Black Petals Issue #90 Winter, 2020

Estranged
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1957-Fiction by Michael J. Moore
Black Dog-Fiction by C. P. Webster
Curse of the Candles-Fiction by Jerry Payne
Death Rattle-Fiction by Jan Cronos
Estranged-Fiction by Alan Trezza
The Return of the Ferryman-Serialized Fiction by Roy Dorman
The Scarlet Bedroom-Fiction by Daniel K. Merwin
The Soul Destroyer-Fiction by James Flynn
The Packing Bay-Flash Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
Jizo-A four-poem Japanes Theme Set by Dee Allen
Blood-Red Drops-Poem by Chris Collins
The Great Universe-Poem by Hicham El Qendouci
Female Mischief-Poem by Hillary Lyon
Worm-Poem by Hillary Lyon
The Lycanthrope's Lament-Poem by Hillary Lyon
The Sea-Poem by Jason Rice

90_bp_estranged_blanch.jpg
Art by Darren Blanch 2020

Estranged

 

By Alan Trezza

Family reformed by adversity

 

 

Wyatt Hess stood perfectly still as he stared into the mouth of the cave. It was unseasonably warm that spring afternoon, high 80s the last time he’d checked, and the sweat from his scalp had turned the graying hairs around his temples into thin glossy shards that pointed south.

The granite cave was an oddity in Washington’s Wenatchee National Forest that Wyatt had never given so much as a passing glance in all his years of traversing the park’s emerald grounds. But now that Clementine had left, Wyatt found himself drawn to the cavernous structure’s unseen wonders more and more. It had become his refuge, his sanctuary. 

The note on the kitchen counter, scrawled like a grocery list—as if she were on the verge of changing her mind at any moment—had said simply: “I need to go, Wyatt. Tell Tyler I love him and will be thinking of him every minute of every day. Truly, Clem.” 

Wyatt couldn’t help but notice that Clementine made no mention of her “love” for him. This word she’d reserved solely for their fourteen-year-old son.

A sharp crack of an evergreen branch plucked Wyatt from his reminiscence and dumped him back in the present. His eyes scanned the arid earth until they found a trail. It was faint and shallow, hardly a trail at all, but a trail nonetheless.

The hunt was on.

Wyatt’s skills at tracking were seemingly the only thing that hadn’t diminished with his age. The crow’s feet around his eyes grew deeper every time he looked in the mirror, and the skin on his cheeks had the texture of a ball of paper that someone had fished from the garbage and tried to smooth out. 

But it wasn’t just his flesh that had borne the weight of his advancing years. His bones, too, evidenced in how his spine cracked when he rose from bed every morning, and the way his knuckles pressed up against the back of his hands, as if he were a racecar driver speeding toward a wall at a hundred miles an hour.

Wyatt stalked softly along the dirt path, stepping only on the preexisting tracks that had been stamped into the earth, taking pains to avoid the smattering of twigs and dried leaves that blanketed the forest floor—anything that would alert his target of his movement or trajectory. 

He paused at the fox carcass he’d encountered earlier in the day. The flies that had collected on its gaping chest cavity had tripled, and their formation looked like a rippling blanket of tiny onyx gemstones. He wondered if these insects ever questioned who would commit such an act, and what the perpetrator did with the animal’s missing heart, lungs, and eyeballs. Probably not, he thought. They were too focused on the feast.     

Wyatt forged ahead. He stopped once again to allow a sunbathing lizard safe passage and to listen. He could hear his target breathing, slow and controlled, just like he’d taught him. Wyatt stepped in time with every breath, using each exhale as another breadcrumb. 

“Found you,” Wyatt said softly. 

Tyler lay prone under a sunburnt thicket, his body covered with dead grass and pine needles for added camouflage. He let out a frustrated grunt as he rose to his feet, wiping his dirty palms on his Levi’s. Without a word, Tyler turned and scurried down the path that led to his father’s truck. 

“Hid your tracks better that time,” Wyatt called out, trying his best to sound encouraging. Tyler kept walking.

 

As usual, Wyatt and Tyler ate their dinner without speaking, the occasional scrape of a fork against a chicken pot pie tin or slurping of milk the only sound for miles. Wyatt peered at the place setting to his left, plate and flatware untouched, the seat unoccupied just as it had been every night since Clementine’s exodus. 

Three whole months. 

At first he’d tried to stop Tyler from performing this nightly ritual, warning him of the dangers of idle supposition. But Tyler had fervently insisted, certain that his mother would walk through the door at any moment, if only he believed hard enough that she would.

 

Night fell quickly over the cottage home cradled amongst the trees. Tyler lay in his bed with the lights off, hoping the darkness would quell the guilt he felt over his mother’s departure. When his bedroom door creaked open, allowing a thin slice of amber light to spill inside, he rolled over, closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. 

“Good night, son,” Wyatt said.

Tyler squeezed his eyes tighter, hoping the gesture would sell his ruse.      

Not wanting to call the boy’s bluff, Wyatt gripped the bronze knob and started to close the door.

Tyler propped himself up on an elbow, like a corpse rising from the grave. “You’re so good at tracking, why don’t you look for her? Don’t you care?” Tyler’s words spilled out with equal amounts of sadness and disdain. 

“Of course I care,” Wyatt said. 

“Then why don’t you find her. It’s been three months already,” Tyler said, tears flooding his eyes.

“Because…”

“Because what?!” 

“Because sometimes people just don’t want to be found,” Wyatt said. 

