by Damien Filer
From Issue 13 (Sept 2011)
“What is this pain down in my seed?” Herman was prone to wonder, of a day. He would fidget and shift, so restless there at the dinner table, grease beading up on his big ole forehead under the shine of the fluorescent light.
“Hush up,” Mama would tell him, then give him a shot with those laser eyes.
Still he’d fidget something awful, turning redder than red, he would. But Herman wouldn’t say another word about that terrible pain down there in his seed, least not ‘til next night’s dinner.
It just went on like that for Lord knows how long, at the Gould household, night after night. I reckon I was twelve, just started my period, the night Mama finally scooped Herman up and disappeared back behind the trailer with him. I remember running to the window to see what would become of little Herman. Part of me was smiling. I guess I did have a sadistic streak about a mile wide when it came to my freaky little brother, but part of me loved him too. He was my own flesh and blood, after all.
Mama took him into the shed, then about an hour later she come out again, but all alone. No Herman. I ran back to my chair at the table and acted like I ain’t seen nothing. I wasn’t smiling anymore. She came back in and sat down at the table. She just sat there and ate those cold chicken and dumplings one slurp at a time, pushing her false teeth in and out like she was fond of doing.
I reckon it must’ve been close to ninety degrees, even with the sun going down. Down in Georgia, heat’s a serious business. But I swear I felt a cold wind whipping through me from the moment that woman sat herself back down at the table. I just kept looking over at Herman’s empty highchair. Now, don’t misunderstand me. My little brother was six years old, but Mama still put him in that highchair cause he wasn’t quite right. I just kept looking over there at his half-full bowl of dumplings. I tried not to but I couldn’t help it.
It was so quiet. I think that’s what was spookier than all the rest. I couldn’t remember ever having eaten dinner without Herman over there, twisting and whining like there was ants in his pants.
When he turned about five, I guess it was, Mama taught him to say the word “seed.” When he was a baby he’d just cry and slam his little red fists down on his tray. Then when he started learning how to talk he’d say: “Pee pee owee,” or some damn thing. But then mama taught him to say “seed.” She thought it sounded more proper. So for the last year or so, all through dinner, Herman would form a correct sentence the way Mama taught him, and say: “What is this pain down in my seed?” until mama couldn’t stand it no more and gave him the evil eye, or slammed his food down on his tray real hard.
By the time dinner was done I knew I’d freeze to death if I lived in the same house with that woman anymore, without my little brother around.
That’s when I decided to run away.
I best start at the beginning though, and tell you about Herman’s papa, Tyler. Tyler wasn’t my papa, just Herman’s. Guess that’s why I turned out so dumb and healthy, stead of smart and sick like Herman.
Tyler was one of the ones Mama brought back from the roadhouse, just like my pa, just like all the rest, seemed like at first anyhow. He looked like all the rest. Motorcycle, tattoos and always drinking whiskey. Tyler was always real pale though; his skin kinda shined, looked almost like it had a hint of green to it sometimes. He was always coughing and spitting up these big gooey wads. He wasn’t never lifting weights or shooting beer cans off the fence like most of Mama’s men. Course, he’d always start looking at me funny and start talking about why didn’t I come sit down next to him when Mama was at work. He sure wasn’t no different that way.
Late at night he’d always start talking all this weird talk, like about the stars and time and all that stuff. Mama thought he was some kind of genius ‘cause of all his talk at night when he was real drunk. It’s true he didn’t start beating on her the way the others did when they was drunk, but I didn’t make him out to be no genius or nothing.
I tell you what though, Herman was just as smart as a whip, and Lord knows he didn’t get it from Mama. So maybe Tyler was some kind of genius. He was also sick. Real sick. And Mama took care of him ‘til his dying day.
It wasn’t ‘til he was gone that Mama found out Herman was on the way. She said it was a miracle, and Mama didn’t talk like that. I thought maybe she’d gone crazy or something the way she was talking. She kept saying about how her baby had been blessed by God and all sorts of stuff.
She never hardly noticed me again from the day she found out about Herman.
