The blood dripped freely from Paul’s arm as he shuffled into the kitchen. The cut had not been deep. Only a mere scratch, but he had tripped coming out from the forest, aggravating it. The bandages – if you could call them that – a few medicinal leaves stuffed into the cut, held in place by a few torn strips from Solomon’s bed, swelled with the reddish-brown hue of dried blood. It was all that could be spared so Paul did not complain. At the least the throbbing had subsided, now only a slow waltz; his fall among the roots and trees had inflamed the pain into a tarantella, making the last league to the house an ordeal.
He turned on the faucet and washed the blood from his arm, aware of his mother’s eyes staring at his arms, his blood-stained T-shirt, and torn kakis. Only when he had finished washing and replacing the rags with an old kitchen towel did he turn around. Not meeting his mother’s eyes, Paul rummaged the pantry for some cereal before sitting down. The milk was sitting on the table, already lukewarm.
“Where have you been?”
Paul took a few spoonfuls of the chocolate flaky cereal before pushing the bowl away. How can you enjoy cereal with warm milk?
“In the woods,” he said.
“How far into the woods?”
“Oh near the east side. Solomon’s shack . . . close to the obelisk.” The sharp intake of breath was expected, but his mother’s fright chilled him nonetheless. He looked up into her horror filled face. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Why . . .? Why did you go near that place? Paul, they could have killed you!”
Absently he wiped his hands on what remained of his pants, trying in vain to clean the slime from his palms. Soap might work, he thought, if mixed with a little napalm. He continued wiping his hands under the table while his mother stared and cried; they felt dirty and cruel there, empty. Now especially, he regretted crushing that letter. What happened afterwards could not be avoided, but the letter would have made her happy. After a few minutes he picked up the spoon again and piled flakes on one side of the bowl.
Hours ago, the notice arrived fresh from the mailbox. Considering the success of his last interview, Paul had expected the worst, and insisted on retrieving the mail every morning for the past two weeks. It didn’t take long to realize Starford’s decision. After reading the first sentence, he had considered destroying the letter, leaving envelope and notice in shreds. Instead Paul stuffed the crumbled sheets into his pocket and turned to the forest.
Time passes slowly on those gray rainless days. For an unknown span of minutes (or possibly hours), he stood there staring at the obelisk rising like a rotted tooth above the forest trees before running and tripping into the darkness under the pines. This of course was forbidden. No less than a ten-year sentence if any of the rangers caught him. Only Solomon and his daughter through some special dispensation lived deep within the trees, a mile or so from the black slab. Yet the smell of pine and crunch of twig, reminded Paul of hiking trips far to the north with his father. Good times long since past. Long before the obelisk appeared, hovering like a gargoyle above the vast green forest ceiling.
He fell among the dead needles as the rage and despair left him. How long he sat there staring at the gray fog, he did not remember. At some point his feet objected to the languor and carried him forward, shuffling aimlessly more or less towards Solomon’s cabin. The fog swirled about the path like phantom currents, obscuring exposed roots, moss covered rocks, and insects scrambling from underground dens.
A sudden shriek shattered his thoughts. He rose and ran to the sound, coming to the edge of a clearing. Several yards away, a frail old man gripped the body of a child. “Oh no, Alice,” Paul gasped. “Solomon.” A charred stick lay at their feet. Above the prone shaking old man, an obsidian shadow leered, wreathed in smoke.
The spoon rattled in the empty bowl before he replied. Somehow this moment felt more difficult than anything else. The words came reluctantly.
“I got a reply from Starford and Associates . . .” he murmured, pausing over each syllable. “. . . and I didn’t like what they had to say.”
“Oh,” his mother said, relaxing somewhat with another sip of coffee. “I know that it meant so much to you, working at your father’s company and all, but you mustn’t throw your life away. Near the obelisk and . . . those creatures. They did this to you? You didn’t . . .?”
“No, they attacked Solomon. Attacked me too, but . . .” he looked down, staring at the amount of dirt beneath his nails. “ . . . but I got away.” A sigh.
“And they did that to you?”