The words hit Tyler like a shotgun blast to the chest. By the time Wyatt realized the impact his statement had had on his son, it was too late. The wound had already been inflicted. At a loss for what to say to assuage the boy’s pain, Wyatt closed the door, allowing the darkness to fall over his son once again.

 

Wyatt did know where Clementine was. It had said clearly on the glossy postcard she had sent Tyler only a month prior: Area 51. Rachel, Nevada.

Rachel was Clementine’s hometown where her father, Chief Master Sergeant Bruce Millerson (ret.) had worked throughout his twilight years, and her mother, Joyce, had fought a brave but losing battle to cervical cancer in the mid-90s. 

Wyatt always thought the oft-mythologized Air Force base stuck in the middle of the desert’s anus was a crock—a half-baked conspiracy theory used to funnel tourists to that other part of Nevada after daddy gambled away the children’s college fund and mommy downed too many Jack-and-Cokes trying to forget it ever happened.      

Wyatt made sure Tyler never saw the cartoony little green man on the postcard’s front or read Clementine’s chicken scratch on the back. Why tease the boy? he thought as he folded the postcard into a dime-sized square, buried it beneath the evening’s trash and continued about his business. 

 

Wyatt kicked off his boots with little regard to where they landed and threw open his closet door. His sheriff’s uniform, wrapped in yellowed dry cleaner’s plastic, was sandwiched between the wood-paneled wall and a stretched-out Christmas sweater. He had no intention of wearing either item again. 

On the top shelf sat a faded Rockport shoebox where his badge and Smith & Wesson were laid to rest. It had been a year since Wyatt donned the uniform, strapped the pistol to his hip, and walked the beat. To him, it felt like a lifetime ago.

Wyatt pulled on a stained white t-shirt, stepped into a pair of flannel pajama bottoms and padded across the floorboards to his wife’s oak vanity. Though he doubted Clementine would ever return, Wyatt kept the framed photos of their life together just as she had left them: a family trip to Cannon Beach, Tyler’s Eagle Scout pinning ceremony, the Grand Opening of the now-shuttered Clementine’s Cupcakes.

Wyatt gazed into the oxidized mirror that jutted from the vanity like a headstone. He ran a palm through his hair and examined the loose strands that had deposited on his fingers—more than the previous night, a lot more. 

He recalled the time Clementine had left a bottle of Rogaine on his nightstand after he repeatedly refused her requests to ask Dr. Haskell for a Propecia prescription. 

“This is who I am now,” he’d said, defiantly dropping the bottle into the bathroom’s stainless steel trash bin with a clang. 

“I don’t know who you are anymore,” she shouted back. 

It was with these words storming through his mind that Wyatt closed his eyes and fell asleep.

 

Like their meals together, Wyatt and Tyler’s morning commute to school was largely devoid of conversation. Wyatt usually passed the time punching the radio preset buttons, searching for something other than overzealous car commercials and DJ drivel. Tyler invariably spent the journey hunched over his iPhone, watching and re-watching videos of his mother, making sure not to view the more recent ones where the light behind her eyes seemed to get dimmer with each passing clip.

Wyatt parked the truck next to the schoolhouse, but kept the motor running. “Want to go to the forest afterwards, work on your cross-tracking?” he asked, watching the students scamper across the crosswalk. 

“Whatever,” Tyler murmured and fled the vehicle. 

Wyatt waited for the last child to clear his front bumper, then drove off into the cloud-filled horizon. 

 

The frozen foods aisle of Brennan’s General Store was curiously crowded for a Tuesday morning. Wyatt reached into the freezer that housed the chicken pot pies and loaded up his cart with a dozen or so boxes, arranging them as if he were playing a game of Tetris.

“Morning, Wyatt,” a voice behind him chirped. 

Wyatt let the freezer door swing closed, turned, and saw Chief Park Ranger Martin Rivers standing, quite literally, in his shadow. 

At only five-foot-three, Martin was never a match for his friend Wyatt’s hulking six-foot frame, or any other adult male for that matter. Still, he greatly appreciated that Wyatt never made mention of it. Lord knew he’d heard just about every short guy joke in his twenty seven years on the planet. Sometimes he’d even suffered them twice. 

It wasn’t just Wyatt’s empathy for Martin’s shortcomings (yet another dig he had to endure on more than one occasion) that earned him the young park ranger’s respect and friendship. It was his honor, integrity, and reputation; all of which were stellar. Wyatt was liked by nearly everyone (except those he gave the occasional speeding ticket to) and always made time to lend aid to the townsfolk, whether he was on the job or not. 

Paramount to all these, however, was that Wyatt was a hardcore, unabashed, dyed-in-the-wool nature lover. While other visitors used the park for sightseeing, cardiovascular activities, or romantic interludes, Wyatt actually consumed the park and all the glories it had to offer. His mastery of the park’s treks, trails, flora, and fauna was unrivaled, and even put Martin’s knowledge to the test a time or two. 

But Martin had noticed a profound, almost troubling, shift in Wyatt’s behavior over the past year. Whereas Wyatt used to gallivant across the grounds with zeal and zest, now he’d plod along the trails in a daze, his mind elsewhere, his stare cold and vacant. The Nosy Nellies in the neighborhood had mentioned seeing Wyatt and his wife arguing in public on multiple occasions, an anomaly for the couple who never once missed their Sunday Night Date Night. Martin had suspected something far greater than marital strife was affecting his friend so deeply—something more…internal—a mid-life crisis? Depression? Cancer?

“How’s it going?” Martin inquired, his voice a mixture of trepidation and reverence. 

“Hi, Martin,” Wyatt responded stoically. 

