are your plans, now that the baseball thing isn’t working out?”
“I have no idea,” Cooper said. “I don’t really want to think about it.”
“You should come work at Moviemail,” Shug said, clapping Cooper’s shoulder. “We have a pretty good time there.” He tilted his head. “I’m buddies with Angela in HR. Put in an application and you’ll have a job in a couple of days.”
Was that what it had come to? Sticking DVDs in little red sleeves instead of pitching to Albert Pujols? Cooper needed money, and he probably couldn’t wait to see if he could cash in on his monster. “Maybe I will. At least to pay the bills until I figure out what I want to be when I grow up.”
“Hey,” Shug said. “You can get in on the lottery pool. We all kick in twenty a week. There are twenty, twenty-five people in it, so we buy like five hundred tickets and we’ll split the pot when we win.” Shug held out his palm. “Give me twenty and I’ll cut you in this week.”
Cooper shook his head, exasperated. “I don’t have twenty bucks to throw away right now.”
Shug dropped his hand. “Okay, fine. Don’t get all pissy.” He pulled into Cooper’s driveway, cut the headlights, and hopped out of the car like the seat was red hot.
“I’m kind of scared,” Shug admitted as they headed toward the carport door, Shug clutching another sixpack.
Scared as he was, Cooper wanted to see it again as well. Already the specifics of it were dimming in his memory. With a soft curse he followed Shug inside.
It didn’t look any better the second time. It was eating something oily and black, or at least pushing it into a hole underneath the wide part that held all the eyes. It watched them as it ate. One of the eyes disappeared for a moment, then reappeared.
“Something like that just shouldn’t be,” Shug almost whispered. “There’s nothing like that.” He gestured toward the thing with the beer he’d just opened. “It’s like an alien, but there’s no ship.”
“Maybe what it’s in is the ship,” Cooper said.
They watched it for hours. Cooper drank steadily until his fear was replaced by numb shock. He sat against the wall taking big huffing drunk-breaths and stared at the thing while it stared back.

He woke on the floor, alone except for the monster behind the glass. There was a note on his chest from Shug saying he’d gone to work. The monster was circling the perimeter of its lair, walking on five squat legs that Cooper hadn’t noticed before, looking like a grizzly at the zoo. Cooper’s head was pounding, and he felt nauseous. The sight of the thing wasn’t helping his headache, so he slipped outside.
He needed to call someone to come over and look at this thing, see if he really could sell it. He wasn’t sure who might want to buy it. A zoo? Maybe Barnum and Bailey’s Circus? He could imagine how those calls would go. What he probably needed to start with was a lawyer.
Standing in his parents’ yard, there was nothing he could think to do but drive over and speak to Kenny Stone, a lawyer who was the father of one of his high school friends. So that’s what he decided to do.
On the way he stopped at the Moviemail distribution center and applied for a job. They hired him on the spot. Uneasy about the prospect of telling a lawyer there was a monster in his living room, Cooper postponed the visit to Kenny Stone.

