The monster’s hairs weren’t really hairs at all, but its skin thinned and curved to a fine point, almost like quills. Up close, he could see the “hairs” gradually became translucent closer to the point, a feature that explained their disconcerting, ghost-like movements, edges blurry, floating in and out of reality. The skin quills were an admirable defense mechanism: they poked Jonas’ hand as he zip-tied its arms around a concrete pole in the garage. He sucked in and grimaced, pulling his hand back into his other palm and hugging both right under his sternum. The initial pain subsided, and he held his hand up and saw tiny dots of blood forming all over. “Yo. Throw me the gloves. And that towel.”
Andre, looking through a box on the other side of the garage, grabbed Jonas’ gloves from inside the truck bed and tossed them at Jonas. The towel came next, landing at his feet, accompanied by the dig, “At your service, Lady Macbeth.” Jonas rolled his eyes as he wiped his hands and stuffed the towel in his back pocket. Then, he donned the gloves and resumed his task.
The monster had eight arms, and he was afraid they’d break free, so Jonas used the entire 24-pack of ties they had bought: six ties per set of arms. Its arms were much bigger than a human’s, so the ties barely fit around both of its wrists pressed together, which didn’t connect to hands but three short, fat digits that resembled tentacles more than fingers. The tentacles bulged from its arm enough that the ties would hold. He hoped.
It was unconscious, they were pretty sure, although it was difficult to tell because they didn’t know how (if?) it breathed. There was no inhale-exhale movement in its shoulders. Just stillness. The boys stood still for a few beats, too—Jonas holding the empty bag of zip-ties, Andre holding a loaded drill and box cutter, just in case. They had retreated to the edge of the garage. In this landscape, littered with bikes and balls and boxes, the monster’s shape seemed almost to fit except for the blurred outline, like a pile of trash bags stuck between two realities.
Sitting in the truck outside of his uncle’s house, Jonas picked at the decaying steering wheel; little flecks of foam dropped onto his lap. He brushed them off. Behind his seat he had tucked a small duffel bag with three guns. He tried to think about something else.
Jonas’ memory was sucked backward to an image of Jared’s clunker: a Ford Taurus whose passenger door didn’t match the rest of the car. He zoomed in and he was watching himself replace the handle on that passenger door; then he was watching himself put peanut butter under the handle on the driver’s side—another memory. That prank led him to another, and he arrived at his destination. He was in his junior science class—anatomy. Past-Jonas was carving into his pig cadaver while Ms. Almann droned instructions. He extracted a piece of intestine and was waving it in the direction of the girl behind him, when he realized Ms. Almann was quiet. She was in front of his desk. “Get out of my classroom,” she said calmly, pointing toward the door. Jonas nearly argued, but changed his mind and huffed in the direction of her pointed finger. Once he made it into the hallway, Jonas wavered about what to do next. Then, the thought hurtled into his head: she didn’t tell me where to go.
So, Jonas walked right down to Jared’s French class, opened the door slightly and poked his head through. “Excuse me, uh, I just came from the office, and Jared and I need to go. Our mom called us out for an appointment.” The French teacher was new, untested. She didn’t hesitate to let Jared leave. Jared was two years younger than Jonas, but had been bigger than Jonas since 8th grade. Everyone thought Jared was the older brother, and Jared milked it.
After they picked up Andre, they snuck into the teacher workroom and nabbed a stack of post-it notes. Jonas’ original plan had been more sinister; Jared countered with the post-its. “A perfect balance of funny and annoying,” he’d said. They snuck out to the parking lot and found Ms. Almann’s car. They started on the front windshield, note after note, until they ran out of blue and switched to orange. Then back to blue, and then green, yellow, green again, until Jared placed the final pink note on the rear passenger window. He turned to Jonas and Andre, who stood empty-handed, leaning against the car. “You’re out already?” Jared said. “I thought you had like two more packets in your pocket.” Jared tilted his head. “Ohhh,” he said, dragging out the syllable and lifting his eyebrows. “So you were just gonna let me do the rest by myself?”
Jonas couldn’t stop the twitch of a grin. “I mean—” he started, but was cut off as Jared lunged toward him. Jonas took off through the cars like a running-back hitting a hole in the line. Jared chased him in and out of cars, while Andre hopped up on the post-it covered hood. The chase was their undoing. The librarian spotted them weaving in and out of cars and alerted the principal. Ten minutes later, they were back in class, and an hour after that, they were sitting silently, two desks apart, in detention.
