Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Scavenge, Rustic Hounds!

The creatures come out at night, while we’re asleep.

My husband says they are harmless. “Probably mice,” he says.

“They’re not harmless,” I tell him. “They are very much not harmless,” I say. “They’re gathering information on us. They’re looking through our things, examining our lives, deciding if we are good or if we are not.”

“That’s ridiculous,” my husband says.

“They’re singling us out. Deciding which ones to take away.”

He doesn’t believe me. The next morning, though, I catch him cleaning out his secret drawer, piling up his girlie magazines and small, dog-eared books, little scraps of paper. “Not like I need these,” he says, when I walk in on him. “Not anymore.”

• • • •

I am not like my husband, who is simple, and by simple, I mean simple-minded.

“I wouldn’t throw those away,” I tell him, referring to his things, but he doesn’t listen to me. He throws them into the garbage and then ties the garbage bag and then takes the bag downstairs, where he places it outside, against the curb.

He is, walking back into the apartment, proud of himself. When he claps his hands together, they say, A Job Well-Done.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind, they say.

• • • •

That night, sitting with my head against the window, I hear a rustling downstairs. I hear bags torn open. I hear pages flipped through. I hear grunts and sighs. I hear squeals, but I cannot decide if they are delighted or pained.

And with a sudden rush of sound, I hear steps tumbling up the staircase.

I bolt up and start to run for the bedroom, afraid of what might happen to me if I am caught outside my room. If I am found out.

But then, in the kitchen, I freeze, afraid of what might happen to me if they catch me running away. I have a feeling that running away upsets them even more.

The house is silent and dark, and I imagine large blue eyes staring at me from within the darkness. I am startled by a noise to my left, at the front door, and, listening more closely, I can hear the snuffling sounds of their noses pressed against the crack between the door and the floor, and against the keyhole, and at the hinges.

How many are they?

I sink to the floor and lay flat on my back, and I wait for them, but they never come.

• • • •

I am woken by a large thump on the ceiling above me. Something, then, drags across the floor, slowly and with great effort so that I can only imagine that it is the woman who lives above us, who is large and heavy and who is mean to her dog, Max. It must be she who was knocked over and is now being dragged away.

After a moment, after her door opens and then shuts again, I hear what sounds like someone rolling a thick bag of laundry down the steps. First one flight, then our flight, and then the last flight. I hear the front door open and slam shut, and then a crowd of voices squealing.

• • • •

I check the headlines of as many newspapers as I can find. I want to know if this is happening anywhere else in the city, or the country, or the world, but I shouldn’t be surprised that I cannot find any mention of anything anywhere.

I tell my husband about the woman who lives (lived) above us.

“I didn’t hear anything last night,” he says. “You must have been imagining things.”

“No,” I tell him. “It wasn’t my imagination and I wasn’t asleep. I heard them. I heard them take her away.”

“I’m sure, honey, that if you go up there right now and knock on her door, she’ll be there in her robe and with her yappy dog. If you’re really that worried, just go up there and check.”

• • • •

The dog, Max, is ours now.

I make countless entreaties to my husband to pay careful attention to Max. To be extra kind and sweet to Max.

“People who are good with dogs cannot be bad,” I tell him. “Scratch his ears. He likes that.”

But my husband is poorly suited for the task.

He cuffs more than he pets. His hands are rough and when he rubs Max’s belly, he tends to chafe the dog’s skin.

The dog slinks away from my husband and hides atop the couch and behind my head, or underneath it, behind my legs.

To make my husband feel more at ease, I draw him a diagram.

“See,” I tell him. “Being bad with dogs doesn’t necessarily mean that you are bad.”

He smiles at my weak attempts to cheer him up.

He cuffs me on the cheek.

• • • •

I have found signs of them in the pantry. They have been in our apartment and have left bits of themselves on the shelves, behind the baked beans, behind the corn bread mix, little scrapes and flakes of metal.

I find traces, too, in the bathroom, behind the toilet seat, and beneath the sink.