Shug took a couple of steps toward the monster, craned his head forward, and squinted. “I guess that glass stuff is pretty thick.” He raised his hand, tapped the glass. The monster looked at him.
“Cut it out,” Cooper hissed.
“It don’t seem to care,” Shug laughed, and went on tapping for a moment. Then he backed off and set his empty Coors bottle on an end table. “We should get going. Work bright and early.”
Cooper looked at the monster. Several of its eyes swiveled to look back at him. “I think I’m gonna stay a while.”
Shug gawked at him like he’d just said he was planning to marry a goat. “Alone?”
Cooper shrugged. “If it hasn’t done anything dangerous by now, I’m guessing it isn’t going to. I want to study it, see if I can figure it out.”
“Suit yourself,” Shug said, his expression making it clear he thought Cooper was an idiot.
When Shug was gone Cooper watched the monster and sipped his vodka and orange. Cooper wondered where it came from. The hole seemed like a good bet. Cooper glanced into it, then quickly looked away because it felt like someone was twisting his brain when he looked. It was like it had burrowed from somewhere.
Part of it was rippling along the floor, like fingers drumming. “You bored?” Cooper asked.
The rippling continued.
Cooper made a cautious trip to the kitchen for more vodka; the thing’s eyes tracked him across the room, and were watching the kitchen door when he came out and headed for his spot by the wall. He was sick of sitting on the floor though, so he veered unsteadily and instead stretched out in Dad’s recliner.
“How about some TV?” Cooper plucked the remote from the end table and turned on the TV. A Pirates game flashed to life. Cooper immediately turned the channel. No baseball.
The monster pressed up to the glass, staring at the TV. Cooper chuckled despite himself. “You like TV?” He flipped to CNN, which was covering mass protests in Myanmar. Some of the sharp edges on the thing seemed to smooth as it moved along the glass to get as close to the screen as possible. Cooper flipped the channel again, watching the monster carefully.
It watched Say Yes to the Dress intently.
Was Cooper imagining it, attributing human-like qualities to the thing? He didn’t think so. As a test he tried turning the TV off. The thing turned to look at him, giving him a fresh bloom of the willies. He turned the TV back on, and the thing went back to watching.
Eventually Cooper figured out that when the thing tapped on the glass, it wanted Cooper to change channels. He obliged until he passed out.