But Jonas wasn’t in detention. He was wavering between realities, past and present, thinking about the moments right before they were caught, of Jared’s laugh as he caught hold of his arm and tried to pin him down. What had Jared said? Jonas strained to remember. He couldn’t quite grab hold of the words, but the feeling of unrestrained joy filled him. Even now, in the grim truck, he couldn’t hold back the twitch of a grin again.
Andre noticed. “What?” he asked.
Jonas flinched. It took him a few seconds to materialize in the present again. “Ah, naw, nothing. I was just thinking about something.”
Andre nodded too seriously. “No dip, Sherlock.”
Jonas turned his head and narrowed his eyes in a fake glare, then looked back out the front windshield, rolling a tiny piece of foam from the steering wheel in his fingers. “Ah, okay. I was just thinking about when we got busted for pranking Ms. Almann.”
It was Andre’s turn to grin. He let out a little laugh through his nose and shifted in his seat to lean his arm out the window.
Jonas was suddenly aware of the pressure of his body against the seat, hot like a weighted blanket. He needed to be out of the car, so he swung open the door, grabbed the top of the truck and hopped down, hot and aching. He took a few steps and swung his arms. He kicked his feet a little and exhaled, pushing out the air like he was blowing out birthday candles. He was trying to shake something, a rope wrapped around his waist, pulling him. To where, he didn’t know. He felt simultaneously drawn and repelled—unsure of what the rope was or where it led. He cracked his neck, rolled his shoulders, and got back in the truck.
A few years earlier, Jonas’ Uncle Mitch had taken him shooting on his family property. Uncle Mitch had brought his prize gun, a Colt Python with his initials carved into the grip. His father had given it to him when he turned sixteen. Uncle Mitch showed it to Jonas and helped him load it. Jonas gingerly received the loaded weapon, muzzle down, like Mitch told him, and transferred it to a two-handed grip. He’d never held a gun before. His body responded to the weapon: rising heart rate, sweat intermingling with Mitch’s initials on the grip, tiny tremors in his hands as he raised them to aim at the target. He lowered it back, keeping both hands tightly to the grip. For perhaps the first time, Jonas was feeling something like his own mortality. He was aware of a simple fact: a mistake now could be fatal. This fact was reinforced by the perception of a core of power radiating from the gun in his hands—a power that could determine life and death. He very nearly launched it and ran the other direction, as if he were holding a writhing, real-life version of its namesake. He was afraid, in the biblical sense.
Mitch gripped his shoulder and brushed the bottom of his chin. Jonas turned to look at him. “It’s okay. You got it.” Mitch helped him lift his hands again in the direction of the target, and coached him to take a breath—inhale, exhale. Jonas obeyed, and then he pulled the trigger. His rising fear climaxed and released a cathartic thrill of exhilaration. He shot again. Both shots were wide of the target, but he didn’t care. The mixture of joy and terror propelled him to continue shooting with Uncle Mitch for nearly an hour. His aim didn’t improve much, but he persevered anyway. His excitement was dizzying. Eventually, Mitch signaled it was time to go, and he surrendered the weapon. It wasn’t they were in the car headed home that Jonas realized the fear hadn’t disappeared, only masked. A ball was lodged just below his sternum sending nervous energy out to his fidgety fingertips. It didn’t dissipate until he fell asleep that night.
That same ball was there now, as his fingers tap-tap-tapped the steering wheel, a score announcing the presence of that same Colt Python, hidden twenty inches behind Jonas. Even there, out of sight, Jonas could feel its presence, like a low static hum in the absence of the radio. The power of life and death. The fear of the Lord. The merciless pull of violence.
They opened the garage, and the monster squirmed, trying to wriggle out of the restraints. It had nothing to leverage itself, so it flopped and half-rolled like a fish forgotten outside of its tank. Jonas set the duffel bag down on the floor. Andre walked over cautiously, sidestepping foot over foot, ready to run. The monster pulled and shook and spun, but the restraints held—a literal miracle. Andre, satisfied with the ties but still eyeing the monster warily, walked back toward Jonas.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be awake,” he whispered.
“Me neither,” said Jonas, removing the weapons from the duffel bag and placing them carefully on the concrete, facing the monster, whose struggle had slowed a little bit.
The monster didn’t have eyes, at least as far as either of them could tell. Jonas wondered how it saw, or if it was like a bat or some deep-sea creature with sonar. He didn’t know if it could hear either. He didn’t want it to hear him ask Andre what they were going to do with it “after,” and he definitely didn’t want it to hear Andre’s response: “I’m guessing no one will give a shit about a dead alien on the side of the road.” It didn’t flinch at this solemn pronouncement, so he assumed either it couldn’t understand them or had a really good poker face.