Martin tried not to stare at the “end of the world” supply of chicken pot pies in Wyatt’s cart. Clementine was clearly the chef in the family. 

“Hikers found another animal carcass yesterday,” Martin said. “Whatever ritual these kids are performing, I wish it didn’t have to include the wildlife.” 

Wyatt offered no reply. 

“Sure could use your expertise on the matter...I mean, your tracking skills and all. I can see if park services would make it worth your while,” Martin added. 

“I’m a full-time dad now,” Wyatt said bluntly. 

“I understand. You need some more time.”

“That’s not what I said,” Wyatt said with staunch finality.

Martin decided not to press the issue further. “Hopefully, I catch the bastards before they do it again. You take care now,” he said.

Wyatt nodded and made his way to the checkout line. Martin watched him go, then headed over to the poultry aisle.

 

Wyatt sensed the intruder before he even pulled into the driveway. There were no tracks on the gravel, human or otherwise, no broken windows or signs of forced entry. Still, he knew. It was the air. It moved differently, as if some unwelcome addition was obstructing its normal flow. 

Wyatt pulled the key out of the ignition, stepped out of the truck, and approached the front door. 

It was unlocked.

The first thing Wyatt heard when he entered the house was the steady hum of the gas boiler. Someone had turned on the upstairs water. 

He hurried across the Native American rug that covered the living room floor and climbed the stairs, eyes scanning his surroundings. Nothing in the home had been taken or even touched. 

Wyatt crested the second floor landing and peered down the hallway. Tyler’s bedroom was closed just as it had been that morning, but the door to the master bedroom was wide open.

He neared the rectangular box of light, more annoyed at the disturbance than fearful or cautious of it. Wyatt stepped into the bedroom and quickly found himself enshrouded in an opaque mist that was billowing from the shower. The windows and mirrors were all covered in a fine coat of condensation, and the dense fog carried with it a fetid odor that stung his nostrils.

He followed the stench to the toilet and looked inside the bowl. Someone had recently vomited and neglected to flush. The shower door was invitingly ajar, just as the bedroom door had been, and a woman’s bare back was facing him. Wyatt watched as the soap suds mixed with the dirt and grime that covered the woman’s flesh, and together traveled down her shoulder blades, circled her buttocks and cascaded over her calves until they finally disappeared down the drain.

“I’m back,” Clementine said, slowly turning around to face him. 

She’s changed, he thought. 

Her skin, for years the color and texture of plumber’s putty, was now golden, vibrant, and free of blemish. The muscles that had once been concealed beneath a layer of soft flesh since before the birth of their son were not only prominent but accentuated. Even her hair, which she favored in a “mom bob”, split ends and all, looked shinier, healthier, and longer.

“It’s good to see you again,” she proffered. Even her voice had changed. It was deeper, smoother. 

“There’s vomit in the toilet,” Wyatt remarked.

“Car sick,” she replied. “Took two Greyhounds and an Uber to get here.”

Wyatt didn’t reply.

“Wanna join me?” she inquired, the edges of her lips curling up in a seductive smile.

“I already showered,” Wyatt said.

“In that case, I’ll be right out.”

Wyatt flushed the toilet and went downstairs.

 

The sun’s dying rays filtered through lace-covered windows and cloaked the kitchen in a dreamlike glow. Wyatt and Clementine sat at the corner breakfast nook, the steam rising from their coffees in thin coiling wisps. 

Wyatt stared at the oily slick that floated along the surface of his beverage while Clementine traced a finger over her mug’s chipped handle. They hadn’t spoken so much as a word since their encounter in the bathroom, and the silence was now bordering on unbearable. 

At last, Clementine leaned forward in her chair. The creaking of its stained wooden legs sounded like a tree collapsing in a forest. She gently cleared her throat. “How is he?” she asked.

“Fine,” Wyatt replied.

“Did he get my—”

“Why did you leave?”

Clementine took a moment to collect her thoughts, hoping that the words she chose would encompass everything she felt then and was feeling now—a fool’s errand if ever there was one. 

“I was changing into someone I didn’t want to be, so I decided to start over. I went back to the home I grew up in, ate meals with my dad at our wobbly kitchen table, and slept in my old bed. I hung out with friends I hadn’t seen in decades. Every morning, Dad would let me onto base and I’d run across the salt flats just like I did when I was a girl. It was like growing up all over again.”

Lips pursed, eyes expressionless, Wyatt listened to his wife’s tale. 

“But I’m ready to be an adult again, a wife again, and a mother again,” she said, dabbing a tear that had formed in the corner of her right eye. “Do you understand what I’m trying to say? I’m back now, for good.”

Wyatt parted his lips to speak but was quickly interrupted by the sound of the front door opening. 

“Mom, is that you?” Tyler said, incredulously.

“It’s me, baby.”

Tyler dropped his book bag and strode toward his mother, eyes wide in disbelief. “You’re home!” he said, affirming the obvious more for his own peace of mind than anyone else’s.    

“I’m home,” she said, rising from her chair and wrapping her arms around him in one fluid motion.

“I knew you’d be back,” Tyler said, burying his face in her shoulder, soaking her t-shirt in his tears. “I knew it.”

She rubbed his back and kissed the top of his head just like she did the moment he’d emerged from her womb.

Tyler dried his eyes and took a step back to take her in. “Have you been working out? You’re diesel!” he said, squeezing her bulging biceps and taut shoulders.

“I was sick, but I’m better now. And I promise to never, ever leave you again.”

 

Wyatt awoke in pitch-black darkness. He’d been having a dream of a giant amoeba-like creature floating over his home, not unlike the oily film that had formed on his coffee earlier in the day. The colossal entity blotted out the moon and stars, and its pseudopods oozed down upon his dwelling in a hundred greasy tendrils. 

