Friday, May 8, 2020

First Urges: A Homo Monstrum Chronicle by Kevin Stadt

Alex lands a date, just in time for the plant-based Apocalypse; by Kevin Stadt.

Alex had no way of knowing that the seeds of a new world had already sprouted, could not have imagined how man would mutate before the close of day. He sat in the back corner of a Northern Prairie Community College classroom, watching a fat black and yellow bumblebee hover over the spring peonies outside the window. The flowers led him to think of her, and he shifted his gaze to where she sat several rows over. Covered in freckles, eyes almost as dark as the black hair she always seemed to hide behind, wearing a blue sundress, heavy black boots, and a full sleeve of tattoos down her left arm, she typed on a laptop as the teacher lectured.

The debate in his skull drowned out the class discussion of Cormac McCarthy. She's WAY too hot for you, dude. You look like Ed Sheeran with a gut. But, while she exerted a gravity on him that made paying attention in The 20th Century American Novel impossible, none of the other guys even appeared to notice her. Maybe she just presses my particular buttons?

He leaned back in his chair. No way. You wouldn't even be able to get a sentence out. A parade of embarrassing memories of talking to girls crowded his consciousness. The discomfort growing on their faces as they watch him try to get the words out. The way they try to let him down easy, usually with something like, "I have a boyfriend."

Dr. Owen, an ancient white-haired professor with a hint of Texan drawl, interrupted Alex's thoughts. "Alex, any ideas?"

He felt his face warm. "Uh..."

Dr. Owen leaned on the podium, book in hand. "Well. If you don't know the answer, I guess we're all in trouble. You're my go-to guy."

"Just zoned out for a second. C-c-could you please repeat the question?"

"What do you think of the significance of the title, Child of God?"

"I think no matter how dark the main character gets in the story, he's still just a human on some level. Whatever we might become, we were all k-k-kids once. Started out innocent, children of God. The world ch-ch-changes us into monsters sometimes."

"Very good answer. Thank you, Alex. In McCarthy's work, many characters..." Alex relaxed as the attention shifted away from him. He straightened in his chair and glanced at her. Their eyes locked for a moment, then she looked down and brushed her hair out of her face.



Alex stepped in dog shit.

"God damn it." He raised the bag of food he brought home from his shift at the Korner Kafé to balance as he gingerly lifted his foot. A rusty Honda Civic pulled up to the trailer next door. The neighbor, Ricky, swaggered out onto his porch with Zeus, a massive Doberman.

Zeus's beady eyes darted back and forth between Alex and the car, and his sharp ears alternated between pricking up and swiveling backward as he growled. Ricky's skeletal frame swam in a black Insane Clown Posse hoodie as he waved the car to pull closer to the trailer, and his tight jeans did nothing to hide the device locked onto his ankle. His skin seemed little more than a thin patchwork of meth-mite rash and neck tattoos laid over a skull.

The Civic's window rolled down and Ricky pulled something out of his hoodie pocket as he bent to it. The guy in the car took it and exchanged it for cash in a smooth, practiced move. As the car pulled out and Alex and Ricky each approached their respective front doors, Alex paused to make a little show of wiping his shoe in the grass.

"Hey man."

Ricky lit a cigarette and squinted at Alex through the smoke. "Hey."

Alex tried to affect a friendly, joking tone. "Dude, I just stepped in a big pile of dog poop in our yard. Can you maybe have Zeus not drop those b-b-bad boys over here?"

Ricky cocked his head and took a drag. "The lady on the other side of you has a dog, too. I think it was hers."

Alex took a deep breath. Part of him seethed, but another part of him knew starting trouble with Ricky wasn't a great idea. "Dude, Mrs. Scott's dog isn't half as big as the d-d-dump I just stepped in. And anyway, she picks up her dog's business with a bag like every time."

Ricky narrowed his eyes. "Wasn't Zeus."

