The sun is too powerful here, but I’m safe. It can’t penetrate through the man on my back. Bryce isn’t quite dead. I’m still sending the signals that keep his heart pumping, his lungs filling and releasing. He’s alive enough to be useful.
I arch my back, tipping him so he sees more than the sky. He faces forward, seeing the world upside down. I use his eyes to view the hill ahead. Not a mountain, Gina, he used to tell her on their hikes. Just a hill. Gina would thrust her bangs out of her face so she could see him better as she spit out, It feels like a mountain.
I’ll find out soon enough.
It pains me to look through his eyes. It’s disorienting. My eyes are tiny black beads. They take in light but not much else. I can see shapes and outlines. He can see colors and far more detail. Everything he sees has nooks and crannies. My brain, spread throughout my body and not stored in one place like his, was not meant to witness such detail, not visually.
The hill is far and the sun is strong. I lower him, spreading his weight and mine through all my legs. I thank Bryce once more for the shade he provides and for the life he gives. Will the things thumping in my chest thank me?
We start our journey. First leaving the porch, navigating the stairs one precarious step at a time. My body was designed for flat surfaces. The pads on my feet have grooves for grip, excellent for traction on slick ice. Steps are not common in Antarctica. I don’t really know what Antarctica is, just that Gina’s brother says that’s where I’m from. Not me specifically, he doesn’t know about me, though Bryce thinks he suspects. But suspects isn’t knowing. That’s what Gina says. Glenn, her brother, knows ones like me; the ones he and his coworkers are cultivating.
We pass through the gate, leaving the little house behind, half-painted shiny green, half weathered and stripped from years of neglect. Gina and Bryce had so many hopes for this house. They envisioned ways to make it their own.
The thumping in my chest, what was only a tick-tick-tick this morning, is growing. The air is thick and muddy, too dry to breathe, not the way I’ll need to if I’m going to climb. Bryce might have been right to call it a hill, but it’s a big one as far as I can tell. I move a few muscles in my back, the ones connected into Bryce, and send a signal to his brain. I pull air in harder through his lungs, feeding my body oxygen through his. My muscles energize and I move faster, eager to make it to the summit.
“Hey!” Gina yells in the distance. Chances are, she’s returned from the woods, carrying more branches for the fire. It gets cold here at night. “HEY!” she screams again.
Her branches crash to the ground. Boots pound against the stairs as she climbs, going into the house. Has she finally given up? Accepted that Bryce is no longer himself? I don’t believe that. Gina doesn’t give up. Not on Bryce, at least.
I take the first steps up the hill, my body at an incline. I’m thankful that Bryce’s arms and legs have fallen off. I don’t think I could climb with his full weight on my back. My body took his body’s resources. His body cut off what it could in order to survive. Still, he’s heavy. My legs strain but at least that’s something to pay attention to besides the ache in my chest.
Let’s do it, Gina. I’m serious. No more. I can’t deal with it.
Bryce said that back in their bedroom in Manhattan. Time. My mind still has difficulty with the concept, even when I use Bryce’s brain to help me think. Sometimes ideas don’t slip from his mind to mine easily or when they do, they’re garbled. But he can remember things from long ago. They live far longer than my kind. When he plays the memories, he feels everything again. Their brains are complex, especially considering how bunched up they are. I can’t stop one part of his brain from functioning for fear of destroying the whole thing, so I let the memories roll over me. The thump-thump in my chest, louder now, distracts me from the worst of it. The excitement he felt back then mixes with the pain and regret he feels now. And the longing, the deep longing for this to be over, for me to die, for Gina to run and for her to stay, for his own death. I want to offer him comfort but my legs don’t bend but so far. I cannot even brush his face as Gina does. That always seems to soothe him.
I see the two of them, in their old bed, a small thing that barely held them both. Him sitting with his back against the wall, her laying with her head in his lap, staring at him with wide, curious eyes. Her eyes are such a deep blue, a color I wouldn’t even see if it weren’t for Bryce. He looks at her with such love that it makes the blue deeper and her eyes wider until I swear I’m staring into the ocean. I stop as the hill or mountain or whatever land mass I’m on spins beneath me. I pull my attention to the thud in my chest, to the new life I’m creating, because if I don’t then I will drown in those eyes. I can’t afford to stay here. I have to make it to the summit.
The world steadies and I begin to climb again. Bryce won’t let go of the memory. The tiny piece of him that is still able to feel happiness is enjoying my discomfort. I understand this and still cannot be angry with him. He’s dying. I’m killing him. This is the only way he can make me suffer.
In his mind, we’re back in New York and Gina is curious and afraid and in love. Bryce had never been in love before but he’d been too afraid to tell her so. He couldn’t risk her feeling that special because the special people in his life always left. He was a fool. Gina would never leave him and she’s proven that now. I’ve seen her look at him thousands of times. No matter what else she feels, even the disgust at seeing his mangled body and the giant bug growing out of it, love is always a part of her facial equation, a remainder or dividend she can’t leave out.