That night Mama took Herman back behind the trailer stayed spooky and quiet, even after Mama went to bed. I went to bed too, she didn’t have to tell me. I just done it. I lay there, wide-eyed all night. Not once did sleep even think about visiting me that night. I just lay there on my back in the dark with the window open. I didn’t do nothing. Just laid there. I didn’t touch myself. I didn’t read under the covers with a flashlight. I didn’t even roll over on one side or the other. I just laid still. Felt like something was watching me, maybe from outside. Everything in the sky seemed to be alive that night.
I even thought I heard sounds coming from back behind the trailer. In the shed. Back where Mama took Herman. Thumping and bumping kinds of sounds, but I didn’t dare move. Felt like I had a big eye just staring down at me from the stars. Maybe not a friendly eye, neither. Not one that wanted me moving around too much, just now it felt like. So I didn’t. I just laid still.
I figured the next morning, when Mama got up to go to work, then I’d go out behind the trailer and find out what happened to Herman. And that’s what I did.
Standing at my bedroom window, I watched Mama pull out of the driveway in that big old Impala. A dust cloud hovered in the air even after she pulled out on Route ninety-nine. I walked out of my bedroom and into the empty trailer. Empty but not empty, it felt like. Like when you come home and the house is dark and quiet and supposed to be empty but somehow it feels like it ain’t. The sun was out and all, shining bright dust lasers into the mess of the trailer. Should have felt peaceful, but it didn’t. Too quiet.
I walked down the hall over the soggy boards rotted out from the leaking roof. I walked through the living room, over piles of old Reader’s Digests, tequila bottles and cigarette butts. ‘Fact, the sun was so bright it shone right through the old flower pattern sheets tacked up over the windows, like they weren’t even there. I felt like a zombie or a blind person, walking slow and stiff up to the front door. When I got to it I stopped. Somehow, I guess I felt like once I opened it I was out there with whatever was out there. I stood right in front of the dented brown tin of the door for a while, but I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to stay inside forever. I reached out, grabbed the cool metal handle and twisted it. The button lock snapped up and the door swung out.
The sun was on everything, like when you turn the bright knob all the way up on the TV. It was early though, so you couldn’t feel the real heat of it yet. I put my hand up over my eyes and stepped down off the porch. I practically tripped over Herman’s red wagon. The grass was cool and wet with dew. Gnats swarmed around me like rain clouds. Mosquitoes dive-bombed like ballerinas with switchblades hid behind their backs. A couple of black and gold butterflies got tossed this way and that in the breeze, but butterflies are too pretty to live very long. I don’t watch them much.
I walked past the fire pit and Cyrus’ old pick-up that had been sitting up on cinder blocks in our front yard since the Civil War, near about. There were whole cities of banana spider webs stretched between that powder blue pick-up and the awning of our rusty trailer. “Manufactured Home,” Mama said to call it, but believe me, it was a trailer.
Rounding back behind the trailer where the water heater and the fuse box was, I started stepping real careful. Herman got stung by a scorpion that climbed out of the old scrap woodpile back here one time. He yelped like a dog does when it gets its tail slammed in something. I laughed when I saw it. Mama scooped him up real quick after. I remember that scorpion started scampering in circles after it stung Herman. Like it’d gone crazy. Within a minute it just stopped and started twitching like it was having a seizure. Then it disintegrated kinda. Like it had a flame under it. I looked up at mama with my mouth hanging open. She said not to tell anyone what I saw. I never talked to nobody anyway, so I never did. Thinking ‘bout it now, it don’t seem so funny anymore. It don’t seem funny at all.
Tiptoeing through the two-by-fours and rusty nails, I made it around to the back. Then I saw the shed. It was wood, painted red with white X’s on it like a barn. The door had a little hook latch on it. It was latched closed. Another door. This time I knew for sure there would be no going back. I looked back at the trailer and the road. No one around, ‘cept a dog barking way on down the road by Mr. Bascom’s place. Salty sweat beading up on the fuzz over my lip, the breeze making the wet in my armpits cool, I reached up and unlatched the door.