“Just a few cuts.” Paul grinned slightly. “Got in a few lucky swipes. Nothing broken. Did more damage crashing through the trees actually, and Alice fixed me up afterwards. She’s practicing for her merit badge. Did a good job, though her patch-ups look rough. She’ll make a good nurse one day.” His mother stared at his arms and left the table. Paul heard a pot of water being set down on the stove behind him.
“Solomon and the little girl, ok?”
“Yeah, no damage. ‘though, Solomon and Alice had quite a fright. I nearly peed myself when I saw it too.”
“Did they . . .” his mother asked with hesitancy. Her tone now sounded more official, like the forest ranger he knew. Paul welcomed the change.
“No, he didn’t kill the creature. I managed to draw the thing away. Lost it in the fog . . . hey, watch it!” She unwrapped the hastily bandaged gauze and cloth, revealing a deep gash, which in truth looked worse than it felt. His body felt battered and bruised, like being sandwiched between two motorbuses. An herbal paste lined the cavity of his wound. One of Alice’s concoctions.
“And to augment healing, apparently,” Paul explained, at his mother’s grimace. The paste and coagulated blood closely resembled vomit. “Don’t wash it out. I want to see if it works.”
“Looks disgusting,” his mother said, though she avoided the cut as she washed away the dried blood. “I’m happy they fixed you up, but it’d just be best you stayed away from their house. Too dangerous down there in the shadow of that thing. If one of them had killed you . . . oh I just can’t . . .” Paul stared across the table, trying to count the rings in wooden cabinets and block the sound of sob-less tears behind him. “And if Solomon had killed one, the whole valley would be overrun. Remember several years ago? Well, you may have been too young . . . but thousands sprouted from that black rock like drops of water on a cola bottle. Never stopped swarming . . . giant insects with their black bodies, claws, all those legs, uhg . . . it was horrible.”
“Your father’s company helped us escape then. After all, this was their project. Their discovery. Trans-dimensional life forms, arriving mysteriously and all that,” her hands fumbled with the fresh bandages around his arms. “A helicopter landed on our front yard. Ha, it would have been cool to photograph if I had the mind, but nearly the whole state was consumed. Bodies everywhere . . . didn’t stop flooding from the rock until the poor man who had shot one, days earlier, was torn to pieces. Wasn’t even from the West Coast.”
“I-I heard that. New York, I think. A sportsman, out hunting with his friends. Found the body near the border.”
“Stupid. All those lives lost because someone wanted a trophy.”
“But once he w-was gone, they left . . . the creatures that is, right? They left?”
“Yeah, strange. I remember watching the footage. Like low tide had come in. They just got sucked up into the rock again. It was like nothing ever happened. But all those people . . . Once your father returned to his experiments, I believe we were the only ones left within a hundred miles . . . well there you go. All fixed up.”
Paul stared at the neat clean white wrappings and excused himself to wash up, leaving his mother to fix dinner. He scrubbed his hands and face several times. His hands never seemed to be clean though. His stomach churned, and he got sick in the toilet. After a few more washes, he walked slowly upstairs to change clothes and pack. Selecting a brown backpack from the floor, he stuffed it full of clothes, a few large books, and several packages of pistachios. Water he could obtain later. Then feeling comfortable with his supplies, Paul combed his hair, put on his deodorant, shuffled downstairs. At each step his body seemed to rebel against him.
He read for a few hours – his mother abhorred television – before cleaning the bathroom. Dinner was Mac n’ Cheese, the one with powdered cheese and milk. His mother was scheduled for patrol with one of the other park rangers later that evening. An older man. He called Paul, ‘son.’
Thus dinner was light, fast, and microwavable. Paul did not mind though. The artificial stuff always tasted better than the real cheese, anyway. Besides after today, it tasted like a feast.
They ate silently at first until his mother broached the topic of jobs and the future. Paul had anticipated this but kept his thoughts to himself while his mother suggested that he begin small, taking on positions in other companies, building his resume, and then applying again in a year’s time.
“After all, your father did not become the top engineer all at once. He had to work at a desk for two years before his superiors realized his talents. You just need to be patient. That’s all. And once you obtain your dream job, you can buy a house and meet a girl, and everything will be ok, I promise.”
Paul stared at the remains of his macaroni and cheese. With the point of his fork, he scraped his name in the dried cheese. P-A-U-L.
