Melanie Tem’s work has received the Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy Awards and a nomination for the Shirley Jackson Award. She has published numerous short stories, eleven solo novels, two collaborative novels with Nancy Holder, and two with her husband Steve Rasnic Tem. She is also a published poet, an oral storyteller, and a playwright. In Concert, a collaborative short story collection with Steve Rasnic Tem, was published in August 2010, and solo stories have recently appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Crimewave, and Interzone, and in anthologies such as The Devil’s Coattails and the Black Wings series. Her novels Yellow Wood and Proxy will be published by ChiZine in 2014 and 2015. Melanie is a social worker and non-profit executive director. The Tems live in Denver. They have four children and four granddaughters.
LEG AND STUMP AKIMBO, BARE KNEE WEDGED AGAINST the side of the dry bathtub, neck at an uncomfortable angle, limp mutilated penis as ready as he knew how to make it for the unimaginable event that possessed his imagination, Nolan waited. He’d been pregnant a long time. Tonight was the night.
Last Thursday had been going to be the night, too, and a particular Fourth of July, and more than one anniversary of his accident. But he’d been wrong all those times, screwed up the calculations, or just been dumb or crazy. Or they’d tricked him. They liked to trick him, for reasons of their own, like sending him full-on down the slope into that tree with his legs wide apart. Once he’d realized that had been their doing, it had made more sense.
He didn’t think he was wrong this time, though. They were still tricking him, but not about this—or, if they were, the trickiest part of the trick was that he had no way of knowing. Waiting in the flimsy shower stall of his flimsy apartment, he watched YouTube videos and played games and sang love songs. The songs were prayers. The games and videos—hands and legs and heads blown off, eyes gouged out, hearts run through—helped him pass the time while the alien child grew inside him. Grew and grew.
Nolan had no idea how long the gestation period would be. He didn’t really know when or how they’d knocked him up; his best guess was that it had happened on that last long beautiful run, but he couldn’t quite figure out the mechanics. All he could do was wait, be ready. If you could ever be ready for something like this. If you could ever be ready for anything.
Usually he liked to start out with the animal ones and move up from there. Trying to obey orders not to change his position in the tub, Nolan pressed the Start button for the app. On the screen, close to his own face, so close he felt the breath, tasted the blood and snot and what was probably brain, the cute head of a rabbit exploded. Then a beautiful long-winged bird in flight, feathers flying, belly dropping gore. Then a spectacular eight-point buck, bloody hole opening in its chest, trophy head left intact. Then an elephant with knowing eyes.
Holding the phone made his fingers spasm. The back of his cut-off knee itched. Cramps flared in the foot that had been gone since the crash. The flesh of the missing thigh and hip was tingling and sweating. In the crater left when the doctors had dug out his smashed scrotum, pain and pleasure swelled the balls that weren’t there.
Sometimes Nolan enjoyed the discomfort of using his hand to work the controls. Tonight he thought he’d prefer the strain of using the mouthstick. He pursed his lips and wiggled his tongue, As if for the kiss he used to waste time wishing for. If his body still worked the way it had been made to, life would be a lot easier, but maybe not as sexy.
As he moved on to the human videos, something moved in his belly. He caught his breath, still afraid to think about where the baby would emerge from his body, afraid because it would be so good and it would hurt so much and it would probably kill him. That’s what they’d promised, if he’d understood right. It was hard to understand aliens. Nolan didn’t dare let himself think he might have misunderstood.
In the too-narrow bathtub, he cocked his knee up next to his shoulder like an insect leg that could be pulled off with a quick flick. He cupped his penis and stroked it with just the tips of his thumb and forefinger while the villagers were shot, bayoneted, raped, hacked. Blood sprayed and gusted. Nolan didn’t come, of course, but the not-coming felt good in a miserable sort of way. Zooms showed off the terror in a young woman’s eyes, the sorrow in the body of a really old man. Nolan could name “terror,” “sorrow,” “despair,” “anguish,” and he’d taught himself which worked best for his pleasure, but he couldn’t be expected to know what would please aliens. A little boy’s round tear-streaked face hung on the screen for a nice long moment before it was blown apart.