The door swung out slow, making a creaking sound like a bomb dropping far away would make. First thing I smelled was the moths and mildew. The damp and rot of old piles of Reader’s Digest, boxes of old clothes, broken furniture and old toys of mine. An ugly little gray mouse scampered into a crack in the wall and it made me shiver. Herman had to be in here somewhere.
Then I heard that thumping sound again. It was coming from inside an old particle board wall unit. There were doors on the front of it, at the bottom, and shelves on top. The thumping was coming from inside the doors. From out of nowhere I started feeling all clammy and achy. Feverish. The final door.
“Herman?” I said.
The thumping stopped for a second. Silence. Then it started again.
“Herman?” I said louder.
The thumping didn’t stop this time, it just got louder. The final door.
Shaky. Shaky, I reached out and pulled the door open, then jumped back. Herman slumped out against the door. He’d been all jammed in there like they tell you to get if a hurricane’s coming. His knees were all scrunched up under his chin. When his head flopped out it smeared crusty chunks of blood all along the particle board.
“Oh my God, Herman. What did that woman do to you?”
“Shovel,” Herman answered, but his voice sounded all weird. His eyes were rolled back in his head like they wasn’t focused right. He looked about as near to dead as any dead thing I’d ever seen.
“Herman, what are we gonna do with you?”
“I’m not Herman,” Herman said. His right eye, the one that wasn’t all smashed in, turned and looked at me. The way it moved, the way it looked at me, I knew it wasn’t Herman. I didn’t know who, or what it was, but I knew it wasn’t my brother. I knew it wasn’t Herman.
I just stood there looking at him, blood and gook all soaked into his hair. That eye staring at me. I looked down and saw my hands shaking in front of me, like they was wet and I was trying to dry ‘em in the air. Just shaking.
“I’m the other,” said the voice inside of Herman. “Do you understand?”
I didn’t understand and I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be there, in that musty old shed anymore, but I couldn’t think of anywhere else in the whole world I wanted to be, either. It seemed like it didn’t matter where I would go if this, this thing, whatever it was, was still gonna be all squished up and banging to be let out of our shed, and my mother the monster was still in the world.
“You’re going to have to help me,” the voice said. “Please, just don’t leave and I’ll try to explain.”
I was still shaking all over but I didn’t run.
“Do you remember Herman’s father?” the voice asked.
“Tyler,” I said. “Yeah, I remember him.”
“This human was the first my people joined with.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “Your people?”
That one eye rolled straight up, like it was looking through the ceiling. “From the stars,” were the words that came out of Herman’s mouth.
“We wanted to join with your species in hopes of infusing our advanced intellect into your stunted evolution. We’ve been observing you for thousands of years now. We didn’t want to interfere, but it seems your technology has advanced so far beyond your maturity now, that you may well destroy yourselves and your planet.”
I just stood there listening to all these big words come out of Herman’s mouth. I wasn’t sure I really understood, but I listened anyway.
“Finally, the decision was made to attempt a joining. This child’s father was the first. I was elected for the mission. Unfortunately, it made the human ill. When I realized it was dying, I started searching for a way out. You see, if the human had died with me trapped inside, I would have been trapped, as indeed I am now.
“When the human started having reproductive contact with your mother I saw my chance. I escaped the ailing body by transporting myself in his semen into your mother.”
“Oh gross,” I said. The thing ignored my reaction.
“Thus, when your brother was born, I was part of him. The new body, formed from its inception with my life force as a part of it, seemed healthier than the prior host. However, as you know, he did experience some pain and emotional disorientation as a result of my presence.”
“You was… I mean, Herman was an alien?” I said.
“I was hopeful, however, that as the boy matured these things would resolve themselves. I had no inkling that your mother would so suddenly and irrationally short-circuit her own offspring’s life force. It is precisely because of erratic behavior such as this that we attempted to intervene in the first place.”
