The first time they come to measure my son, he is only eleven years old. Two men knock on the door of our humble home that squats on the outskirts of Shell County, my boy and I eating macaroni and cheese, our eyes turned mid-spoon to the interruption. Outside the darkness is as black as pitch, matching their uniforms, their helmets slick, each of them with a measuring tape in their hands, dust devils spinning across the land—dirt and garbage lifting high up into the night.
They simply walk inside and lift the boy from his seat, one of them holding him as the other measures height, then width, then depth. They never speak, only nod at each other, and then retreat into the night, the door left open, silt slipping inside and across the floor on the heels of a soft breeze. I blink, the boy shrugs, and we go back to our meal. These things happen when your overlords float above the cities, some as small as cows, the queen bees as large as blimps. The smaller ones are grey, like elephants, the largest translucent—colored organs in red and purple pumping from within. They are beautiful and horrific, having ruined all we know.
I work in one of the mines, as most of us do, out in the desert. Certain ore that we previously thought of as common is essential to the alien life and continued development. Much like the stormtroopers, I dress in a jumpsuit, but mine is orange, my son’s closer to peach. We do not reside in the gothic mansions that line the pit, no, we are just workers, so little to live for but each other. And most days, that is enough. The workers’ shotgun shacks ring out around the pillared homes, porches wrapping around the dirty gothic structures. The foremen carry heavy shotguns; their women wear tattered dresses.
The boy works in a sorting facility, an expansive metal garage on the way to the Shell County mines. At night we reunite on the dirt path outside his building, holding up our hands to reveal the day’s labor—his lavender and blue from the kyanite, as if dusted by fairies; mine rusty and muted from carts of mica, splinters of the fine ore leaving nicks upon my flesh. If it weren’t for the boy, one arm around him as we lumber home, exhausted, I certainly would have ended it by now. Up and down my arms are thin lines of mottled flesh, spider webs of dark promises I can’t keep—unable to leave, unable to surrender. He finds a way to chirp and laugh, something they discovered inside a mineral today, some sort of ancient bug—these buried worms and larvae—trapped inside the rock, the highlight of his day. He holds his hand out to show me the wriggling creatures and my stomach turns. They look prehistoric, with their pincers and feathered legs. I don’t know if it’s a beautiful thing, his discovery and excitement, or just another sad story in a long line of sad stories.
The second time they come to measure my son, I’m not nearly as receptive as the first. I ask them what they want, why they are here, but they push me aside and descend upon him. He is still so innocent in this new world. He doesn’t know the things I struggle to forget—free will, television, beer, football, movies, music, books, fine dining, travel—the list spirals out into the ether. He knows none of these pleasures, and never will. He stands up, his arms spread wide as they measure, and measure, and measure. I scream at them to get out, apoplectic with rage, my face flushing red, but they ignore me, and nod their heads—height, and width, and depth.
When I lay a hand on one of them he turns on me with an unforeseen speed, a baton extending out of his hand, pulled from a pocket or his belt. His gloved hand is lined with metal spikes, the rapid-fire beating faster than I can witness, a blur of metal and blood splatter, my eyes, my nose, my teeth—my vision lost in a mist of red as I fall to the ground, my hands never even raised.
When they are gone and I regain consciousness, the boy is dabbing at my face with a bloody washcloth, the cold water calming my hot flesh, his eyes full of tears, his lips bitten and puckered in resolve, not saying a word. He understands his place, and his eyes implore me to remember mine.
I do not miss work; this is not allowed. So, beaten and bruised I make my way to the mines. The boy splits off at his juncture in the path, releasing my hand with reluctance. We have learned not to ask when somebody disappears—no longer standing next to us as we shovel, pick, and dig. We have learned to ignore the loss of fingers, the cuts and markings, changing in and out of our uniforms, backs covered in streaked lashings, weeping flesh, the whippings carried out in private to keep us in constant fear. If the setting sun has no time of descent—no marked hour, or minute, or path—then how can we anticipate the darkness?
The third time they come it is not to measure my boy, but to take him. There are four guards this time, the first entering our filthy home with an electric cattle prod in front of him, pushing it into my raised hands, my strained chest, shock rippling over my flesh as I collapse to the floor, twitching while urine trickles down my shaking leg. And the boy never says a word as they extend their measuring tapes—height, and width, and depth. They nod to each other, jotting down a few notes, walking him out of the house as he tells me he loves me, tells me to be strong, to wait for him. They take him, leaving behind a small envelope with a few sentences about his new assignment. I do not know if he will return. He fits the mold for some strange new job, something about the health of the great ones, a bitter pill that the beasts must swallow—the medicine, somehow, my only child.