The child inside him kicked, or did some alien thing that resembled kicking. Nolan arched his back as much as he could. He couldn’t picture what part of the baby alien’s body was beating up on him from the inside, and he couldn’t translate the rhythm. Was it a message? Did it mean something about the alien’s birth and his own death? Eventually it just stopped.
The face on the screen now was so close-up he couldn’t tell age or gender or race or condition or expression. There were no visible wounds. Nolan bulged his eyes, chilled when they almost touched the other bulging eyes. He kissed the gaping mouth with his own. Bombs and people screamed. Nice.
The stick wasn’t totally under his control, so the thrill when it connected with the NEXT button was always about both skill and luck. This time severed appendages flew toward him, trailing strings and chunks. The phantom effect in his excised body parts was excellent. So was the buzz of knowing that somebody had spent all that time and energy creating this great video and that other people might be watching it at this same exact second. Not all of them were waiting to give birth to an alien child, though; in fact, Nolan might be the only one in this world. A hand flung itself at him and he could have sworn stroked his cheek on its way down into the battlefield mire. Gory flames filled the screen.
Good one. But over too fast. Nolan was nowhere near finished, and nothing was happening with the pregnancy except that his belly seemed a little fuller, tauter. A pleasantly unpleasant ache spread all across his lower abdomen, between his leg and stump, through his squashed dick. Or all in his mind. Whatever.
That desperate night when the first video had appeared on his screen, gaudy logo and garish trumpets and drums, personalized “Nolan” and with his log-in already set up, he’d assumed he’d screwed up somehow, uploaded it by accident. Precision was not his strong point. Then he’d thought some goon or goonette must have been messing with his phone, even though he almost always had it with him and his sleep was never what you’d call sound, even with all the drugs. Only later did the realization come to him that the devilish aliens had set all this up for him—or, more likely, for their own sick fun.
The Start button had been easy to find and responded right away to his unsteady touch. His own image had popped up, full-screen and nude, up close and displayed in amazing high resolution. When could that have been taken? They must have been in the apartment somehow without him knowing it. The very blue eyes of onscreen Nolan had met and locked with the very blue eyes of Nolan who watched. The scars on his chest and belly, throat and forehead, had throbbed as those on the screen glistened. The leg stump and the destroyed and sort of rebuilt crotch had rushed forward to slap him in the face. The two Nolans had kissed.
And the rest, he thought, is history. But it’s not over yet.
He was poking around for the Enhanced Interrogations button when Goon came in and stood over him, probably looking at the screen. Probably getting off on it himself. Most of them didn’t admit to that; sometimes Nolan was aware of their wetness or hard-ons. Most of them barely spoke to him. The only thing they had in common with him was their job, which they hated and needed and wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for him being the way he was, meaning they also hated and needed him and his unnatural, ruined body. And they didn’t even know that it was also temporarily inhabited by another life form.
This Goon liked to chat about how disgusting Nolan’s various porn was, why would you fill your head with something like that when you could fill it with thoughts of God? War porn was the work of the Devil. Car crash and dead-baby scenarios were the work of the Devil. Hunting animals was one thing, especially if you ate the meat, but getting off on the kill was the work of the Devil. Nolan’s accident had been the work of the Devil, claiming him because he’d strayed. “God doesn’t intend for us to live in this world the way you do,” he explained again now, dripping kindness and reasonableness while he ogled the screen. “God didn’t make you like this, buddy. The devil made you.”
Nolan spat out the stick and the word “Cool,” just to mess with him. Goon knuckled him on the back of the head. He heard it through his skull. Goon told him that Satan had taken over his mouth and soul and he had to cast Him out. Nolan laughed at how close to being right Goon was, and how completely wrong. Goon rapped him again and left the room.
Nolan didn’t always know if he believed in anything other than the alien inside him and the onscreen images and the vivid physical sensations his distorted body couldn’t possibly be feeling. But if he did, and if he cast out his Maker and Ally, what would that leave him with? He’d understood that he’d never have anything else since the moment he’d spread his legs for the mirror and stared full-frontal at what the jet skis and the surgeons had done, that tree the last thing he would ever embrace.