It was time. Ready or not.
Jonas picked up the Python, rubbing the initials on the grip. He loaded the cold bullets. He cocked the hammer as he walked toward the monster, shoes plodding on the concrete, a dull echo of executioner’s boots. Its squirming increased now, wildly flopping, trying to pull the pole from the ground. Jonas stopped right in front of the writhing figure. Wide stance. Right finger on the trigger. Left hand to steady. He raised the gun toward the bulging head, grateful he didn’t have to look into its eyes. The monster kept pulling and pulling, and suddenly swung around so quickly that Jonas had to step back and re-aim. Jonas shut his eyes. Fear rose in his chest, buoyed by hatred and grief. His eyelids were stuck, stitched together and covered with the image of Jared’s face, pale and dirty, hair matted with blood. Inhale. Exhale. In the darkness, he saw only Jared’s right hand, his only hand left, fingers curled slightly in. Jonas had found him. He’d held that hand until he couldn’t feel his own fingers. Inhale. Exhale. It was the first day of the invasion. They hadn’t known yet of the war to come. Jonas only knew the sight of Jared.
He was here, at the moment. It had been pulling him by instinct, but now all his instincts were gone. He was lost. Jonas couldn’t see anything beyond the hammer of the Python, couldn’t hear anything except his heart trying to escape his ribs. The moment ticked and ticked and ticked again, and then it was gone. He lowered the gun.
Andre was suddenly standing beside Jonas. His eyes flashed concern. “What’s wrong?” The monster wasn’t moving anymore. Jonas stood with his mouth partly open, trying to formulate a sentence that never came. “Jonas.” Andre had his hand on Jonas’ shoulder now. “What’s wrong?”
Jonas tried to breathe, but it came out sputtering. His shoulders were shaking, tremors that reverberated into his halting words. “Wha-what kind of question is that?” Jonas said finally. “Literally everything. Everything is wrong. Look at where we are. Look at this.” He shook the gun vaguely. “Look at this.” He pointed it at the monster, who flinched. “I don’t even know what we’re doing here.” He paused. “I mean, the entire world is falling apart, and we’re, what, gonna take back our humanity by putting a couple bullets into a single, already-injured alien?”
“Those insects killed Jared.” Andre emphasized insects and shoved his finger into the alien’s head, who recoiled.
“Don’t talk to me about Jared. I—I know about Jared. I was right there. I was right…I was right there.” His voice petered out until there was barely a whisper.
Jonas couldn’t feel the grip of the gun anymore, only the mannequin hand of his dead brother that he tried to close around his own. For a moment, the garage was gone and there was only Jonas and Jared. Inhale. Exhale. He saw Jared’s eyes, flecked with dirt, unseeing, lifeless. The garage re-emerged as he felt something pulling at his arm. He instinctively pulled away and Andre came into focus again. He was reaching across him toward the Python. “I’ll do it,” he was saying, but it sounded strange, like he was speaking from another room. “I can do it,” he said again, this time his voice and his body coordinated.
Jonas shook his head and said quietly: “no.” He said it again: “no.” He kept repeating the little word, accelerating with each repetition until he paused for a moment, on the verge of a final declaration, when Andre lunged for the gun. Jonas swept his arm back, spun around and pointed it at his best friend.
The monster was struggling again now. Its arms swelled as it tried in vain to break the zip-ties. It was talking, too, maybe. It made a high-pitched sound from somewhere deep inside, almost like the whimpers of a dog, but with more force and intelligent cadence. Jonas was sure it was words, but had no idea what they were. Andre had lifted his hands and was stepping backward slowly. Jonas squeezed his eyes shut as tightly as he could and then opened them wide, eyebrows lifted, blinking rapidly. He began to move toward the floor slowly, exhausted. He crossed his feet and set the gun beside him. He laid back and tried to think his way out.
He tried to think of some proverb to direct him, but the only proverbs that arrived were anger, sadness, guilt, and foolishness. Everyone always wanted him to do the right thing, but what is right in response to evil? The only options left are variations of evil. When brokenness rules the day, right and wrong are unknowable, buried under a hundred tons of emptiness—emptiness that now filled the corners of Jonas’ mind. It wasn’t the movement that brought him back as much as the sense of emptiness vanishing. The movement was Andre lunging toward the gun next to Jonas, whose body reacted while his brain tried to catch up. He half-rolled, half-jumped into Andre’s moving body, colliding around his lower thighs.