A scraping sound woke him. He opened his eyes, not sure where he was, still drunk. An old Western was on TV. Robert Mitchum was shooting cans off a split-rail fence. Out of the corner of his eye, Cooper spied something that looked wrong.
He jolted upright. There was a big hole in the glass. The monster wasn’t there. Very slowly, Cooper turned to look around the room.
It was standing right behind him.
Without the glass to soften it, its sharp angles and prickly spines were in sharp focus. The wet parts slid along like they had minds of their own, and the wild wiry parts vibrated like plucked guitar strings. Its eyes were clear and bright; they appraised him with what looked like sadness.
It lifted an appendage, slowly lowered it toward Cooper’s forehead.
With a shout Cooper rolled off the recliner. He scrabbled toward the door, but the jointless, jagged appendage chased him, growing or stretching. It slammed into the side of his head. A blinding flash burst behind Cooper’s eyeballs, then everything went dark.
* * *
When Cooper woke it was light outside. He pulled himself onto all fours and, gasping, cast about the room, trying to locate the monster.
It was back behind the glass. The hole was gone, as if it had never been there in the first place. Cooper rose, his gaze fixed on the scene behind the glass. There was another monster in there, back near the fireplace, peering out the window into the backyard. It looked just like the first.
Eyeing the spot in the divider where the gaping hole had been, Cooper wondered if he’d imagined the whole thing. It hadn’t seemed like a drunken vision; his memory of that up-close look at the thing as it hovered over him was remarkably vivid. Cooper shook his head, then headed into the kitchen to get something to drink. His head was pounding. Usually he made sure to take an aspirin and drink a big glass of water before going to sleep when he had a lot to drink, but last night hadn’t been a usual sort of night.
He skidded to a halt in the doorway and clutched the counter like he was on a keeling ship.
He was sitting at the kitchen table, eating breakfast. He saw himself sitting there, munching on Frosted Mini Wheats. Not a washed-out, wavery mirage, but his completely solid self, wearing a wrinkled white polo shirt.
Cooper opened his mouth to say something to himself, and let out a lone, unarticulated syllable. Was he losing his mind? Of course he was.
“Who are you?” Cooper managed to warble.
His other self went on eating. He turned the Mini Wheats box sideways, finished reading the back and now reading the ingredients and nutrition information out of boredom. That was just the sort of thing Cooper would do.
“Hello?” No response. Cooper crept forward, ready to flee if the situation got any weirder, until he was close enough to touch his doppelganger. “Can you hear me?”
Cooper reached out and let his fingers hover close to his double’s shoulder. If he set his hand on that shoulder and it was solid, he was going to scream. If he could feel the other him, he was too far gone; it would mean he would never be able to unravel reality from delusion. His fingers quavered as he lowered them, then disappeared as his hand sank through the perfectly solid-looking wrinkled white shirt, looking like it had been severed bloodlessly at the wrist. His hand reappeared as he drew it out. Releasing his held breath with an audible puff, Cooper realized his double wasn’t making any sound; no clink of the spoon against the cereal bowl, no slurp or rustle of clothing. It was an illusion, a hallucination.
It was the monster who was doing this. Of course it was. The monster was getting inside his head, causing him to hallucinate. Soon he’d be wearing aluminum foil skull caps and listening to voices in his head telling him who to hack up with a butcher knife.
Unless the monster was another hallucination.
Shug had seen it, too, though. Unless Shug was a hallucination. He didn’t even want to entertain that possibility. No sir.
He ran for his car. He needed to get away from the thing, and stay away, or better still get it hauled far away from him so he could clear that glassy shit out and have his house back. Cooper dug his phone out of his pocket and dialed 411. “Yeah, can you give me a number for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus?” He was pretty sure that was still the name of the big one.
The call didn’t go any better than his call to 911 a few days earlier. The guy he spoke to quickly pegged him as a nutbag. If he could get someone to come look at the thing, he was sure he could get rid of it, but how to get someone to come? Maybe he should pretend to be a potential big donor to SUNY Albany’s biology department and request someone come to his house. The thing was, he didn’t want to go anywhere near his house until the creature was hauled away.
How exactly would they haul it away? What would they do, cut a door in the glass with a chain saw and stick a cage in front of it? Maybe the FBI was the answer. Let them cordon off his house for a few months. At least they’d eventually take the thing away.
Cooper slid his phone into his pocket. Right now he wanted nothing more than to go to work and tear open envelope after envelope and inspect DVDs for scratches and cracks for the next eight hours. The idea of mindless activity was extremely appealing.
In the rear view mirror, Cooper spotted his double cruising along in midair, sitting on nothing, his right hand working an invisible steering wheel. Cooper jerked his own wheel just in time to avoid running onto the sidewalk. He pulled over, let his other self fly soundlessly past.
Cooper looked around at the five or six people on the sidewalk. None of them seemed to notice the guy whizzing by in an invisible car—more evidence that he was hallucinating. Of course he was hallucinating. Though it was such a vivid hallucination.
Cooper followed himself to work. His other self stepped out of the invisible car and headed inside. Cooper jogged to catch up, falling into step just behind himself, just to make absolutely certain no one else saw the double.
No one gave Cooper a second look as he passed.
His double took up residence at his station, a swivel seat at a desk on a factory floor filled with identical desks. Cooper hovered near the seat, not sure what to do as his double reached for the stacks of red envelopes, withdrew his hand holding nothing, and began opening a phantom envelope.
“Hey, Cooper.” Tim Corcoran, his shift manager, gave him a friendly wave. It was his polite way of telling Cooper to get his ass in his chair and start processing envelopes. Cooper considered feigning illness, but he’d just walked in. He hovered a moment longer, then moved his chair two feet to the left so he wasn’t sitting entirely in the same space as the other Cooper.
It was disconcerting when his fingers or part of his elbow disappeared whenever he accidentally brushed up against his double. The double was working with much more focus, going through three invisible envelopes for every two Cooper managed.
“Cooper, why are you sitting like that?” Cooper looked over his shoulder at Tim, standing with arms folded. He unfolded his arms long enough to direct Cooper to roll to his right. “It slows you down when you’re not square in your station.”
Struggling not to wince, Cooper slid over, merging into his double like two soap bubbles joining. His double paused from his work, lifted an invisible cup of coffee and took a sip, then got back to opening envelopes. With Tim hovering, Cooper got back to work as well. It felt like he had four arms; it was confusing, and caused him to fumble as he processed disk after disk.
At three minutes to twelve his double got up and headed to lunch. Cooper waited until he was gone, then followed suit. He prayed his double wasn’t heading to the same restaurant as him. . . .

Copyright © 2012 Will McIntosh

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