Tonguing the mouthstick to scroll through his Mutilated Corpse favorites list, he settled on “Whores” and, within that, “Lulu.” The first slash, to cut off the left boob, went a little too fast and Lulu’s begging was sort of blurry, but after that the rhythm was good, the visuals awesome.
“You are one sick puppy,” Goon declared from behind and above him. So he hadn’t left the room after all, or he’d sneaked back in to spy. He was tall, loud. “Get out of the damn tub. This is totally stupid.”
“No! I can’t! I have to—” But it didn’t matter what he said. Goon pulled him up and out of the place where he was supposed to wait and jerked clothes onto him and crammed him into the chair and stuck him in the bedroom. He didn’t take the phone away this time, though, and Nolan managed to get another video up, a young soldier burning alive, then burning dead. The screams were outstanding, shrill and then hoarse and then guttural and then silenced. The odor was a nice touch; good thing the aliens were advanced, and good thing they had sort of the same tastes he did. It occurred to him now for the first time that, in addition to having chosen him for the birth, they might be using him to let them feel human eroticism. He smiled. When it was over—not before—Goon gagged and left the room shouting his own kind of prayers.
Then Nolan worked on the game he would invent if he had the technical knowledge and the physical skills. And the time; he didn’t think he’d have time before the birth, but he didn’t know for sure. All in his head, it was as real as anything.
This Goon had been working for him long enough now that Nolan knew what his avatar would be like: broad shoulders, rough hands, bulldog voice. Piercing him with dozens of poison arrows might be fun, or putting a bomb in his underwear. Nolan stopped to think for a while. Maybe the aliens would send him a message about that.
Even the best scenarios started to get stale after only a few times through. Wistfully, restlessly, Nolan moved on to another of his favorites, the Pillaged Village, which had the nice feature of letting you pick either the viewpoint of the gang of rapists or of somebody getting gang-raped. For a while he was stuck in a delicious mental paralysis because either choice might pleasure and relieve him and either might fall flat.
This evening neither identity did much for him. He watched again and again, adjusting the effects—bigger cock, sharper or blunter broken bottle, longer iron rod; younger/older perps and victim; different values on a drop-down scale amusingly labeled “degrees of virginity.” Nothing.
Not enough build-up would make him feel cheated for days afterward. Too much was so frustrating he often couldn’t get there at all, as if his body got tired of waiting and gave up, as if everything was just too much effort.
Everything was too much effort. But that was his life. This was the body he’d been dealt—by his own adolescent stupidity, by the macho recklessness of his buddy who’d come to see him once in rehab and spent the whole time chatting about how that run had been the best ever. By Whomever had set the whole thing up, whose identity Nolan was now pretty sure of.
Sometimes after all these years—talk about the work of the Devil—he was visited by dreams of being touched by somebody who loved him, at least got that he was a person, not just by the paid, hurried hands and eyes of Goons and Goonettes that he couldn’t always tell were straying into places in his body or in his apartment where they hadn’t been invited. A lot of the time it was hard to tell whether these dreams were sleeping or waking, and the distinction was meaningless anyway. He might welcome or dread them; there wasn’t a lot of difference.
It would be stupid to say he couldn’t stand it. You could stand just about anything. He had, after all, been able to stand that first look in the mirror at the mess of his crotch: prepared for, built up to piece-by-piece with examinations of the other damage, staged behind the closed door of his childhood bedroom he’d returned to because there was nowhere else to go. Unable on his own to spread what was left of his legs, he’d made his father do it, and Dad had been shaking and choked up before Nolan had glimpsed and then stared at the raw new stitched-up hole.
“Look what they did!” The words had been almost incomprehensible, even to him, but the wail had been clear. “Look what they did to me!” hating the doctors, hating the buddy, hating the sound of his mother’s moans and retches in the bathroom and how the next thing his father did was cover him up. Hating what back then he’d thought of as God, Whose Plan this was for him. But standing it all, coming to some kind of terms. And then getting the message that he was carrying an alien child and would someday, somehow, bring it into this world, meaning he was chosen and doomed.