Herman, or I should say, the thing talking through Herman, just kept going on and on. I didn’t dare move, even though Herman, it, didn’t look like he could do much damage.
“I had hoped that you would come,” it continued. “It is most fortunate that you did. I desperately need your help. The only way I can escape from this body is to be back amongst my own kind. If you can take me to the appointed meeting place, hopefully they will see, and can take me home. There are many adjustments that need to be made before we attempt another joining.”
“You want me to take you somewhere?”
“Yes, there is a fencepost that connects your neighbor’s pasture with the adjacent pasture on the other side of the road, several acres in, near the tree line. This is the appointed place.”
I looked down at the red and black scabs on the side of Herman’s head. There was blood and stains all over his neck and arms, his shirt, everywhere.
“You want me to touch you?” I asked.
“This host has no more life force,” the voice said. “I am only able to move parts of it, and only very slightly. I could never maneuver such a distance myself.”
I stood there looking into that eye for some time before I came to terms with the decision I’d made. When I was sure it was the only thing to be done, I spoke.
“I’ll make you a deal,” I said. “I’ll take you to that place, but then I want to go with you. I want to go up in your spaceship or whatever and never come back, not ever.”
The voice inside my dead brother hesitated for just a second before it answered.
“This is impossible,” it said.
I figured that’s what it would say.
“So long, then,” I said. I turned and started to walk out of the shed.
“Wait,” came the strained voice. “You must help me. I’ll be trapped in this body forever.”
“You must help me, then,” I said, “or I’ll be trapped with the awful woman who did this, forever.”
“You don’t understand,” the voice said.
“No, you don’t understand,” I interrupted. “You’re in no position to argue. You can either stay trapped in that rotting little body or you can help me. That’s it.”
The eye shifted around, back and forth, for some time. When the voice answered, it sounded beaten.
“All right,” it finally said. “I will figure out a way to arrange your request in return for transporting me to the appointed place.”
“Promise,” I said.
“We have an agreement,” the voice said, again sounding strained.
“Promise,” I repeated.
“This is childish,” the voice said. It even scrunched Herman’s dead features into something resembling frustration.
“I don’t care,” I said. “I am a child and I don’t intend to be tricked or taken advantage of by some alien. If you truly intend to keep your end of the deal, you promise. Then, if you trick me somehow and go up into space, away from this awful place without me, you’ll go knowing you tricked and lied to a little girl and if you have a conscience, you won’t be able to forget it. Now promise, or the deal is off.”
“I promise,” the voice said.
“Okay,” I said, and then stepped closer. When I leaned down over Herman’s body I could smell the blood and goo on his head. I gagged and turned away. There were tiny little bugs flying around the blood, some of them landing in the mess. With my head turned away, I took a deep breath and held it, then turned back, grabbed him under his armpits and pulled him up.
I held him away from me like a garbage bag with something disgusting on it that you don’t want to get on you. I walked as fast as I could out of the shed, back into the sun, but he was heavy, so I couldn’t go too fast. Herman’s little legs hung limp and dangled back and forth. His head flopped forward onto his chest with a soggy, slapping sound. Fresh blood started coming out of the crushed bone and little specks of it were splashing onto me. I tried to turn away but I could feel the little splashes hitting my neck.
We’d just about gotten around to the lumber pile where the scorpions lived, when my arms got so cramped up I had to put him down. Slumped against the woodpile, Herman didn’t move at all. I was breathing hard and held my hands away from me. I wondered if I’d ever be able to get that smell off of them.
“Are you still there?” I said. Then I saw the eye start moving again.
“I’m still here,” the voice said. It sounded different outside.
“I’m not gonna be able to carry you to the appointed place,” I said. “There’s no way.” I started to put my hands on my hips, then I remembered about the smell and held them out in front of me again.
“You must find another way to transport me.” The voice sounded impatient.
“You got any great ideas, Mr. Know-it-all?”
The voice didn’t say anything; then I got an idea.