Rolling over, Jonas was shocked by the sole of Andre’s foot connecting with his shoulder. He recovered fast enough to grab the foot before it got away. It shook and struggled until it was joined by a fist, hurtling past Jonas’ occupied hands and pounding against his hairline. He let go of the foot and blocked the second attack. Andre straightened and Jonas scrambled up onto his feet. Andre joined him and they stood across from each other like two Mortal Kombat fighters, panting, shifting, sniffling.
The ensuing fight was perhaps the most pitiful in history. They spent more time on the concrete floor than otherwise, a flurry of flailing arms and legs. They rolled and grunted and gasped and swung and, once, bit. After a few minutes, Andre achieved the high ground, wrestling his way atop Jonas, where he popped off a few hits anywhere he could find. He scored a direct hit that plunged Jonas’ head, which had been hovering slightly above the ground, backward into the concrete.
Everything went black for a moment. When the light returned, it was blurry. Andre had already rolled off the floor beside him. Blood was spattered around Jonas’ face from two small cuts, one on his lip and the other above his eye. Two boys and a monster lay on the floor of a garage, smelling of sweat and revenge. Jonas saw Andre’s vague figure pull himself up and stumble over to the gun on the ground. He heard the metal slide as Andre picked it up.
The blow to his head finally dislodged the aphorism he had been searching for, but now, he wasn’t sure he believed it: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Andre didn’t seem to believe it either.
The air was soft with the silence of the early morning. Andre and Jonas sat on the curb, waiting for nothing in particular. Something had settled in between them, a spiritual barrier. Jonas laid backward on the grass, his arm covering the cut on his forehead. He tried to think of something to say, but his brain was stuck, trying to budge but always clicking back into place. He couldn’t read minds, so he didn’t know Andre’s brain was stuck too, trying to remember the word “sorry,” unsure if it was true, unsure if it mattered. The mental loop Jonas was stuck in was simple. Jared’s face, then the monsters, then back to Jared. Hair matted with blood. Ghostly quills, still and dripping with blue. A hand held in his, then a monster’s tentacled fingers limp against the concrete floor. Jonas wanted peace, resolution, even anger or rage, but all that was gone, too. The guilt crowded everything else, except the loneliness, two twin monsters that held him captive in his own head. The loop continued, restarting over and over, until he realized he was alone.
Andre had gotten up and gone back to the garage. Jonas found him there, trying to drag the body back to the truck. It slipped along on its own blue “blood” (much thicker than human blood), but Andre still couldn’t move it far on his own. Jonas put on his gloves, grabbed an arm, and pulled. They both grunted as they lifted it up into the bed. As soon as it was settled, Jonas ripped off his gloves and threw them into the yard. He rested his hands atop his head, interlocking his fingers as he circled, inhaling deeply. He kicked the tire and swore. He kicked it again, then placed his hands on the truck and lowered his head. He stayed here as Andre squatted down to his haunches. The only light was from the garage door opener.
Eventually, Andre went to get two shovels and tossed them into the truck bed alongside the alien. Jonas looked up when he heard the thud of the shovels against the truck bed.
“You want to bury it?” These were the first words Jonas had spoken to Andre since before the fight.
“I just feel like we should.”
Andre drove this time. They found a place that seemed secluded enough, and got the shovels. The ground was hard, still cold. They shoveled until, hot from the work, they removed their sweatshirts and threw them onto the hood of the truck. The sun was up now, and the rays reflected off the morning dew. The boys wiped off flecks of dirt that had stuck to their arms, clinging like hundreds of tiny ticks. The hole before them was crude and muddy, without defined corners or walls, but it was sufficient for the job. They dragged the monster into the pit and covered it, silently and without ceremony.
When they finished, Jonas walked away from Andre without looking at him. He was a boy marked by death. It was written on his heart, permanent, vast, heavy. He sat down on the grass and leaned back against a tree. On a better day, he might have visited this spot simply to enjoy its beauty, a walk in the stillness of creation. But that wasn’t this day. This day, he sat, empty, among trees who shared his secret. They too had seen death but not spoken. They too had not been able to stop it. They rustled to encourage him, to speak to him the eternal truth—that he wasn’t alone—but today he didn’t have ears to hear. Maybe one day he would understand how many trees and angels and people have been marked this way—who walk with death’s shadow in close pursuit, unable to shake it, to fix it, to forget it. Maybe one day that eternal truth would give him comfort. Today, he got up and drove home with his best friend, who also bore the mark, alone together.
Troy is a pastor and writer in Denton, TX, where he lives with his wife, Karly, and their three children. He has written an essay that appeared in Mock Turtle Zine and has been a contributor at KingdomDreamers.com.
Photo Credit: “Abandoned Truck” by Curtis Gregory Perry, Flickr.com.