Wyatt blinked the last remnants of sleep from his eyes and undid the tangle of sheets that had mummified his legs. For a moment, he’d forgotten the day’s bombshell events, but they soon came rushing back to him, like a drunk driver’s headlights charging at an unsuspecting pedestrian. 

He laid a hand on the pillow next to him. It felt smooth and cool. Was it part of my dream? he pondered. 

The thought left Wyatt’s mind the second he noticed a woman’s elongated shadow stretched out across the floorboards. The silhouette—with its oblong head, tentacle-like arms, and spindly fingers—looked like it would come alive at any moment and attack him.   

Wyatt’s eyes traveled the length of the shadow and landed on the sliding glass door that led to the balcony. It was open. Clementine stood on the deck, staring at the rugged peaks in the distance, the moonlight tracing the contours of her naked form.

Wyatt crawled out of bed, his knees cracking as usual, and neared her. 

“Did you think I left again?” she said, shifting her gaze toward him.

Wyatt gave no reply. Clementine inched closer. “I told you, I’m never leaving you again,” she said, laying both palms on his chest. 

“It’s late. We should go back to bed,” Wyatt said.

“Yes, we should,” she replied mischievously.

Wyatt pulled back the covers and shimmied onto the mattress. Clementine stood at the foot of the bed, looking at him. Wyatt rolled onto his side and closed his eyes.

Clementine leapt onto the bed and crawled across the mattress until her body was parallel with his. Wyatt remained on his side, unmoving. Gently, she brought an index finger to his chin and turned his head to face hers. 

Wyatt slowly opened his eyes. For a flash, Clementine looked just as she did the night they first made love— eyes glassy, cheeks flushed, chest quivering with anticipation. 

Clementine whipped the sheets aside and pressed herself against him. Wyatt could feel her heart pounding against his. Clementine’s hand ventured into his pajama pants and inserted him inside her. Wyatt looked up at her, more of a curious spectator in the proceedings than an active participant. His eyes scanned down to the muscles in her thighs, tensing and relaxing as she thrusted against him.  

Clementine shut her eyes in deep concentration. She gripped his chest for added leverage and quickened her tempo. A gasp caught in her throat and she went still. Just as Wyatt was about to ask if she was alright, Clementine expelled a long exhale and arched her body forward, kissing Wyatt on the mouth before sinking into the mattress beside him and falling into a deep and quiet slumber.

Wyatt lay awake, staring at a small brown water stain on the ceiling, replaying the day’s events in his mind over and over again. His eyes stung from dryness and he realized he hadn’t blinked since Clementine had mounted him. He closed his eyes for lubrication, and soon found himself in the land of dreams once again.

 

There are moments when silence can be as frightening as a shriek for help in the dead of night. It’s the silence that follows a fatal car crash, supplants a dying patient’s final gasp of air, or of a darkened room that forces us to ask if anyone is there. For it is silence that declares the absence of life, that announces death.

Thus, when Wyatt awoke the next morning hearing nothing, he knew something was terribly wrong. He stripped off the sheets, still ripe with Clementine’s scent, and ran to Tyler’s room. It was empty. Wyatt shouted Tyler’s name until his throat became raw. When there was no response to his calls, Wyatt shouted louder and began to panic. 

She’s left again and taken the boy with her, he thought. That’s what their brief intimate encounter was—a ploy to lull him back to sleep so that she could enact her plan. Wyatt cursed himself for allowing Clementine to execute such an egregious act of duplicity. 

He descended the stairs, two at a time, to the first floor and padded around the vacant rooms like a dog searching for a Frisbee. He looked out the living room window and saw that his truck was still in the driveway. If nothing else, at least she’d left him the vehicle. Wyatt snatched the keys from the kitchen counter and sprinted, barefoot and shirtless, to the front door. 

That’s when he heard Tyler’s screams.

Wyatt burst onto the porch and saw Clementine and Wyatt jogging up the driveway, sweaty clothes sticking to their bodies, toothy smiles plastered across their faces. 

“Hey, Dad,” Tyler said, trying to catch his breath. “Did you know Mom could run like, really, really fast?”

Where the hell were you two?! Wyatt shouted.

“We went for a run. What’s the big deal?” Clementine said as she brushed past him and entered the house, the sweat from her shoulder smearing across his chest.

“What’s the big deal?” Wyatt repeated, following close behind. “Tyler has school.”

“It’s fine, Dad,” Tyler assured him as he guzzled water. “Hey, Mom said she sent me a postcard. Did you get anything?”

“Get dressed,” Wyatt commanded. “We have to go.”

“I was going to make French toast,” Clementine said, rummaging through the refrigerator. “Speaking of, we desperately need to go to the market. Have you guys been living on chicken pot pies this whole time?”

“We don’t have time for breakfast. Let’s go, Tyler,” Wyatt said, zipping up a parka.

“Okay, okay,” Tyler said. “I’ll hop in the shower—”

“No. Get dressed. I’m taking you to school right now.”

“Okay, Dad. Sorry,” Tyler said, and sulked up to his room, peeling off his t-shirt.

Clementine waited until Tyler was out of earshot, then took Wyatt’s hand. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“This whole thing,” Wyatt said, swatting her hand away and marching to his truck to wait for his son.

 

“You didn’t have to freak out like that,” Tyler said, gripping the edges of the truck’s cracked leather seat for support.

Wyatt had spent the entire drive seething with an anger so robust it seemed to suck all the air from the truck’s cab, making it nearly impossible to breathe. 