“Mom, did you and Dad ever want well . . . more?”
“What do you mean, honey? More than what?”
“Well,” Paul said nervously, trying to restrain the emotion within him. “Not necessarily riches or fame or . . . or stuff. Not that. Just more than just existing? Sometimes, I feel so trapped here. Like there is so much more that I can do, if I just have the courage to reach out and grab it. I want something to fight for. Something to believe in. Not just to sleep, eat, and work, but to live . . . to really fight to protect someone or something, you know?”
“You want to save the world?” his mother asked with a smile that belied her concern.
“No not the world. Just save something . . .anyone.”
“That’s the job of a father and husband, hon. Those responsibilities will come in time. Your father had his share of battles . . . his share of rejection letters, stupid bosses and taxes,” she said clearing the table. Her cheeks reddened before squeezing blue gel into the sink. “Once you start to work, trust me, you won’t have time to worry about those things. Saving the world isn’t for the likes of us.”
Paul smiled, but said nothing. After a moment or two, he asked his mother about her day and enjoyed the passing minutes listening to the sound of her voice.
Near dawn, Paul quickly dressed, gathered up his gear, and quietly limped downstairs. The night’s sleep seemed to intensify rather than mollify every bruise and cut. His mother lay on the couch, after another late night patrolling the area around the forest. She still wore her green and beige ranger uniform and snored lightly. Paul slipped into the kitchen and filled a large thermos with water, then replacing the thermos in his pack. Paul tip-toed painfully into the living room and folded a white sheet of paper on the coffee table. He kissed his mother on the cheek and then after a slight pause opened the door and walked outside. The sun showed brightly, welcoming a beautiful day. A rich royal blue filled the western sky, stained not even with a wisp of cloud. Only to the east did the glory of the new day seem to eclipse and fade, blotted by the immense slab of rock, hanging like a tear in the fabric of the horizon. Sunrises here are always late, he thought with a grunt. Walking felt difficult, but he gathered up his strength and hobbled into the thick understory of the forest.
Down along the path Paul walked. Past the tree under which he sat despairing, cursing a crumpled piece of paper in his pocket. Past the point where he had first seen the creature, snarling over old Solomon. Past the pile of rocks Paul had picked up and hurled at its head. Past the large hole in the underbrush, where the monster had crashed, tearing at his arm, and knocking him through a grove of hard oaks. Past the roots where one of its many black insect legs had stumbled against the roots. Past the blood-soiled ground where Paul had killed it.
Paul stooped beside the body and picked up his walking stick from the creature’s collapsed temple. Whitish-red fluid, the color of swatted fly, dripped from the knob, but he did not stop to wash it off. He continued to limp into the forest, blazing a path through columns of large evergreens. The path up to an old house skirted most of the brambles and within a few minutes he spied a weather-beaten facade, where on a rotting set of steps an old man sat with pipe in mouth.
“I almost prayed that you wouldn’t ‘ve shown . . .”
“Nothing to be done now,” Paul sighed. “Last time they emerged after only a day. Twenty-four hours. The paste Alice gave me should be wearing off too. They’ll smell me soon enough and the whole area will become an overturned hornet’s nest. Just like last time.”
The words left his mouth rapidly, as anxiety and excitement welled in his stomach. Absently he rubbed his hands against the rotted planks of Solomon’s front porch, relishing the sensation of loose splinters beneath his fingertips. Paul had always liked the old place. Unlike many of the homes in the area with their aluminum siding and manicured lawns, the log cabin blended in with the landscape, as if Nature had grown the various species of planks, columns and shingles herself from buried Lincoln logs.
“Surprised you’re still here, though.”
“Ah,” Solomon coughed. “I’m stickin’ here for a while longer, son.”
“Right . . . Well, keep your secrets, old man,” Paul smiled, kicking a few loose stone lodged between the roots to the shadows beneath the porch. “But when this is all over. Mom’ll need someone . . . for her to look after. She’s the type that falls apart without family, y’know? Spare her a few minutes when you can, please? She’d like Alice I think.”
“We will. Still, it’s foolishness nonetheless” Solomon spoke, banging out his pipe. “Throwin’ away your life for a foolish old man . . .”