Rational fear slid into the background of Alex's brain, and anger dissolved his inhibitions. "Man, I've seen him shit over here a dozen times since you got back. My little brother plays in this yard. Or at least he used to before that dog showed up."

Ricky flicked the still-burning cigarette toward Alex and pulled his hoodie up just enough to reveal the black butt of a handgun sticking out of his waistband. "Fuck off, dude. And don't ever talk to me again." Then he loosened his grip on the leash just enough so that the Doberman suddenly shot forward several feet, making Alex jump and drop the bag of burgers. Ricky laughed and flipped him off before disappearing into his trailer with a slam of the door.

Alex picked up the bag and muttered to himself about calling the cops as he climbed the front steps, taking his shoes off on the porch before coming in. "Ma? I'm home."

She came down the hall beaming at him and hugged him tightly, still wearing a skirt and blouse from teaching. "Aw honey, you didn't have to buy dinner. I could have made something. I'll give you the money for it."

"It's okay, Ma. You were up to your eyeballs in second g-g-graders all day. Tony made these for us because I stayed a little after work to clean out the back room."

She took the bag and squeezed his arm. "It's just that you do so much. I wish you didn't work this hard."

"Oh, stop. Where's Justin?"

"In his room doing homework. I told him if he wanted to play that video game with you later, he better get it done now."

Alex followed her into the kitchen and leaned against the counter, lowering his voice. "Ma, I think we should call the cops on the n-n-neighbor."

She stopped unpacking the burgers and let out a sigh, looking older than her forty-eight years. "Please, Alex."

"Come on, Ma. Dude's selling drugs in plain view. We can't have that around Justin. Not to mention, half the time that fucking Doberman is r-r-running loose -"

"Language."

"Justin can't even play outside anymore."

"Believe me, I know. But if he gets arrested again, his mother will be destroyed. I honestly think it could kill her." Alex rolled his eyes, but she held up a hand. "No, seriously. He's Lorraine's world. And her doctor just put her on medication for her heart. Says she's at risk for a 'cardiac event'."

"Come on."

She stepped closer to him and put a hand on his cheek. "Lorraine's been my friend for almost twenty years. Let me talk to her. I'll see if she can get him to stop."

Justin appeared in the doorway wearing a green Hulk t-shirt two sizes too big for his skinny build. "Get who to stop what?"

Alex waved the issue away. "Nothing. You hungry?"

The boy's bright blue eyes grew wide. "Did you get sweet potato fries?"

Alex lightly punched the boy's shoulder. "Yeah. But just for me and Ma. Forgot to bring you anything."

Justin started slap-boxing at Alex and within seconds they were laughing, yelling, and wrestling their way out into the living room over their mother's protests that they should wash up and come eat.



A few minutes before the next lit class, Alex's heart skipped a beat as he pretended not to notice that she'd sat right next to him. He feigned indifference, locking his eyes onto last week's notes, all the while wondering at the amazing scent he could just barely pick up on. A hint of perfume, or maybe her shampoo? Something sweetly floral.

Is she looking at me? Alex read the same line of notes over and over, trying to act natural. Her pen hit the floor next to his foot. He bent over in a flash, then cursed himself for doing it too fast. As coolly as possible, he held it out to her.

To his horror, he heard himself say, "You dropped your pen." You dipshit. You think she doesn't know she dropped her fucking pen?

But when she took it she smiled, said thanks, and brushed her hair behind an ear. "Hey, you work at the Korner Kafé, right?"

Please, please don't stutter. Just this one time.

He cleared his throat. "Yeah."

"Thought so. I'm pretty sure I saw you there once."

Alex nodded, completely blanking on what to say next. Jesus man, SHE started a conversation with YOU and you are dropping the god damn ball here. But talking about being a dishwasher at a greasy spoon didn't seem like the kind of thing that would score him any points, and he had a hard time seeing a logical transition to a different topic.