“We were just having fun. We weren’t gone more than thirty minutes,” Tyler continued.

“Your mother…” Wyatt said, his voice trailing off.

“She said she was sorry. Get over it.”   

“It’s not that.”

“What is it then?”

“Your mother’s different,” Wyatt said, his chest deflating as if a great weight had finally been lifted from it.

“Yeah, she’s happier. She’s stronger. She’s younger. Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Sometimes people change,” Wyatt continued, “and not for the better.”

“Jesus!” Tyler sighed.

Wyatt stomped on the brakes, causing Tyler to vault forward.

Tyler felt a primal scream boiling up, but kept it locked inside. “You wish she never came home, don’t you? You wish she would’ve just stayed gone!”

Wyatt offered no reply.

“Thought so,” Tyler spat out, and pushed the passenger door open. Wyatt reached over to stop him, but Tyler threw up his arm in protest. “I’ll walk,” he said, and jumped out of the car, slamming the door behind him.

 

Wyatt’s foot stayed firmly on the pedal the entire way home. He ran two stop signs and came dangerously close to causing a four-car pile-up at the intersection of Primrose and Fairway, but Wyatt remained steadfast and unperturbed. Instead of focusing on stop lights and traffic laws, his mind was fixed on trying to comprehend how things had gone so wrong so quickly. He showed his son love in all the ways he knew how, both verbally and with his actions. But these gestures meant nothing to Tyler compared to the mere presence of Clementine. It was as if the boy was hypnotized by her. Wyatt at last realized that nothing—no argument, no abandonment—could undermine a boy’s love for his mother. It was a lesson he had learned the hard way, for in this scenario there would be no winners, no happy ending.

 

Wyatt exited his truck and darted into the house, ready to confront Clementine. He had no idea how she would respond to the words he was planning to say, but he suspected not very well. He was just thankful Tyler wasn’t around to see what would transpire. He shouted Clementine’s name from the foyer but heard no response. He shouted her name three more times before noticing the muddied footprint on the welcome mat. It was fresh. 

Clementine had just left.  

Wyatt traced Clementine’s footprints up the steep winding trail that led to the cave. The sun had already claimed its stake in the sky and its heat beat down upon him without mercy. Wyatt pressed forward, growing more furious with Clementine and her little game of Hide-and-Seek with every step that he took. 

At last, Wyatt arrived at the cave. He looked into the darkness as he’d done every day for the last year. She better not be in there. The cave was his and now she was taking it from him just like she was trying to do with their son.

Wyatt steadied himself and prepared to enter the lightless chamber. He could feel the cave’s dank air lick his nose. Before he could take a step forward a voice shattered the silence. “Happy Anniversary.”

Wyatt turned and saw Clementine standing under the cool shade of a Ponderosa. 

“You remembered the promise we made last year—to meet here, every anniversary, from here till eternity,” she said, moving toward him.

Wyatt had, in fact, not remembered the promise they had made or that it was their anniversary.

“We haven’t been the same since that day,” Clementine continued. “Something changed. For months, I thought it was me. So I went away, hoping to reclaim who I was, hoping to come back to you as the girl you first met all those years ago. And now I’ve realized that I wasn’t the one who changed. You were.

Wyatt showed no response to Clementine’s revelation.   

“You were the one who left your job, who stopped talking to Tyler and me, who would disappear for hours on end to stare at this Godforsaken cave. It was you, Wyatt!”   

“I’m leaving you,” Wyatt said bluntly.

“Did you hear a word I said?”

“I’m leaving you,” Wyatt repeated. “And I’m taking Tyler with me.”   

No,” Clementine said defiantly. “I didn’t come back to end this. I came back to fix it. We can be whole again. I know we can.” Clementine leaned her forehead to his lips and brushed her nails through this hair. “I believe in us,” she whispered, holding onto him as if he might dematerialize at any moment. “I believe in us.”

Then, suddenly, Clementine felt something give, and with it a sickening tearing sound like two strips of Velcro being torn apart. She looked at her hand and saw a piece of rubbery flesh lying across her finger tips. Wisps of hair shot out from the greasy hide in all directions. For a second, she thought it must’ve been some bizarre insect that had fallen from a spruce and landed atop Wyatt’s head, but the blood trickling down his brow proved otherwise. 

Clementine had torn off a piece of Wyatt’s scalp.

She felt her legs buckle and stepped back to keep from falling. She looked at her husband again, hoping that a second glance would somehow undo the nightmare she’d originally seen. The nightmare only worsened. Beneath the missing piece of Wyatt’s scalp wasn’t blood or bone, sinew or skull, but a swirling silver gelatin that caught the sunlight in psychedelic whirlpools and refracted it back into her eyes. 

“Wyatt, what happened to you?” Clementine asked through chattering teeth.

“I am not Wyatt.”

“Who are you?”

“An explorer,” the Being that had inhabited Wyatt’s flesh said. 

“What…?”

“I was sent to study the inhabitants of this dimension for one solar year. Today marks the end of my expedition.”

Clementine had grown up hearing tales of extraterrestrials, but never believed them. In fact, she did everything she could to dispel these myths. The friends and classmates who begged her for lurid details from her father’s secret workplace were all met with the same disappointing response: “There aren’t any aliens in Area 51. It’s a research base, nothing more.”

But the entity that stood before her was something more. It didn’t come from the skies, but through dimensions; and, following its arrival one year ago, it had taken her husband’s skin and invaded her home.  

What did you do to my husband?! Clementine shouted.

“He provided me the subterfuge necessary to conduct my research. I must return now and bring back a sample of my findings.”