“Ah . . .” Paul coughed. “To be honest after I read that letter, I was aching for a fight anyway. If I’d done nothing . . . if you two hadn’t needed help, I’d be flying out to my dad’s company now, working nine to five punching numbers into databases and kissing some moron’s ass. I tried everything to screw up my interview: even insulted the president’s dog. Ugly mutt . . . a shit-ew, Chinese dog or something. Called it weasel. Asked if it was any good at killing chickens. God, he was pissed. Guess someone pulled a few strings eventually. One of my dad’s pals maybe . . .”
“Still son,” Solomon said, filling his pipe anew and adding fresh flames to the concoction. “Seems you got stuck with the more painful path.”
Paul took the opportunity to wipe the blood and sinew from the end of his club with his shirt, ignoring the cold sensation of fluid on his stomach. He removed a pocket pen-knife and chipped away at the wood, whittling raised notches into the end of the club.
“When I was nine or ten, I contracted this fear of dying,” Paul said, dusting off a seat next to the old man. He winced as the cold soaked through his trousers into his skin.
“I know that sounds sorta weird and all, what with being so young, but it really came down to simple math. In one of the Guinness books at the library, I stumbled on a record of the world’s oldest human, an Italian lady, one-hundred and twenty years old. Thus, life had a time limit. In one hundred and thirty years or so, everyone on this planet will be dead, not ‘cause of some war or disease or even alien attack – which would be cool by the way – but simply because of Mother Nature. Then you factor in the nightly news: some kid my age gunned down in the street, skeletal children starving in Africa, an empty desk in the corner ‘cause somebody’s father had too many drinks the weekend before . . .
“By the time, I reached fourth grade I was convinced that the world was trying to kill me. It’s like someone had dropped me off a cliff at birth, and I was just waiting for the ground to spiral into view. So I locked myself away from everybody. Kids at school mocked me ‘cause I never joined any sports teams. By the time the teachers started calling the house, I had begun to fake illnesses simply to assure myself that I was still well . . .”
“How did . . ?”
“If I faked it, I don’t have it,” Paul shrugged. “It made sense at the time, anyway.”
“So what’d you do?”
“Well, Dad came to me one day after a particularly long parent-teacher conference. I remember sitting in the exact center of the room, the farthest point from windows (my room was on the second floor) and closet . . .”
“The boogieman?” Solomon asked, sending a gust of pipe smoke swirling into the fog.
“Or suffocation,” Paul coughed, his lungs filling with burnt cherries. “Boxes and other stuff were piled thick on the top shelf, one nudge and a kid could be buried alive. Anyway, Dad found me and motioned toward the bed. With some hesitation – the blades of the ceiling fan spun right above my pillow – I sat next to him. That was Dad’s power, his smile always put me at ease. I trusted him completely.”
“So what he’d do?”
“Well, for start, he slapped me.”
“Frank hit you?!” the old man shouted, inciting a fit of coughs that lasted several long seconds.
“No, sorry,” Paul explained. “Not hard. Just a little slap on the hand. He asked me if it hurt, and perhaps out of shock I started crying, which sorta answered the question. So he then told me that pain is nature’s way of reminding you to live. Death numbs your body, your mind and your heart. Corpses can’t feel, can’t think.
“‘Remember the pain, Paul,’ he said. Never run from it. Let it be a reminder that you’re still alive, still breathing and clawing for those last few seconds. Live like your dying, boy! Otherwise you’re just playing dead.’”
“Hmmm,” Solomon mused.
“Cancer took him the following year, you know. Since then I’ve broke my arm, got a few concussions, my heart . . . Cathy Moran took freshman year of high school. But I never regretted anything ‘cause Dad was right, the more it hurt, the more the numbness disappeared.”
“It’s surprising you didn’t turn into a masochist.”
Paul smiled. “When I got the letter the other day, the numbness returned. With like years of interest. It was like Dad had died again, all over, you know? But . . . Mom really wanted this job for me though. I didn’t want to die like that, so . . .” Paul sighed. “I chose another. I chose you and Alice.”
The fog had begun to lift, circulating through the upper branches, a cotton canopy blotting out the sun. Paul lifted himself from the steps, brushing off any loose wood fibers or dirt. He felt mildly self-conscious of the dampness but shrugged it off. It wasn’t that kind of date.