The frustration was bad tonight. Everything he could feel about his body, and a lot he couldn’t really feel, was pulsing, shuddering, and shattering, afire. He knew that was a trick, an effect. His body, already shattered years and years earlier, couldn’t move enough to shudder or pulse. The burning was phantom. Only the images on the tiny screen were real. And the sudden particular cramping in his belly, and the entities behind it all.
Nolan held his breath and waited. Another cramp bent him over. His heart was pounding and he was wet with sweat. This could be the first pangs of the birth. Or not, but he couldn’t risk missing it.
He called and pushed the buzzer and banged on his chair for Goon to come and get his clothes off and put him back in the tub where he was supposed to be. Goon was probably busy jerking off, or stealing Nolan’s food, or snoring on Nolan’s couch. Or he wasn’t here at all. Whenever this happened, Nolan was attacked by terror that he’d been left alone. They did it on purpose just to devil him. It gave him some sort of weird comfort to remind himself that he was in fact alone, even when one of the Goons or Goonettes was here, alone and waiting for the one real experience left to him.
But in order for that experience to happen he had to get to the designated birth place. What would happen if he wasn’t there when the baby alien was ready to come out was not in his power to know, but it wouldn’t be good. When he pressed the buzzer attached to the chair arm, he didn’t feel or hear anything, and nobody came. The hollow in the deep middle of his body was stretching and tearing. He called out, a phlegmy roar. There was no sign of anyone to help him, and he couldn’t wait.
He managed to slide himself out of the chair onto the floor. Pain radiated through the body parts that were still there and those that weren’t. He hoped he hadn’t hurt the baby. He was maneuvering toward the door between the bedroom and bathroom with the phone in his shirt pocket and the stylus in his teeth when somebody crooned, “Hello, Nolan.”
Who was that? Usually the service at least gave him a heads-up about a new attendant. The sound he made came out a squeal.
“Nice to finally meet you in person.”
Since Nolan’s body wouldn’t twist or turn or lean very much, his field of vision was limited, and this idiot was outside it. They were supposed to get training about stuff like that. They were supposed to announce their presence, not sneak up on him, and they were supposed to stay where he could see them, and tell their names, or some name for him to call them by. He didn’t care about the name thing; they were all just Goonette or Goon. This voice could be male or female or trans. Not that it mattered; Nolan barely thought of himself as one gender or another, let alone anybody else.
Goonette said, over-the-top friendly, “How can I help you, Nolan?” and loomed somewhere over him in a cloud of strange body heat and odor, and growled “Ah” as if thick pleasure had been brought up in her/his throat.
He was working up to saying more words, to increase the minimal chances of being understood, when Goonette spoke for him. Nolan hated when people did that because they were almost always wrong. But Goonette said, “You want to get back in the tub so the baby can be born.”
Bunched up on the floor, he nodded. Everything inside him was very still, except for the familiar alien movements of the baby.
Goonette’s long strong arms embraced Nolan from behind, something like a heart beating into Nolan’s back, chin-like protrusion pressing into the top of Nolan’s head. The hands felt up Nolan’s thighs and crotch before one of them got to the phone and pulled it out of the pocket. His motions and noises of protest might have been made in the silence of outer space for all the effect they had.
Balancing him in what felt like several arms, Goonette used several appendages to strip him. Also to caress him: “You like that, Nolan? That feel good?” Then he was not exactly carried but transported and deposited in the bathtub, leg and stump arranged. The pain was slicing and gouging now, not in any one place but from all angles.
What must be Goonette was hovering over him. He couldn’t make out much detail except the light of his phone camera and a long pliant glean that rushed toward his crotch and into it, digging and tearing. Pleasure and agony peaked and something enormous broke out of him, making an alien noise.
“Good one,” he heard Goonette chortle. “Better than any of the rest. They’ll love this at home. Nolan, we will make you a star.”