After a few moments of excruciating silence, she said, "So do you like McCarthy?" His mind buzzed with calculation. He'd got the sense that a lot of the women in the class weren't fans of the author - too focused on the dark, the violent, the transgressive. They might have liked The Road, but Child of God was probably a tough sell. Yet he told the truth.

"Yeah. He's my favorite novelist, actually."

"Totally. Genius, right? By the way, I'm Megan."



She started chatting him up again as soon as Dr. Owen finished class. He almost felt lightheaded with the impossibility of it, and kept wondering if he was acting weird. Dude, doesn't matter. Don't get your hopes up.

As they emerged outside into the spring afternoon sun, he assumed they'd naturally part ways. Should I ask her out? Or maybe I should just take this as a victory for now and wait to see if she sits by me again next time?

A group of guys pushed through the doors behind them. One held up his phone for the others to see, and as they passed by, said, "...some kind of alien-looking shit making people lose their fucking minds."

Megan squinted and shielded her eyes. "Which way are you going?"

"Home." He gestured toward the path that wound through Miller Woods toward the trailer park. So, let's tally up all the ways you're selling yourself to her: you have a menial job, a stutter, and live in a trailer.

"No way. You live in Deer Park?"

He tried not to deflate too visibly. "Yeah."

"Awesome. My cousin lives on the north edge of Deer Park, and she's like my best friend since forever. I practically lived at her place there on the weekends when I was a kid."

"Really? I live on the other side. Must be why I never saw you there."

"Maybe you did. Who knows?"

"No. I'd for sure remem-" He caught himself and his face warmed.

She smiled and elbowed him. "I'll take that as a compliment. Hold on and let me text my cousin. If she's home, I'll walk with you. Okay?"

Minutes later, his brain struggled to process the fact that he was walking alone on a beautiful spring day with Megan. As the campus receded into the background and the cool shade of the woods surrounded them, they talked about friends, family, and school.

"I feel like I should m-m-major in something more useful than English, but I really l-l-like literature." God damn it. He'd done pretty well up to now, but suddenly his stutter was locking him up. He cursed himself silently and gritted his teeth.

Megan said, "Hey, I hope you don't mind me saying this, but I totally had a stutter until like the fifth grade. So... I don't know. Easier said than done, but really you don't have to worry about it or feel weird about it. At least not around me, I mean."

He let out a breath. Oh my God. You should totally marry this girl, dude. "Cool. Thanks."

They strolled in silence for a moment before she said, "Whoa. Look at that!" Megan stepped off the trail and approached a bizarre plant almost as tall as them. A thin, craggy, purple stalk held up a single flower like nothing Alex had ever seen. Hundreds of wispy, black, thread-like tendrils dangled from a central bulb.

Alex caught its scent. Somehow it smelled like a heady combination of home, of love, of childhood and possibility and hope. It smelled like happiness, and he closed his eyes and pulled it deep into his lungs.

"God." He wanted to say more, but suddenly putting a sentence together felt like a monumental, confusing task. Alex found his feet taking him right up to it. The thread-like tendrils waved, and for a brief moment some quiet part of his brain noted that no breeze blew. Megan stepped nearer, too, closing her eyes and putting her face so close that her nose almost touched it. Alex did the same without consciously deciding to do so.

The flower's tendrils reached out to him. They caressed his skin, each glancing touch setting off fireworks in the pleasure center of his brain. Alex saw the flower doing the same to Megan, and for an instant a thought passed through his mind that this was weird, that flowers didn't normally do this, but the notion broke apart before it even fully formed.

One of the tendrils found Megan's ear, then another her nose, her mouth, and her eyes. The threads snaked into these openings, and she shuddered as if in climax. Alex sucked in a breath as the wisps penetrated him, too, every opening on his skull. He pushed his face even closer, nearly losing his balance and wishing only that the flower had more threads and he more eyes and ears and noses.

Psychedelic fireworks of color exploded in Alex's brain and he heard himself groan. He was dimly aware that he'd fallen to the ground. His vision smeared and slid as dizziness overwhelmed him, and his consciousness ebbed away by degrees into the sweet relief of blackness.