“Anyway, when you tell Mom . . . promise me you won’t mention any of this. I don’t think she another reason to be angry with Dad.
The old man nodded and continued puffing at his pipe, feeding streams of smoke into the fog which whirled and spun around the old trees. Somewhere in the distance the forest had grown silent. The old man hauled himself from the steps.
“You take care of yourself, you hear?” Solomon said, shaking his hand.
“Will do.” A small sigh issued from the house and Paul saw the figure of Alice staring through the screen door.
“Are you running away from home, Paulie?” the small voice shouted.
“Something like that, Al. Take care of your father for me,” he said and with final wave, Paul turned his back and reentered the forest.
After stumbling through the underbrush, he finally came to the waste before the obelisk. Unlike the forest, the cracked uneven earth did not feel dead – patches of wild grass, thorny vines, and skunk cabbage sprouted all around the black spire – but dangerously alive, restless, angry. Rust-crusted generators and the torn remains of tents littered the edges of the clearing, the remains of some hunting party, Paul thought. About the tower, a foul-smelling miasma curled like a mountain storm, the effluvia of death and decay. Hesitantly the young man took a few steps forward, aware all the more of the watchful eyes of the obelisk. His feet teetered roughly fifty yards away from the base, rising thousands of feet into the sky as if a crumbled shard of Babel’s ruin had fallen, imbedding itself into earth and forest.
Suddenly Paul felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle and tense; the air began to buzz; the surface of the obelisk bubbled like hot tar, spitting sludge-filled drops atop the heads of flowers and abandoned machinery. Whenever the sludge collided with the ground a creature roared into life, appearing in all sizes: small as a toad or as large as an elephant. Some appeared as prehistoric horrors, others as hybrids of insects, jellyfish and reptiles; several even appeared fairly human until they blinked or smiled or roared, revealing slit cat-eyes, crocodile teeth, and transparent amphibian skin. Within minutes Paul found himself encircled by thousands of black claws, skittering legs, pulsating stingers.
Paul stood ready, reminiscing. Visions of Christmas mornings, math homework, and Cathy Moran filtered across his eyes. The good, the bad and the ugly. And finally the pain. If he was lucky, he would manage to stun one of the creatures with his club before the claws, teeth and venom finished him off. Two or more of the larger creatures could easily kill him. Of course, he had heard of small frogs which could kill a man by touch alone. Something buzzed his ear, sending him two feet in the air and the creatures laughing.
Paul suddenly felt very frail. He made an effort to breathe, relishing the rise and fall of his lungs, the sensation of air rushing in and out of his body. The exercise however did not calm his hands from shaking. Or shield the hot breathe of the hellish menagerie from his skin. The hive did not attack, only circled Paul, waiting.
Amid this Bosch-ian wet dream, one of the larger creatures – a man-scorpion hybrid – scuttled through the amassed hive and stood before Paul.
“So you decided to come, human . . .” the creature growled. “Few of your kind return for the Trial. Your kind enjoys . . . running.”
The other monsters screamed and stomped; the earth beneath Paul’s feet shook slightly at their jubilation.
“You can speak? I never . . .”
“They call my Chieftain,” the creature interrupted, motioning to the mob. “And there is much you do not know.”
Paul tightened the grip on his club.
“For now, you possess both courage and bloodlust. As you have returned willingly, the Hive offers you a choice. You may choose to fight, to feel the flesh ripped from your bones. And in the wake of your death, your kin as well, who escaped our hunters. Or . . .” Its mandibles clicked excitedly. Paul thought he recognized the hungry glimmer in its eyes.
“Yeah?” Paul asked through gritted teeth.
The creature pulled from its belt a vial, into which stepping to the obelisk, it scooped the obsidian bark of the obelisk. The contents melted into solution like liquid shadow, and the creature gave it to Paul.
“Or drink this and join us.”
Paul took the vial and sniffed it. The sludge gave off no smell, but he knew the experience would not prove pleasant. Then again, what choice did he have? In one gulp, he swallowed the contents of the vial and waited.