“Sample?” Clementine repeated.

“Your son, Tyler.”     

No!

Clementine lashed out at the Being. It caught her forearm and wrenched it backward, forcing her to kneel in the dirt. Clementine winced as pain shot up her arm and lodged in her brainstem.

“He still loves you,” the Being said, forcing Clementine’s arm farther behind her back. “After abandoning him for three months with a man you considered a stranger, the boy still loves you. This ‘love’ is something neither I nor my kind has ever experienced, and so it must be shared and studied.”

Clementine eyed a jagged stone glinting in the sunlight. She strained her free arm toward the ground, scooped up the rock and stabbed it into the Being’s thigh. The Being released its hold and tottered backwards. 

She tightened her grip on the rock and smashed it across the Being’s cheek. It appeared startled at the metallic-taste of the red liquid that gushed from the back of its mouth and spilled down its lips.     

Clementine turned to run, but the Being seized a fistful of her hair and reeled her back. It wrenched a beefy arm around her neck and squeezed. Clementine’s throat burned as she tried to sip in the dusty air. The Being dug its heels into the earth and waited for her to die. Clementine felt her eyes roll back as unconsciousness crept in. She summoned her last bit of strength to raise her foot and drive it down hard on the Being’s toe.

The Being grunted and flung Clementine off the cliff’s edge like someone flicking water from their fingers. She soared in a graceful arc, then hit the mountainside and tumbled a hundred yards before striking her head on a boulder and coming to a stop beneath a sage bush. The Being briefly regarded Clementine’s limp and battered body, then, satisfied, headed back to the house to await Tyler’s return.     

 

How is it possible? the Being wondered as it sat in the breakfast nook, pressing a crimson-drenched cloth to where a molar had once been. It had attacked Clementine with all the force and power in its body, yet she had fought back. It had battled other Beings in order to prove itself fit for this study—Beings with twice the size and prowess as Clementine—yet none had exhibited her spirit or will. It wasn’t just her improved strength and reclaimed youthfulness that had provided her the fortitude to endure the attack. It had to be something more.  

Unconditional love, the Being thought as it adjusted the baseball cap snatched from Wyatt’s closet to cover the wound it had sustained in the skirmish. Perhaps it is a reciprocal enterprise. One subject gives it; the other is emboldened by it. 

If only it could experience the slightest intimation of what this love felt like. The Being had inhabited Wyatt’s flesh for an entire year, and with the guise came his knowledge, memories, and skills, but not his emotions. 

The Being still had so much to learn, to feel. But the time had come to depart. The portal would be opening soon and the others were eagerly awaiting its findings. To miss its exit would mean that the past year would have been for nothing, but worse, would signify to the others that its mission had been a failure.

The front door flung wide open, sending a gale force wind sweeping throughout the entire first floor. “I want a rematch!” Tyler shouted as he stormed inside. “You and me. I’m gonna beat you this time. Mom, you home?”

The Being rose from the table and walked to the living room where Tyler was diligently searching for his mother.

“Hey, Dad, you seen Mom?” Tyler asked.

“I’m sorry, son,” the Being said.

“I’m sorry too. I said some things I shouldn’t have—”

“Not that,” the Being interrupted.

“Are you bleeding?”

“Your mother’s left again.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I came home and she was gone.”

No! You’re lying! She just came back!” 

“It’s true.”

Tyler’s eyes glistened with fresh tears. His book bag slid off his arm and hit the floor like a corpse that had just been dumped into a shallow grave.

“We can find her! We can convince her to stay! Please, Dad!” Tyler begged.

“I think I know where she might be headed,” the Being said, and led Tyler to the truck.

 

The sun was attempting to hide behind the mountain when the Being and Tyler began their ascent. Soon it would be dark.

The pair marched with purposeful haste, hoping to make use of the last of the sun’s dying rays. The Being knew it was leading the boy on a fruitless quest, but at least his final moments on Earth would be filled with hope. It felt it owed him that much, since it was the boy who had made its expedition a resounding success. Because of the boy it would be lauded upon its return. Because of him it would be exalted.  

“Are you sure this is where she is?” Tyler said, trying not to lag. 

“Look at the pressure-releases of the tracks. Those are hers.”

“I guess, but who’s to say she left? Maybe she just went on a hike,” Tyler reasoned.

“She left another note,” the Being said. “I didn’t want you to see it.”

“Like the last one?” Tyler said with a tinge of resentment.

The Being ignored the jibe and quickened its pace, eager to get the proceedings underway. The fleshy casing it had occupied for the past year was starting to slip from its body. It would only be a matter of time before Wyatt’s skin slid off completely, like a crisp sheet being pulled from a clothesline.

The pair dutifully followed Clementine’s tracks from earlier in the day to the summit where the cave seemed to be awaiting their arrival. The Being stepped aside, allowing Tyler passage. 

“Mom’s in there?” Tyler asked.

“She’s probably bedding down for the night before heading out in the morning.”

Tyler looked down at the cacophony of slashes and zigzags that were etched into the dirt—remnants of Clementine’s retaliation.

“What happened here?” Tyler asked, pointing to the disturbed area.

“Foxes mating. It’s more violent than you’d think,” the Being said convincingly. 

“Gross, Dad.”

“You should go in first. She’d rather see you than—”

Tyler entered the cave before the Being could finish its sales pitch.

“It’s me, Mom! Come out!” he screamed, the words echoing back at him.

Tyler waited for a response, but none came. “Stop playing, Mom! Come out and let’s go home!”  

Nothing. 

