Just One Kiss
A Story By Mandy White
The day her brother tore his own head off and didn’t die, was the day Johanna first suspected that all was not right with the world.
Charlie seemed to be experiencing some sort of inner struggle: muttering to himself and pacing in circles, stopping from time to time to cover his ears and shake his head vigorously. They were in the kitchen, and Johanna had just finished brewing a pot of coffee. Charlie reached toward the cupboard above, like he was going to take out a mug. Instead of opening the cupboard, he placed his hand on the back of his neck, then turned to face Johanna.“Must feed,” he said. He grabbed his head and pulled, bending his neck forward at an impossible angle. “Must… feeeed!” he grunted, twisting and pulling until Johanna swore his neck had stretched an extra six inches.
“Charlie! Stop that! What are you doing?”
“UNGH!” Charlie replied, and with a mighty tug, he pulled his head from his body. Instead of spurting blood the way a recently decapitated body should, his neck began to heal before her eyes, transforming from torn flesh into some kind of elongated sucking appendage. The ‘lips’ of the sucker smacked together toward Johanna as if blowing her a sloppy kiss, then it gurgled,
The Charlie-thing turned its head upside down. The sucker groped around, lips opening and closing until it found the severed end of the neck. The sucker attached itself to the neck and made a sound like a Shop-Vac cleaning up vomit as it slurped the contents out of the skull. Charlie’s face sagged like a deflated balloon.
The sucker detached from the withered head and reached toward the sound of Johanna’s voice, smacking the empty air in front of it.
“Mup. Grackle. Pleebbb. Fleeg,” the monster said, dropping the head on the floor and taking a step in Johanna’s direction.
She stumbled backward, tripping over a chair. Charlie’s body turned toward the sound, tentacle searching, lips opening and closing. Johanna fled out the front door and ran down the street without looking back.
When she finally stopped to catch her breath, she dared to look over her shoulder and saw with relief that nothing was chasing her. Panting, she leaned against a nearby fence.
Now what? Where to go?
She needed to tell her mother what had happened. Salon La Vie, where her mother was a stylist, was about six blocks away. Johanna checked the time on her cell phone. It was 2:00. Mom was on shift for another two hours. There was plenty of time to get there and warn her, and then they could pick up her younger sister Zoe from school together. She had lost one sibling already; she intended to make sure the rest of her family was safe.
Johanna broke into a jog, grateful for the gym membership she had gotten as a Christmas gift. She covered the six blocks easily and before long she dashed through the glass doors of Salon La Vie. The neon lights, gleaming chrome and mirrors and pounding techno music – it was like entering an ammonia-scented nightclub.
Johanna looked down the long line of stylist’s stations and did not see her mother.
“Can I help y’all?” the redhead behind the counter chirped. A nametag pinned to her overstuffed leopard print blouse identified her as Trixie.
“I’m Jillian Sykes’ daughter. Is she here?”
“Oh, hi, honey! You’re Jillie’s girl! So nice to meet y’all.” Trixie flashed Johanna a too-wide grin that made her look like a horse wearing purple lip-gloss. “I’m so sorry, sweetpea, but y’all missed your Mama. She left during her lunch hour.”
“She did? I thought she was working until four.”
“Naw, not today, sugar. She booked a half-day today. Had to pick her daughter up from school early. Somethin’ ‘bout the kid havin’ a karate tournament.” Red looked up at the ceiling and batted her false, mascara-caked eyelashes. Johanna suspected this was the woman’s ‘thoughtful’ look. “Can y’all imagine that?” she mused. “A lil-ol gal like that goin’ all Jackie Chan-like?”
“Sure,” Johanna said. “Zoe enjoys it, and she’s damn good at it.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry sugar! I didn’t mean nothin’ by it! It’s just, y’know, where I come from, little girls are raised to be ladies, and let the men do the ass-kicking.”
Trixie was still muttering something about fine Southern ladies when Johanna dashed out the door.
“Thank you,” she called over her shoulder, but was pretty sure Trixie from Dixie hadn’t heard.
Eleven-year-old Zoe usually took the school bus home, but today was Friday. Zoe had a karate meet at another school. Zoe was excused for the afternoon so they’d have time to make the half-hour drive to Palsson Middle School.
She fished her cell phone out of her pocket and called her mother.
Mom answered her phone on the second ring.
“Oh, there you are. I was wondering where you’d gotten to.”
“Mom, listen! Stay where you are! Whatever you do, don’t go home! Tell me where you are and I’ll come and meet you.”
“But I’m already home, silly. We just got here.”
“What? Where’s Zoe?”
“She’s right here. Is something wrong?”
“Yes! Listen, Mom, you and Zoe need to get out of there right now. Charlie is… not himself. He’s dangerous.”
“He seemed fine to me a few minutes ago. Did you two have an argument or something? Why don’t you come home and we’ll talk about it?”
Johanna hung up.