Within seconds, Paul lost feeling in his fingers, as his skin grew harder, thicker . . . hollow. He tried to scream when his lungs melted into his stomach, his bones dissolved into paste. When his fingers fell to the ground, bouncing off a growing mound of skin, hair, and blood, air sucked through clicking mandibles passed unnoticed through a complex system of alien vessels, ducts, and arteries. He could feel the sensation in his toes . . . no, legs thin and spidery with tiny barbed follicles that sensed . . . the temperature, the scents in the air . . . The chemical cocktail filtering through unknown pores and sensory nerves filled him with strength and vigor.
“Your new body embodies perfection. It’s immune to the deathly touch of time, granting instantaneous immortality. Only the wounds of battle may end your life, now. None here may die as anything less than a true warrior.”
“I cannot feel . . .” Paul said, slapping his new hands.
“No,” the creature said. “Nature had not been kind to your species, bestowing you with bodies that tremble at the slightest touch; minds that grow anxious, worried; spirits that pine for lost kin and mates. Your pains make you weak, selfish, ignorant to the troubles of the world. A man would murder a complete innocent to free him from the pain of living. This . . . body frees you!”
“. . . I am dead,” Paul whispered.
“Did you not hear me soldier?” the creature growled, hurling bits of spit into the air. “You are evolved. No longer human, but better. You who . . .”
A gunshot cut through the stillness of the valley. Green life-blood trailed from the creature’s left shoulder; amidst the fog the shooter reloaded.
Paul did not hesitate. Whether the chieftain felt anything the moment Paul tore through its abdomen, it never said. The two halves fell away from each other, a crab on the chopping block. The remaining creatures scattered in the waste of the obelisk, like ants uprooted from their nest. Some returned to the obelisk, dissolving into the inky blackness like mercury; others swarmed their chief’s murderer, assaulting Paul with spines, teeth, and claws – none of which he felt. His limbs found their throats, their hearts, whatever passed for organs in these alien bodies, and then with the disinterest of a butcher, he tore them from their living bodies.
More shots rang from the fog as horde pinned him down. Heads exploded, filling the air with visceral mist of alien blood, claws, and ganglia. Paul tore the chest cavities from two of his captors in the confusion, gaining his feet and continuing the assault. After a half-hour, he was alone before the obelisk. Three of his legs had been torn from the socket; his left arm appeared broken, a large crack like an earthquake fault in miniature spread down his exoskeleton; four of his eyes littered the piles of broken bodies. Yet he felt none of it, not even discomfort as he wobbled to a tree stump to await Solomon.
The crack of twigs and dried leaves signaled the shooter’s approach. Paul listened absently, staring at his numerous cuts and holes in his exoskeleton, oozing a yellow slime. He consciously snapped his claws, but sensed nothing in the movement as if his whole body had fallen asleep. The shooter emerged from the clearing and after scanning the area, pressed the muzzle of a rifle against his right temple. Paul wondered if it the barrel was warm to the touch.
“It won’t hurt,” he muttered. “Just so you know.”
“Paul?” his mother asked, confusion danced in her voice. “You recognize me?”
“It feels like I’m looking through a kaleidoscope,” he said, pointing to the half-dozen eyes on his forehead, “but I remember.”
“Huh,” she sighed, sitting down beside him.
The wind filtered through the trees, dispersing the morning fog, bending his antennae like cat-tails. Paul could not feel the cold, but shivered anyway. Guilt and shame warred silently with pride and excitement, which in turn afforded Paul such an overwhelming sense of relief, that he effectively silenced all other emotions. So, he thought, I am not totally dead to the world after all.
“Originally, it began with your father’s cure for cancer,” his mother said finally.
“Dad . . . cured cancer?” Paul had thought of his father as an office engineer, a cubicle dweller, a peon for Starford & Assoc.
“Well, the raw materials came from the site of a meteor crash. This place. Frank had discovered that after the initial mutation, cells exposed to the sludge never die. All infection just vanishes; the cells transcend time. It was . . . .amazing and terrifying in its implications.”
“But the mutations?” Paul asked.
“Surely you don’t need an introduction to them,” his mother said, not without a touch of irritation – the tip of the iceberg, Paul felt.