When Alex came to, he found himself lying on the ground in the dark near the plant. Megan was gone. His phone vibrated in his pocket, but when he took it out he couldn't think of what he was supposed to do with it or how it worked, so he dropped it.

He noticed fibrous white roots covered in fine hairs reaching up out of the ground around the plant, and an intense desire to bring the flower food overcame him. Alex set off through the dark, aware that he could see everything perfectly in the moonlight, that he could hear every animal skittering in the darkness, that he could smell the trees and earth and even the worms beneath his feet. What's more, his mind was quiet, almost empty save for the occasional clear impulse. Gone were the incessant words, scenes, and stream-of-consciousness dialogues of his old mind.

He crossed neighbors' yards in a straight line toward his trailer, and he heard Zeus already growling at him a hundred feet away. Without deliberation, Alex broke into a sprint toward the sound, propelled by a strength and speed he'd never imagined before, and at a dozen paces distant leaped toward the dog and came down on Zeus's neck with his knee and felt it crack and the body go limp. Some part of him recoiled in horror at what he was doing, but another part of him reveled in it. What do you think of that? Not so fucking scary now.

Alex snapped the dog's chain with little effort and turned back toward the woods, dragging the Doberman through the neighbors' flower gardens. When he threw the animal's carcass on the root system, a moan escaped his throat and his legs turned to jelly. The roots reached out to the body and attached to it everywhere. An image flashed in his mind - he saw himself throwing the Doberman on the roots again, but this time with the dog alive. The ache of pleasure that followed brought Alex to his knees.



The next thing he knew, he found himself standing in the dark in Justin's bedroom, watching the boy sleep. Something in his mind, an insistent impulse, wanted him to take his brother to the plant.

He stepped backward and scrunched his eyes shut, shaking his head. His own voice rang out clearly in his skull. No, not that. Anything but that.

Less than a minute later he stood in his neighbors' house, next to Ricky's bed. He could hear the sleeping man's heart beating and blood flowing and could smell the pizza Ricky had eaten for dinner, the hot dogs he'd had for lunch, his soap and socks and breath. The giddy anticipation of bringing the plant such a prize mixed with the perverse thrill of transgression and the warm adrenaline charge of impending violence. He grabbed Ricky's t-shirt and Ricky's eyes popped open, his face a mask of shock and anger.

Alex watched the neighbor's hand shoot out and snatch an aluminum baseball bat positioned near the head of the bed, and without thinking or even realizing what he was doing, Alex swatted Ricky's face with an open palm.

Ricky grunted and went limp, falling back on the bed with a smear of blood on his cheek. The neighbor's breathing and heartbeat continued. Alex lifted his own hand and studied it. A thin, needle-like claw with a drop of sharp-smelling viscous liquid at its tip retracted into his palm.

As he breathed heavily, part of him sickened at the claw, at the whole scene. What am I doing? But as soon as the objection appeared in his thoughts, it garbled and glitched and slipped away. His mind hummed only with the urge to throw Ricky to the flower.

And when he did so some minutes later, the bliss visited upon him brought tears to his eyes.



In the clear light of morning, he padded in through the back door and kitchen making no more sound than a cat and stood behind his mother, who sat on the edge of the couch watching the news with a hand held over her mouth. The screen flashed images of men in hazmat suits examining plants just like Alex's, and then video of EMTs working on a woman as they rolled her into an ambulance. "...dozens of attacks in the Green Oaks area overnight. They appear connected to the appearance of the unidentified plants, and authorities warn local residents to stay home, keep doors locked, and above all avoid the plants and anyone who has come into contact with them. Call 911 immediately if -"

Alex felt pulled in different directions. He wanted to hug his mom. To talk to her and say sorry and be forgiven. To understand what was happening.

But he also ached to hunt.