I don’t know how they manage their way inside. I have taken steps. The locks have been changed and increased. Steel wool has been stuffed into every gap or crevice or opening. The refrigerator and the stove have been shoved forward so that I could look behind them for cracks in the wall large enough for entry.

• • • •

I worry for my husband. I think they’ve decided to take him away from me.

“I’m fine,” he says, but I can tell, each day, that he is slightly less than he was the day before.

I have tried my best to protect him from them. But the creatures are not long fooled by my decoys. Papier-mâché only satisfies them for at most a day, and blocks of wood, since the very first mannequin, fool them not at all.

I have clipped locks of his hair, have shaved thin layers of skin from his arm, his cheek, from behind his knees, dusted the mannequins with these particles of him, glued the hair to their heads, but the creatures see quickly past even these small trappings of my husband.

Soon, I’m afraid, they will find him in his hiding place. No matter how many times I move him, no matter how many obstacles I place in their path, they will sniff him out.

I hardly care or notice when my husband corrects me. “They don’t sniff,” he says. “They sense. Sensors, they don’t have noses.”

• • • •

I assumed that they so quickly found evidence of my husband’s guilt—the magazines, the anonymously written books, the secret notes given to him by women at his office and strange women he has met in bars—because he put them in a trash bag and so I figured I would be smarter than that, would be safer by burning my effects. I took them and placed them in a box—the pieces of my life that were maybe equivalent to my husband’s secrets, maybe worse—and sealed the box and then set the box in a small tin can, and then I set the box, inside the can, on fire.

Looking out the window, though, I can see that the can of ashes has been tipped, sifted through, understood.

• • • •

My husband now likes to call me his skinny anklet because he thinks that I have skinny ankles. I haven’t the heart to tell him that anklet is not the same as ankle. He has forgotten other words as well. His vision has begun to blur. His breath is sour, too. More so than before.

He claims to have seen them. He has drawn me four pictures of them, and in each, the creatures have large blue eyes and simple and dull smiles. One of them looks remarkably like my husband’s niece.

“This one looks like your niece,” I tell him. “It looks exactly like her. This can’t be one of them. This is your niece.”

He smiles and nods and then begins drawing me another picture. Each time, he starts with the big blue eyes.

If they don’t have noses, I want to ask him, how can they have eyes?

• • • •

It’s a miracle he’s even still here.

“You’re a miracle,” I tell him. “A miracle of existence.”

And when I tell him that, he gurgles in return, but I know that he can’t hear me, as they have taken, while we slept, his ears. I don’t know how they did it. There was no blood, no scar, no evidence, really, that there had ever been anything on the side of his head but two small holes, one on each side. After it happened, I inserted two small cones, plastic funnels, into his ear holes, but they did little good, and after a while, I took the funnels away.

• • • •

He is more than just a miracle of existence. He is a miracle of recovery.

“You’re a miracle of recovery,” I tell him. “A miracle.”

Small, cauliflower bulbs bud out of the side of his head. “These will be fine ears,” I tell him, and I pinch what I think might become a lobe.

He hasn’t opened his eyes yet, but he grows stronger by the day, and I can see, when he yawns, that he has most of his teeth back and that a tongue has grown back as well.

After I touch him, the tips of my fingers smell like pennies, but that’s just a sign, a sign of the body’s ability to heal.

• • • •

I came home to find Max, the dog, perched on my husband’s face, licking vigorously at my husband’s eyes, which are still shut and which appear, behind closed lids, bloated and engorged.

I dropped my supplies and rushed to my husband’s side to pull Max from his face and began to scold the dog, but my husband stopped my yelling. He reached over to me and took my arm and rolled his head back and forth and brought his fingers to his lips. I put the dog down on the floor before I noticed that two of my jars have broken and their contents have spilled, and before I could stop him, Max started lapping up the spill. He lapped up the herb-infused oils, the water solutions, the bitter teas.