“Of course, the military got involved once they discovered the side effects, the unfeeling monsters the cure created. Most of the subjects lost their minds in the process. Having your DNA rewritten and body . . . altered can do that.”
“Except with me . . .”
“You’re the first exception, I’ve heard. You have to understand, Paul, the elements involved that make up your new body were not found on this planet. Somehow the obelisk merged the bodies of humans with . . .”
“Aliens, demons . . . ,” Paul said snapping his new left hand, “. . . giant crustaceans.”
“Something like that . . .,” his Mom frowned. “Frank was enthusiastic, passionate about finding the origin of the entities that dwelt on the other side of the obelisk. But times were tough. A cure that mutated human DNA could never be sold. So the military invested in the side-effects, the merging of soldiers with the obelisk. A whole battalion was exposed and . . . left here. Solomon has waited for nearly five years for his son to return, to emerge from the ooze alive, sane, and human again.”
“What am I suppose to do now?” he sighed, motioning to his extra legs, poison tipped abdomen, mandibles. “Like this?”
“Work for Starford & Assoc,” she offered.
“What?! As a lab rat?”
His mother shook her head.
“Not their thing. The obelisk is more than just a factory for re-engineered soldiers. It’s a doorway as well. To what, has everyone in the scientific community guessing. It needs exploring, Paul. You’re the only one who has survived the process with your sanity intact.”
“So I just give my life over to R&D and . . . hope for the best?”
“Or claim this valley for your own. Become the next chieftain. However noble your intentions, Paul, you made the choice.”
“To save you,” Paul roared.
“To save yourself from a life behind a desk,” his mother said, stabbing him in the chest with her finger. “Well, you got one.”
Paul was silent. Forty-hour workweeks, Friday meetings, and cubicle communities suddenly seemed more appealing, like root canals once compared to open-heart surgery. Paul stared at his scaly hands through six working-eyes; consciously he adjusted the poison in his abdomen, knowing instinctually which sac would paralyze and which would inflict cardiac arrest on anything smaller than a mammoth; his stomach desired fresh meat, dissolved in catalytic enzymes. Whatever he decided, normal was not an option.
Somewhere above the fog, thunder clapped. The treetops trembled in the mounting breeze.
“Can you guarantee Starford, the military won’t cut open my brain? See what makes me tick?” he asked.
“No,” his mother said, almost whispering. “Honestly, I can’t speak for them. But it’s a hope, right?”
“Right . . .” he said, lifting himself from the stump and stumbling up the slope to the black monument.
“Paul . . !”
“You said it was a gateway. So, there must be life on the other side. Well then, that’s where my body is, my life as a human being, floating in some trans-dimensional Narnia,” Paul sighed, his voice hissing. “You know what it’s like to wait, to reach out for an impossible hope. It’s like a slow death, killing you off day by day. I could never endure that, even in this body.”
“Listen young man!” She was shouting now, louder and more desperately than he had ever heard the old woman shout in his life. Even when his dad had died, she laid in bed silently, pillowing a torn sweatshirt and a tear-stained photo-album. “If you leave, I won’t have a son! I can’t go through this again. If you go, Paul, my son, will be dead to me! Dead!”
Paul could not help but smile, mandibles and all. He knew what she was attempting, and honestly the words almost hurt enough to stay.
Michelle watched her son disappear behind the black veil. Never to return, that much she knew. Not in her lifetime at least.
Slinging her rifle around her shoulder, she picked her way through the field of dead monsters, scanning the remains: pieces of wings, broken bodies bleeding green fluid, claws and legs torn from their sockets. Occasionally, she’d kneel down, studying a head, open slit eye sockets. The more intact bodies she would poke with the muzzle of her gun, fire a round or two into the chest before turning the creature on its back. Gingerly, she danced between the corpses until she arrived at the body of the largest, the chieftain. Falling to the ground, she closed her eyes as if a child in prayer.
He had saved Paul’s life and mind, sacrificing his own in the process. And she never told him.
But then pain was one thing. Insanity . . . well now, that was whole other monster.
“I couldn’t do it, Frank,” she said, kneeling beside the body. “Lord knows, he should have been told. It might have hurt him enough to stay . . .”
And as the rain fell to earth, she dug the grave, clawing at the wet soil until all feeling left her.