I know that I’ve taught him well, my son, even if I don’t take my own advice. He has heard repeatedly that resistance is futile—my words slipping over his drooping eyes as he lies in bed, drifting off to sleep. I don’t give him hope, when I tuck him in at night, because I can’t give him something I don’t have.
There are three great beasts that hover over our mine, their veiny skin transparent. I see them every day when I walk to work, and I hate their bluish tint, their waving tentacles, with all of my trembling heart. It’s not like people haven’t tried to rebel, to rise up. I’ve seen men rush out of the pits with rifles, blood on their hands, firing at the smaller grey ones, the great clear beasts rippling with puncture wounds. They pass right through them, holes made, certainly, but little changing. And as the smaller grey ones swarm closer, appendages dangling, the men’s screams are lost in the thick alien hides, ripped limb from limb as shots ring out, one or two of the elephantine creatures falling to the earth, the hovering motherships unharmed.
It’s all I can think about in the weeks to come—my boy and his new job. There are no women down here in the mines, their work elsewhere in the pleasure districts of Moosejaw. My wife was dead of cancer long before any of this horror fell upon us, and I thank whatever gods are left that she never had to witness this decay. The boy has her quiet optimism, so I trudge back and forth to the mines, lost in the dust and noise, waiting to hear something—anything at all.
Quiet conversations are slipped between the spark of the pickaxe, the rattling thunder of jackhammers, sledges, and shovels down here close to the veins of ore. I sidle up to two men who are bagging up mica, as overhead and in the distance great excavators rumble past, bulldozers and graders spanning out across the dirt. They speak of their boys, measured and taken, and I ask what they know. They shake their heads and scatter like cockroaches, but before they separate, I hear a few things. They are sick, the big ones, shedding scales of flesh that fall from the sky like greying snowflakes. I think of the sloughs of flesh that have turned up over the past few weeks, massive sheets of dry skin drifting about the dead land like tumbleweeds spinning in the wind. They hang lower in the sky, the men mumble, and as I walk home from work, I scan the sky for confirmation. There are only two of them visible today—one as vibrant and glowing as ever; the second slightly lower—dull and hardly moving; the third falling onto a distant mountain range, its sickly pallor like a dirty blanket draped over pristine snow.
The final knock at my door is nothing I expect—the boy standing there skinny and sick, his eyes shrunken, and his face sallow. He falls into my outstretched arms. He says that up close they are magnificent creatures, so very large, the quiet inside the floating bodies like nothing he’s ever experienced. I take him to his bed and set him down gently, fetching him a glass of water. His eyes are electric with stories. He wants to tell me everything, so I sit on his bed and listen.
He talks of the other boys, how they were to be fed to the beasts, wrapped in protective coatings, slick jumpsuits made of glossy materials, doused with certain chemicals to aid in the beasts’ healing treatment. The boy laughs, coughing up phlegm and blood, his eyes glazing over as he tries to finish his tale. Holding his bony right hand, I listen as he smiles a crimson smile. A relatively easy job, he says, swimming their way to the center of the monsters, against the vibrating cilia. It wasn’t just about the medicine, which the creatures couldn’t swallow, skin too thin to inject, too tough for any spray—but specific instructions about hearts and valves, chambers and ventricles, how to remove any blockages, plaque, or disease.
But they had another plan, he says, grinning, holding out his left fist. When he spreads his fingers wide, it is the worm again, now grown, ten times its previous size, pincers snapping, the creature as big as a mouse, eyes blood-red, feathered legs twitching, wings now on its back, thin membranes lined with intricate patterns.
The boy is asleep now—his pulse slow, but steady. I take the worm, the caterpillar, whatever it is now, whatever it might become next—moth, or snake, or lizard—to the kitchen in search of a proper receptacle. I find a Mason jar, and drop it inside, an iridescence rippling over its surface, feelers probing the air. I poke a few holes in the lid with a rusty screwdriver, my stomach rippling with hope.
I swing open the front door, the horizon filled with orange light as the sun sets in the distance. They are gone, the sky is empty now—nothing hovering, a stream of men from the pits, grey-skinned husks lying scattered over the earth, the worms devouring from within. The sickness has spread, the network of creatures like one long line of electrostatic shock, stilling their waving arms as they wither and die across the silent barren plains, our new home.
Richard Thomas is the author of seven books—the novels Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books) and Transubstantiate, as well as the collections Herniated Roots, Staring Into the Abyss and Tribulations. His over 100 stories in print include Cemetery Dance, PANK, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, storySouth, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press, a Bram Stoker finalist) with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he writes for LitReactor and is Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.
Original version published in Slave Stories: Scenes from the Slave State (Omnium Gatherum)
Lead image: “Chilopoda” (via Flickr user Chris Moody)