I had hoped to make a solution for my husband’s eyes with those ingredients.

His teeth have now all grown in.

His ears are fully formed.

He has a tongue, and he licks his lips when he is hungry.

But, still. No eyes.

I try not to worry about his eyes. I focus my positive energy on his recovery. I place objects on his chest, motivational objects that he might want to look at. I have a magazine, one he overlooked, and sometimes I place it on his chest and I sit next to his head and open the magazine for him. Then, I describe the pictures I see.

“She’s got pink nipples. Bright pink, like they are made of taffy,” I say.

“Her hair is long and blonde,” I say.

“She does not,” he says. Or, “Who cares about her hair,” he says. “Tell me about something else,” he says.

I tell him that if he really wants to know, he should open his eyes for himself and see.

• • • •

There have been nightmares.

It is raining outside. The windows are open.

I find the bed empty, the hiding places, too. My husband is gone. On the pillow, I find two large, wrinkled discs.

Somehow I know that they are my husband’s eyelids.

Somehow I know Max is gone, too.

I run for the door, but my husband is already there waiting for me, and he is staring at me with his large blue eyes, and I know that, in a few seconds, I will realize that I am not asleep, and that I’m not dreaming at all.

• • • •

The nightmares still haven’t gone away. And they come more frequently now, no longer waiting even until I am asleep. The nightmares make me sweat. As my husband would tell you, I hate to sweat.

Nowadays, I lock the door to my husband’s room whenever I am not with him, when I am out at the store, for instance, or when I am sleeping, or even when I am in the living room simply trying to enjoy a good book. His door is locked almost constantly, and this makes me feel somewhat guilty. I tell him, I’m just protecting you from the creatures. They’ve become bolder. They know you’re getting stronger, getting better, and we can’t afford to take any chances.

I’m lying, of course. Except about taking chances. I can’t afford to take any chances. But the creatures—I haven’t seen any sign of them now for weeks.

I am afraid that they have gone and that they have taken my husband with them and left one of their own in his place.

Oh, why won’t he open his eyes? At least then I’d know. I’d see the big blue discs in his head where eyes should be and I’d be able to say, I knew all along that you weren’t him. I knew.

But he continues to pretend, and as long as he is pretending, I have to pretend as well. I can’t be the first to show my hand.

• • • •

He is strong enough to walk again. Now I know that the creatures are gone. Now I know that there’s no hope for my husband.

He will feel his way over to me, tripping every so often over an ottoman or bumping into a side-table—though I know that he can see perfectly well through those closed, nearly translucent lids—and he will always find his way and then take my face into his hands and—as if he were blind!—pretend to trace the contours of my face.

“I miss seeing your eyes,” he says. “You always had such beautiful eyes.” And his thumbs will run along the edge of my eye-sockets and I know that he’s sizing them up, my eyes, figuring out how to take them for himself.

They’re no dummies, the creatures.

I think I was wrong before. About his eyes, and about his eyelids. Behind those lids is nothing but empty space or maybe a bundle of nerves and veins, but certainly no eyes. Not even big blue ones. The sockets are empty and waiting. Waiting for my eyes. With my eyes in his head, there would be nothing to give him away. Nothing that he couldn’t do.

So I have made a decision.

I do not think that, at this point, I could overpower him. I have nursed him too well. He is now perhaps even stronger than before the creatures came. If he is a creature himself—and I have few doubts that he is anything but—then he is certainly too strong for me, even while sleeping.

So I have made a decision.

I have already taken away the dog’s eyes, made them useless to my husband. Made them useless to anyone. And now, I must take away my own.

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Manuel Gonzales

Manuel Gonzales

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Miniature Wife and Other Stories, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the John Gardner Prize for Fiction, and the novel, The Regional Office is Under Attack! A graduate of  Columbia University Creative Writing Program, he currently teaches creative writing for the University of Kentucky and the Queens University Latin American MFA. He is a core faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars and joins the Bennington faculty in Fall 2018. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and two kids.