“Mom?” he called again, his hopes starting to fade.

Tyler took a few strides forward, looking for any sign of his mother. But the darkness was so profound he might as well have been blindfolded. He reached into his front pocket and pulled out his iPhone. There was no chance the phone would have cellular service at this altitude, but it was still good for other uses. Tyler unlocked it with a swipe of his thumb and tapped on the flashlight app. A thin beam of white pierced the black and crawled along the cave’s dewy walls. 

The Being followed close behind. It had the boy where it wanted him, and soon they would be home.

“Come on, Mom!” Tyler said, growing both anxious and irritated at his unheeded calls. “This isn’t funny anymore! Come out!”

         Tyler waved the light beam around the chamber, but only saw more walls, more darkness. Is the cave expanding? he wondered. He walked twelve more steps and saw it. 

        The seven-foot-high obelisk had been constructed from a dozen square-shaped boulders, each descending in size from the bottom to the top. A different animal part had been strewn along the edges where the boulders met, forming some kind of grotesque homunculus. A black bear’s entrails looped around one ledge, a fox’s heart on the other, then a wolverine’s lungs, a cougar’s tongue, a mountain goat’s eyes, and finally, at the apex, an elk’s antlers.

        The Being was proud of its lofty assemblage of specimens. But these tiny tokens were nothing compared to the boy that stood before them. 

        Behind the ghastly totem of flesh and innards, a rift began to bloom out of the nothingness. It appeared first as a horizontal beam of pulsing Technicolor, then expanded into a billowing globule, not unlike the protozoa that had starred in the Being’s dream the night before. 

        “What the hell?” Tyler exclaimed, peering into the shimmering gap and pinching his nose to stem the stench of putrid organs. 

        “It’s time for us to leave,” the Being said, closing the distance between them.

        “What the—”

        The Being seized Tyler’s arms and glared into his eyes. Tyler shuddered as he met the Being’s gaze. He knew his father had changed over the past year; this much was certain. But the figure before him was no longer his father. Some thing had possessed him.

        “We need to leave now,” the Being said urgently. The portal would only be open for a brief while, a preventative measure to stave off any unwanted travelers.

        “Let go of me!” Tyler screamed, jerking his body from side-to-side, trying to break free of the Being’s clutches. But the Being’s grasp only tightened.

        “You are an extraordinary specimen. You will be cared for. I assure—”

        Tyler’s fist rocketed up between the Being’s arms and nailed its chin with an uppercut. The cap flew off the Being’s head, revealing its glimmering pate. 

        A reciprocal enterprise, the Being thought. 

       A surge of adrenaline overtook Tyler’s revulsion, and he hit the Being with a haymaker right across the cheek. It lumbered backwards and put a hand to the cave’s wall to regain its footing. A long swath of flesh hung down from its jawbone and clung to its clavicle. 

       Tyler shoved past the monstrosity and ran.

 

        The Being stalked after the boy, keeping a steady eye on his tracks, which became more pronounced with every agitated footfall. Tyler was sacrificing stealth for distance—a common error that, more often than not, resulted in the prey’s demise. Then, as if he’d vanished into the oncoming night, Tyler’s tracks came to an abrupt halt, leaving the rest of the path smooth. 

        But the Being was not going to be tricked that easily. It knew Tyler had jumped into the shrubs that lined the path. It had taught him this same tactic four weeks ago when it was instructing him on the various ways the hunted could evade the hunter. 

        The Being peered into the greenery, looking for any signs of disruption: bent branches, crushed grass, scuffed dirt. Sooner or later, Mother Nature surrendered exiles who sought asylum within her emerald walls. 

        “Wyatt?” a familiar voice called out from a few feet away.

        The Being cocked its head and saw Martin Rivers approaching, his park ranger’s badge catching the last glimmers of sunlight. “I heard someone screaming. You see anything?” Martin asked.

        The Being ignored the question and continued surveying the bushes. 

        “Christ,” Martin said. “You’re hurt. Lie down. Let me check you out.” 

        Martin rushed to the Being’s side, but stopped in his tracks at the sight of the silvery hypodermis swirling below Wyatt’s usurped skin. “What’s happened to you?” Martin asked, trying to make sense of the hideous spectacle that stood before him. 

        Since the Being failed to reply or even regard his presence, Martin cautiously unclipped his Taser, warning,     “Wyatt, I’m gonna ask you again to please lie down so I can check you out.”

        Sensing that Martin would not allow it to continue its search unbothered, the Being lunged. Martin yanked the Taser from its holster and shot two translucent electrodes into the Being’s chest. A surge of 50,000 volts shot throughout its body. Unscathed by the massive influx of current, the Being tore the wires from its chest, clamped both hands around Martin’s ears, and began to squeeze.

        Martin’s felt ranger hat crumpled under the pressure of the Being’s grip, yet remained affixed to his crown.         Martin seized the Being’s forearms in an effort to separate its meaty hands from his head. When the Being clamped down harder, Martin felt both eardrums pop, followed by a warm rush of fluid throughout his cranium. 

        With a flick of its wrists, the Being caved in the sides of Martin’s head. It released its deathly grip and stepped back, allowing Martin to spill to the ground in a lifeless heap.

 

        The Being sprinted into the wild, determined to make up for the time that Martin had wasted. Lactic acid in its calves flowed like lava and sweat poured downed its torn face in salty rivulets, but the Being persevered. The portal would be closing in minutes, and all hope of its return would be gone. As it leapt over boulders, it could feel the flesh tear from its feet and collect in its boots. 