Bryce scoffs at the fear he used to feel. He’s overcome with regret. He wishes he was back in that bedroom. He’d tell her a million times how much she means to him. I can’t stay here anymore, waiting for the waters to rise again, for the rats to get bolder, for the island to finally finish falling into the ocean.
He’d leaned over her and grabbed the envelope from the nightstand. The letter from Albany, the offer of resettlement money, meant to encourage the city dwellers to move elsewhere within the state.
She’d brought in the mail and had nearly thrown this envelope away, knowing what it would say and not wanting to read it. That was what Bryce liked least about her. Gina never wanted to face her problems, not the ever-rising tides drowning Manhattan, not her failing grades until she’d flunked out of college, and definitely not the creature who had taken over the body of her lover. None of it.
She’d read the letter over before letting the paper drop to the bed. Let’s just see how it goes, she’d said. I hear some scientists say the water won’t rise anymore.
Even now, a jolt of anger runs through Bryce. It hits me with a sudden spike of adrenaline and my legs move faster. The hill isn’t as steep as it was only moments before. Gina’s boots echo in the distance. She’s running to catch up. She’d gone into the house to what, call her brother, finally confess my existence?
Memory-Bryce launched into a long lecture about how even if the water didn’t rise anymore, even lowered a touch, that he couldn’t stay. It felt like living on a sinking ship. Everyone was leaving Manhattan, everyone he knew anyway. He wanted to be on dry land, far from the oceans. She’d said that she understood, that it made sense that he was mourning; his old building had succumbed to the constant bashing of water and had fallen recently. They’d seen it on the news, helicopters circling the city, always looking for the next disaster to hit the city, the next boat to get trapped navigating between high rises and debris. This time, they caught Bryce’s old building, the one he’d lived in when he’d first moved to New York. Watching the building crumble, it had been too much, too real.
I can’t wait.
She’d heaved a heavy sigh, actually swaying the bed with the force of her resignation, and agreed that maybe it was time to go. She’d told him about some land they could get cheap, near her brother. There was an old auto factory there, converted into an industrial lab. No one lived in the town anymore except for the people who worked at the lab. Land was never cheap, not anymore, but this town was in the middle of nowhere and the lab held the deeds to most of the nearby properties. Her brother could secure one for her, a small parcel pretty far off. Bryce had been overjoyed. Now he ached, thinking that they could’ve moved anywhere. Why did it have to be here?
Gina stops running as she nears. She walks quickly, her boots clomping as she does. She still fears me, not wanting to approach without warning. She doesn’t know that I can sense her from afar, both with my antennae and by smell. There is no way to sneak up on me.
The thump-thump in my chest is excruciating. I feel them moving around, bumping between my hard shell and the soft bits within. Smaller versions of me. Parasites. Like me and of me and also my killers. The second wave. What Gina’s brother calls, “the real problem.” Me, I take out one human. It’s tragic but limited. The next wave, the ones that have been growing inside me just as I grew out of Bryce, they will infect many humans. We produce swarms.
My chest hurts. I ache. Everything is pain–my legs, my torso, the feelings that I’m stealing from the man on my back. He’s scared now. We’ve never left the yard, him and I. He feels my pain as I feel his. He senses what’s coming. He can’t read my mind but Bryce is no dummy. He knows something is about to change and in his brief time with me, he knows that change can never be good. He stares at Gina, eyes wide, mouth opening and shutting, trying to make noise. But I made him a mute long ago.
I peek from the shadow of his lolling head at the boots that keep time with us. She has to keep a quick pace. She takes large steps but she’s no match for the smooth efficiency of my many legs. She kicks up dust with every step, coating my face but not my antennae. I think she’s doing it on purpose. But maybe not. Some dust must be getting on his face, too. I feel her wipe his cheeks and remember the way her hands cleaned the gore from my legs when they made their way out of his back. How gently she stroked them with a wet cloth. My mind hadn’t melded with his back then. I was still a foreign element in his body. I didn’t know what to expect from this world. My legs, cold in this new air, shook. The rest of my body was still lodged in his back. I heard his screams. At the time, I didn’t understand the language. But I have his memories now.
“Kill me! Kill me!” he’d begged.
She’d spoken softly, reassuring him that the pain would pass. She injected him with something that helped him fall asleep. Then she laid him on his side and cleaned his wounds and my legs, clearing away the possibility of infection. Her brother had mentioned pigs dying from infection during one of their dinners, back when he used to visit. The pig often died before the parasite was fully grown. Pigs are close to humans, or so he’d claimed. I’ve never seen one, couldn’t really see one if it were put in front of me, but I’d be able to smell it, to tell its size and shape through sight, to know more by vibrations.