Her mother was home, and so was Zoe. What did it mean? She paced back and forth, undecided. Should she go home? Her mother had said Charlie was fine. That couldn’t be true – the horror Johanna had seen in her kitchen was no hallucination. Or was it? No! she knew what she had seen. This was no hallucination… right?
What would she find if she went home? Would Charlie behave like his normal nineteen-year-old self? If she went home, would she see what she saw on any normal day? Her mother would be checking email before making dinner and Zoe would be playing Call of Duty on her Xbox, shouting curses at her friends through her headset. Or would she walk back into the same horror show she had left, with headless Charlie waiting to suck her brains out? Maybe Charlie had already killed Mom and Zoe and then set a trap for her.
But that sounded like Mom! I was talking to Mom! Wasn’t I?
Trap or not, she had to find out for sure. Gritting her teeth, Johanna set off in the direction of home.
* * *
Johanna slipped in through the back door, listening for signs of anything unusual. The kitchen was spotless and filled with the delicious aroma of something – pork chops, or perhaps her mother? – roasting in the oven. Charlie’s head was nowhere in sight, and neither was Charlie. The chair she had knocked over when she tripped sat neatly in its place at the kitchen table. She took a step forward and the floor creaked under her feet.
“Is that you, Jo?” her mom called from the other room.
“Y-yeah, Mom. It’s me. Everything all right?”
Her mother appeared in the doorway.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t it be? Everything’s fine. Where have you been?”
“I just went for a run.”
“In that?” Her mother frowned.
Johanna looked down at herself, remembering for the first time that she was still wearing her waitress uniform. She had just finished her shift at Maddy’s Diner when the Charlie incident occurred and she hadn’t gotten around to changing clothes yet.
“I ran back to work because I forgot my phone there.” She congratulated herself silently for her quick thinking. “That’s why I called you on the way home,” Johanna added.
Panic coursed through Johanna’s body.
“Yes, I called you.”
“Oh.” Her mother laughed lightly. “Of course you did. How silly of me.”
“Do you remember what we were talking about?”
“Why?” Her mother’s eyes narrowed.
“Um, just… because I wanted to continue the conversation where we left off. Do you recall where that was? There was a lot of traffic nearby, and I’m not sure I heard everything you said.”
Her mother turned her back, reaching toward the oven. “I don’t have time right now. We’ll talk later. I need to feed…”
“W-what?” Johanna began to back away.
“I need to feed you all so I have time to get ready. I have a date tonight. Be a dear and call your brother and sister for dinner.”
Johanna found Zoe in her room, submerged in the world of virtual war games. Her karate gi was tossed in a corner, orange belt crumpled on top. Zoe couldn’t hear Johanna with the headset on, so she tapped her on the shoulder.
“What?” she shouted. Zoe always shouted when she had the headset on because she had no idea how loud she sounded.
Heart thumping, she crept down the hall toward Charlie’s bedroom. The door was slightly ajar. The eerie absence of Charlie’s music was unnerving. The family members were so used to his ear-splitting playlist that it had become a natural part of their home environment.
She could hear the sound of Charlie’s TV, which he rarely watched.
She tapped lightly on the door.
“Charlie?” she whispered.
“Um… it’s time to eat.”
“Eat.” His voice sounded cold and distant, but nothing like the garbling freak-show she had run from earlier.
Johanna pushed the door open slightly, just to have a peek. Charlie was seated on the end of his bed, head intact, back straight and arms at his sides. He was just… sitting. Staring straight ahead at the TV. It looked like he was watching old black-and-white movie with a lot of sappy romantic stuff. So totally un-Charlie, yet he seemed fixated on the screen.
“Charlie?” she asked timidly.
Johanna couldn’t remember Charlie ever saying, ‘yes’. It was always, ‘yeah’, or ‘yep’, or ‘what’. He was the informal type.
“What are you doing?”
“Doing,” he repeated. He seemed to think for a moment, then said, “Watching TV.”
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” he said.
“Um… okay,” she said, backing away from the door.
This was not Charlie. It looked like him. It sounded like him, but didn’t act like him. This was some kind of replica. It was as she had feared. Her brother was gone.
What about her mother? And Zoe? They seemed normal, but for how long?
Dinner was unremarkable. Baked pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy from a can. Their mother had hastily served the food before rushing off to get ready for her date. Apparently her mystery man had made dinner reservations at someplace fancy.
Charlie ate in silence, the fork in his hand transferring the food from plate to mouth with a jerky, mechanical motion, like a robot arm in a factory. His eyes never left his plate.
Zoe was her usual boisterous self, chattering about her karate meet, her friends and the afternoon’s most memorable moments in the world of virtual war on Xbox. Charlie fixed his youngest sister with a blank look as she prattled on. Zoe asked him to pass the salt and pepper, then asked a second time and he ignored her request.
“Charlie? Hey, Earth to Charlie! Can you pass me the salt and pepper sometime this century? What’s wrong, you stoned or something?”