        After trekking halfway up the mountain ridge, the Being began to falter. It wasn’t just that the air had gotten thinner; its physical structure was beginning crumble. The Being tried to press forward with newfound resolve, but each precipice, no matter how slight, seemed to require the same Sisyphean effort. Any further attempts to access some untapped energy reserves would prove futile. The deterioration process had already begun. 

        After much wheezing and further tearing of flesh, the Being managed to crest a towering waterfall. It scanned its surroundings and spotted Tyler’s muddied sneakers peeking out from under a juniper bush. It lumbered towards the bush, not bothering to mask the noise its steps were making. The thunderous waters would take care of that.

        The Being loomed over the bush that concealed the boy, then quickly plunged both hands down into the foliage. It felt nothing. The Being’s roving hands dug deeper into the foliage and came up with an empty pair of sneakers. 

        The boy had finally fooled him.

        The Being showed no emotion, just as it had the first day it stepped inside Wyatt’s skin and each day since. Instead, it dropped the sneakers back in the brush and listened. Although its physical shell had shattered, the Being still had its hearing, which even in its compromised state was nearly ten times that of an average human.

        In seconds, all ambient sounds were silenced—the noisy falls, a woodpecker’s probing beak, a pair of wrens’ flirtatious chirpings—and Tyler’s breath came to the fore. The boy had covered an impressive distance in a short amount of time, but his lungs were now paying a steep price for it. Tyler’s breath told the Being everything. He was hiding on the other side of the mountain, no doubt hoping that the alien in his father’s skin would turn and leave.    

 

        The Being moved forward, passing beneath the cascading waters and circling the jagged mountainside overlooking the rocky pool below. Tyler’s panting grew more profound with each steady step. 

        As the Being curved its body around the last ridge, it was met with a fist holding a chunk of limestone. The Being dropped down into a crouch; the rock whistled over its head and struck the mountain, sending a spark falling to the ground.

        Tyler had taken his shot and missed. 

        Just as swiftly, the Being jumped up and clenched Tyler by the throat. Tyler felt his feet leave the earth as he was hoisted into the air and pulled nose-to-nose with the creature that had been masquerading as his father. 

        “It is of no use,” the Being said calmly, mists from the falls showering their faces in tiny beads of moisture. 

        Tyler mustered the last of his will to hock up a wad of phlegm, which he spat straight into the Being’s eye. The Being blinked the phlegm away and tightened its grip. 

        “We can still study your corpse,” the Being said, digging its thumbs into Tyler’s neck. 

        Tyler could feel both sides of his esophagus start to touch. This is what it feels like to die, he thought.

        At that moment, the Being marveled at just how alike humans were to the animals in this dimension, and how similar their expressions looked when it choked the life from them. Could the complete destruction of all living things on the planet really lie in something as simple as a lack of oxygen?    

        The Being was so consumed with this notion that it failed to regard the pair of feet that had shuffled up behind it as well as the knotted branch that was whipping toward the side of its head. The branch connected with such force that the Being’s head snapped to the side and thudded against the mountainside, leaving a large panel of flesh in its wake. The Being released its hold on Tyler and steadied its wobbly frame. Tyler hit the ground, gulping down air as fast as his lungs could take it. 

       The Being turned to face its attacker and found Clementine, bruised and bloodied, but quite alive. Before it could lay hands on her, Clementine cocked the branch back and swung it into the Being’s hip. The Being’s frame jerked at a forty five degree angle as it buckled under the weight of the limb. 

        Knowing the fight was far from over, Clementine raised the branch high over her head and sent it crashing down on the thing’s nose. The blow tore away the last of Wyatt’s face, unmasking the Being’s true visage. She took one last look at the iridescent obscenity before her and drove the branch into its solar plexus, sending it hurtling off the cliff and splashing into the cascading waters below. Her eyes followed the strange silver lifeform as it bobbed along the rocky rapids and vanished into a sea of whiteness. Clementine dropped the gore-soaked limb and ran to Tyler’s side, threw her arms around his shivering frame, and pulled him close as water droplets soaked them.

         “Mom…” Tyler managed to say in between sobs.

         “It’s okay. It wasn’t him. It wasn’t him,” she insisted, rubbing a maternal hand up and down his heaving back.

         “Don’t leave me, Mom.” 

         “I’ll never, ever leave you. I promise.”  

         As Clementine clung to her only child, she couldn’t help but wonder if she’d really seen the last of the Being. She shuddered at the notion that it might have imbedded some part of itself inside her the night they’d made love. The thought of birthing one of those abominations in nine months was almost too much for her to bear. 

         But then Clementine had a thought—more of an inkling than anything else—and a wave of solace washed over her as if she were sliding into a warm bath. Maybe Wyatt’s flesh wasn’t the only thing the creature had coopted. After all, wasn’t it Wyatt’s blood that flowed when she struck it? Who’s to say it couldn’t access Wyatt’s other bodily fluids? She would have to wait and see. And, with Tyler by her side, that would be time worth cherishing.

 

The End

 

 

Alan Trezza, anemic_cinema07@yahoo.com, wrote BP #90’s “Estranged” (a SF thriller utilizing the body snatcher genre to explore family dysfunction). He is an L.A. screenwriter and producer, living with his lovely wife and three beautiful children. His first produced film, “Burying the Ex,” a zombie comedy directed by legendary director Joe Dante (“Gremlins”, “Inner Space”), starred the late great Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) and Ashley Greene (Twilight).  He recently completed production on a second feature film, “We Summon the Darkness,” which stars Alexandra Daddario (Baywatch), Keean Johnson (“Alita: Battle Angel”), and Johnny Knoxville (“Jackass”).

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