“I’ll be right back,” I said. Then I went to get Herman’s red wagon. After dumping the stinking body in the wagon, I covered it with a piece of blue tarp I found under the front porch. Then I washed my hands under the cold water of the outside spigot, waved goodbye to the trailer I’d grown up in, grabbed the wagon handle and started off toward the appointed place.
The wagon rattled back and forth, making my arm shake as I walked up our driveway. When I got to the road I stopped, looked both ways and then crossed. The rubber wheels rolled real smooth on the pavement. Once we got across, I turned and started along the little path that bordered Mr. Bascom’s place, where blackberries pushed through the barbwire for miles on end. Then I saw a pick-up come over the hill and down the road. I squinted but couldn’t tell if I recognized it at first. Once it got closer I recognized it. Mr. Bascom’s truck. Probably coming back from the feed store.
I tried to speed up and look natural at the same time. When he got up close he slowed down, looked at me kind of funny. I just smiled real big and waved, pulling my red wagon. Mr. Bascom waved back and kept going on past toward his driveway down at the end of the road. That was close.
When I got to the ‘Hanson’s Homegrown Meats’ sign that divided Hanson’s land from Mr. Bascom’s, I climbed through the fence and pulled the wagon under, onto Mr. Bascom’s side. If I was gonna get caught, I’d rather get caught on his property.
Pulling the wagon was harder in the grass. Sometimes I had to go around big piles with flies all around. I was getting tired. I started switching my pulling arm back and forth. Finally, we got there.
I pulled the tarp back with the tips of my fingers, ‘til I could see Herman’s face. The sun was beating down now and my brother stunk. The eye just looked straight up at the sky.
“This the place?” I asked.
“This is the appointed place,” the voice said.
“What do we do now?”
“Wait for the night,” the voice answered.
I took a look around. I could hardly tell where the road was until I saw a car go by. No way anyone except the cows were gonna see us. I sat down with my back to a fencepost and waited. Sweat poured down my face and thoughts raced through my mind. The voice didn’t say a word. Didn’t do anything. I still couldn’t help looking over at the wagon. My little brother laid in his red wagon, dead.
I got to where I could hear the cars on the road before I could see ‘em. When I could see ‘em, I watched ‘til they went out of sight. I watched the cows. They didn’t do anything. Everything was still and quiet and warm. Every once in a while the breeze would blow a little, but never enough.
Eventually, the sun started going down. Made the sky pink and purple and gold. Everything got real pretty for just a little while before it was too dark to see. The trees slow-dancing with the breeze. The grass as green as the Emerald City. Once it finally started to get dark, it seemed to happen really fast. Then it occurred to me I was never gonna see any of that stuff again. Ever.
Crickets started sounding like they were everywhere. And frogs. I could hear the rustle of the grass when one of the cows got close. I could hear the cars from even farther away. Now when they passed, all I saw was the beam of headlights. Then one of the beams slowed down and turned into a driveway across the road. My driveway. Mom was home. I heard her door slam shut.
I got up to look but I couldn’t see her. Saw lights go on in the living room. Then my room. Then nothing for a minute. Next thing I knew I heard the front door slam into the trailer as it swung open. Mom had a flashlight shining in the yard and she was headed round to the back of the trailer. Looking for Herman.
For another minute everything was quiet, peaceful. Then everything started happening all at once. Mom started screaming. Her voice was cracking but the screams just broke through the cracks. People must’ve heard her for miles. I ran over next to Herman. The eye still looked up into the sky. Then I saw light in the eye. I looked up and the trees were swaying. All of a sudden it felt like a big storm was coming. Wind pushed my hair back away from my face. Gave me goose bumps all up and down my arms. Mom was still screaming when the bright lights came from over the treetops.
“You ready?” I said, not looking down.
“I’m ready,” came the voice inside Herman. “I’m ready.”
Copyright © 2011 by Damien Filer
Damien Filer’s stories and poems have appeared in dozens of books and magazines. His short story collection From Blood to Water includes stories recognized in the Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror and recommended for the Nebula award. Filer is a grant recipient from the California Institute of Contemporary Arts and a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop.
He lives in Tallahassee, Florida.