He shifted his weight and the floor creaked. His mother shot up with a scream and turned around, her eyes wide and hands shaking. Tears fell down her face, and she mouthed words that he couldn't understand.

She took a step forward and reached out to him, stopped, cried harder, and pulled back. Visions of slapping her and throwing her on the roots flooded his mind. He bent over and punched himself in the head over and over, trying to drive them out.

Putting together even one simple syllable took all his will and concentration, and as he grunted the word through gritted teeth, he suspected it may be the last human language to pass his lips.

"GO!"

While he battled to root himself to the spot, some foreign growl in his chest, the spike in each palm popping out, his mother sprinted to Justin's room. Alex clenched his teeth and fists and his whole body shook in a cold sweat. The last thing he saw of his family was his mother running through the front door, pulling Justin along in his pajamas, both wearing expressions of sheer terror.



When he returned to the plant again, this time with two neighborhood cats, Megan was there. He tossed the cats to the roots and shuddered with the pleasure of it and noted a new human body face-down next to the flower, a large, bald man. Megan spoke no words but smiled and hugged him with a strength that drove the breath out of his chest. The happiness of being in her arms compounded with the joy of the plant seemed almost too much for one heart to bear. As she pulled back, he saw excitement written all over her face, and she gestured mutely toward the flower.

Since he'd last seen it, the plant had sprouted several clusters along its stalk, each of them with a dozen long, thin, orange seedpods. Megan regarded them thoughtfully for a moment, then chose a lighter-colored pod and picked it. She took a bite from it, then held it out to Alex.

Black seeds dotted the yellowish, creamy flesh of the fruit. He took a bite, and the rush of it was such that he had to pause regularly as he chewed to moan and get his breath. Alex let the fruit roll on his tongue before swallowing it. It tasted like some combination of strawberries and grapes, but with a mind-numbing narcotic jolt.

They ate and regarded the corpses in various stages of digestion around the plant, several human-sized, many more pet-sized, roots enveloping each with hairy, groping filaments. The decomposition and absorption of the carcasses struck Alex as sublimely beautiful. Before long, though, a new craving began to set in. Megan, too, seemed to feel it. She glanced around restlessly and let out a low whine. As the moments passed, a vague need to move on grew pressing, and a weight settled on his chest, making it harder and harder to breathe. Sharp pains began to stab him in the gut.

Finally, Megan took him by the hand and led him away.

The farther they got from the plant, the better Alex felt. They walked a long time, avoiding houses and roads and the distant wail of sirens, across the newly-tilled corn and soybean fields of their town, and those of the next two towns. They hit upon a creek and followed it until dark. The creek wound its way eventually into woods, a place Alex had never been before, and as they surveyed the surroundings, he felt pressure in his bowels.

He scanned the woods with unguessed calculation, feeling for the right place. A spot of earth, equidistant between several trees and dark with rich soil, spoke to him. He bent over it and dug a hole with his hands, glancing up to see Megan doing the same elsewhere. Then he pulled off his shoes and pants and left them there and squatted, careful to pass just a bit of stool into the hole, then lovingly and painstakingly covered it. Alex found another spot some ways off, and another, and another, until between them they'd dug and filled in a dozen holes.

When she rejoined him, he looked into her eyes and knew she felt the same joyful longing as he, and they set off in the dark, hand in hand, to find food for the precious, hungry young.

4 comments:

  1. An interesting mix of genres. Starts out boy meets girl, maybe a coming of age piece. Sweet and sensitive. Morphs into something a little more dire with the evil neighbor. Then goes full bore SF/horror, but with a satisfying resolution. Kind of.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Quite a different love story...very imaginative..the theme I got was You love what gives you pleasure...it kept me reading. I like the title and the ironic Cormac M references.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nice bit of apocalyptic horror. Alex's struggle to retain his humanity was very well done.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I echo the thought above, you could feel the conflict within Alex throughout. This work could be expanded into a longer piece. I'm glad you let us read it.

    ReplyDelete