Her brother hasn’t come around recently. She cancelled the last few dinners, claiming that she and Bryce were too busy working on the farm. Her brother had grown suspicious, of course, and had come to the house to check on them. Bryce’s moans had almost given them away. She’d stuffed socks into Bryce’s mouth while cooing in his ear.
She’d stood by the door, waiting until the sound of tires crunching on gravel grew quiet. Then she’d returned to my bedside, to his bedside. “Sorry, Love,” she’d said. “They’ll take you away. What little life you have left is ours, not theirs.”
I severed his vocal cords that night. If she needs our silence, then we’ll be silent.
I don’t make much noise. When I do, when my mandibles clack or I emit the high-pitched clicks of my distress sound, she grows fearful. Her body tenses, her pheromones change. I can’t cut my own vocal cords, so I do what I can. I try to move slowly and never to approach her directly. She thinks I mean her harm. But I already have what I need. She is just what I like. Who I like. Love.
Halfway up the hill. The peak is the place I need to be. Without Glenn’s dinners, I wouldn’t know why. This morning I got an urge, a need to be on higher ground. So I went.
She could try to stop me, but I’m strong. I wouldn’t hurt her, I can’t. I…love her. Bryce loves her, more than anything. His feelings are my feelings but so are the other ones, the instincts I live by, the need to protect the things in my chest. I hope the ones like me in the lab have a less difficult time with their pigs than I do with my human. Do pigs fall in love? Behave irrationally in order to keep the ones they care for close to them for as long as possible?
Glenn explained my species’ life cycle to Bryce and Gina, based on the ones they’d recreated from fragments found in millions-year-old ice. We are breathed in by our hosts. We bore our way through their bodies, eating their flesh, embedding ourselves, and we grow. When we reach a certain size, we sprout, most often from their backs like I did with Bryce, but not always. We take over our hosts’ systems, our bodies rooted in their bodies, only our legs and antennae showing. A bit of my head pokes out beneath Bryce’s, so it’s not exactly as Glenn described, but then, he’d never seen my kind take over a human before. Once mature, we feed off our hosts as we grow our young inside ourselves. Our young feed off us, eating the insides of our bodies like I eat Bryce. Then, when they are ready to hatch, we climb to the highest peak we can find. There, our bodies burst open, releasing the next generation. I would not know any of this if I hadn’t landed in a human. I would only have instinct. I…I’m glad I know this. I’m glad I at least understand what’s driving me.
Glenn works at the lab and loves to talk shop. Bryce hated to hear it but they owed him for the land, so Bryce kept his mouth shut and let him tell his stories. Glenn had even showed them pictures of the pigs. At least I’ll know what I’ll look like when I die.
Over the hill is a small neighborhood. A few houses. The scientists from the lab live there, as do their spouses and children. Will my progeny find new homes? Maybe. But the life cycle could be cut short. Gina is the reason I am alive. Her love for Bryce, her unwillingness to see him die is why I thrive.
I love her for taking care of me. Yes, she does it so he’ll live longer. Bryce was doomed long before my legs found their way into this new world. By the time you know you’re sick, it’s already too late. Glenn had told them that as well. But Bryce didn’t believe, not through the fever, the chills, or the pains in his body that he couldn’t explain. He didn’t think it was one of me until my first leg broke through his skin. Why would he? We were supposed to exist only in the lab. He still doesn’t know what happened, but he blames Glenn.
The thump in my chest grows stronger. I can feel the scurrying legs, my babies creepy-crawling inside me. Bryce isn’t the only host on this journey. Neither of us had a choice. I’m the first of my kind, the first to make it this far. The others died in the lab. Glenn said so. Pulled from the ice. Rebirthed. They thought we could be useful. I don’t know how, but they’ll find out soon enough. Once I reach the summit.
They’re tiny, so tiny, rumbling around, the ocean of them creating tidal waves inside me. I’m large. I took him over. Using his organs, breathing, eating, absorbing him so I could live. Not them. They feed off me but I won’t waste away.
I don’t have to see her gun to know she has it. If it were just me, I’d let her kill me. I’d let her shoot me until there was nothing left. I love her and I want her to be happy. I want to let her kill the monster who ate her boyfriend. But I can’t.
Nearing the top. She’s growing anxious. I can feel it. Her body is giving off a stink. She’s screaming at me. “Stop! Stop!”
I do, for a moment. But we’re already close enough. It doesn’t matter anymore. I raise myself to my full height. My back is to her. She’s staring at Bryce. I see her though his eyes. He looks sad and pitiful, I can tell by the way her face changes, grows softer. I hope it’s enough to give her pause. I need only a few seconds.
“Bryce?” she says, her voice laced with hope. If he still had his arms, he’d be reaching out to her.
My chest breaks open. My babies fly out, catch in the wind and fly away.
She shoots. The bullet goes through me, hurting me, but I’m dead already. All I have to do is fall down.
She’s downwind. She should be okay.