Johanna forced a mouthful of potatoes down, heart thudding in her throat, expecting Charlie to rip Zoe’s head off.
Charlie didn’t answer. He just continued to eat.
He must feed, Johanna thought.
“What do you think, Jo?” Zoe asked, reaching across the table to retrieve the salt and pepper herself.
“You think Charlie’s been smoking the wacky tobacky, or what?”
“Oh, you don’t wanna know what I think,” Johanna said truthfully.
Their mother hurried into the kitchen, high heels click-clicking on the tiles. She looked gorgeous – made up like a magazine model, in true beautician form, without a hair out of place. She wore a sexy black cocktail dress with spaghetti straps and a fringed hem that fell at an angle just past her knees.
Zoe whistled. “Whoa, Mom! Looking hot!”
“Who’s your date, Mom?” Johanna asked, relieved for the distraction from Charlie’s creepy silence.
“Mr. Kramer, Ashley’s father, remember him?”
“Yeah, kind of.”
“Well anyway, he asked me out today and I simply couldn’t say no.”
“So, what… you like him?”
“Well, yes, I suppose I do. I mean, I never gave him a second look before. He just wasn’t my type. Plus, he’s divorced with partial custody, so you know what a can of worms that can be. It’s not like he’s super good looking or anything, you know… typical accountant, geek-type. Today at the karate meet he was different. He wasn’t wearing his glasses – must’ve gotten contacts or something, but wow, it was like I never really saw him before. And he’s never said more than two words to me before. But today…” she sighed and clasped her hands over her chest. “Today, he was sitting next to me and the things he said… wow. Romantic doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
“Really?” Johanna was listening now.
“Yes. Honey, he was like one of those old-time actors from those classic romantic movies, like Clark Gable or someone.”
“Old movies?” That was an odd coincidence.
“Yeah, that’s the only way I can describe the way he spoke. Men just don’t talk that way today. I wonder why his wife left him.”
“Maybe he left her.”
“Yeah,” her mother seemed to brighten at the idea. “I’ll bet that was it. It was probably her fault. Her loss for letting such a gem get away.” She peeked out the window at the sound of a vehicle. “Oh, he’s here! Gotta run!” She blew them a kiss. “Behave yourselves!”
As the door closed, Charlie called after her, “We’ll always have Paris!”
Johanna questioned herself yet again. Maybe what she thought she had seen (and was seeing) was nothing but her imagination. Perhaps the stress of working too many 5am shifts in a row with horny truckers grabbing her ass had finally gotten to her. Sleep deprivation did strange things to the mind. Maybe she would benefit from a little wacky tobacky and a nice long nap.
She reconsidered her original plan of grabbing Zoe and running. Maybe she should wait and see before doing anything rash.
* * *
The next morning, Johanna slipped out the door at 4:30 am to work her breakfast shift at Maddy’s. The house was dark and quiet when she left, and she took extra care not to wake the rest of the family. Mom had gotten home late from her date with What’s-His-Name and would no doubt be sleeping in. Zoe would probably be up early to get her fill of cereal and Saturday morning cartoons before joining her friends in another online bloodbath. Charlie… well, who knew what Charlie would do anymore, but typically he never surfaced before noon unless he had to work. Today was Saturday, so normally Charlie would be at work by the time Johanna returned home. With any luck, she wouldn’t see him at all that day.
Customers were already assembling in the parking lot, waiting for the diner to open when Johanna arrived. She brewed two pots of coffee, checked with the cook to make sure he was ready, then opened the doors a few minutes early. Mornings were their busiest time, with truck drivers making up most of the clientele. Opening those few minutes early often resulted in extra tips for Johanna; most of their customers were on tight schedules.
Tables filled and a hint of oil and diesel tickled the nostrils beneath the morning’s warm aromas of bacon and coffee. Johanna flitted from table to table, a stack of menus under one arm, coffee pot in the other and order pad in her apron pocket. She chatted and joked with the customers as she worked, most of whom were middle-aged, barrel-bellied men dressed in plaid. The customers were pleasant and polite, but as the morning wore on, Johanna couldn’t shake a niggling feeling that something wasn’t right. Something was missing.
When Tammy, the other waitress came on shift, Johanna took the opportunity for a short break before the second breakfast rush began. She poured herself a cup of coffee and leaned back against the waitress station to rest. She scanned the room, trying to pinpoint what was missing. All of the regulars were there. Joe Senior and Joe Junior, a father/son trucker team known to the diner community as Joe and Junior. There were Smitty, Billy and Fungus occupying their usual corner booth. A businessman-type Johanna didn’t recognize sat alone, reading the newspaper while he ate. Two of her least favorite customers, Merle and Ed, had positioned themselves at a table in the center of the room, in the optimal location for maximum waitress-groping, but no attempt at groping had been made yet. In fact, Merle had even attempted to recite poetry to her as she refilled his coffee cup.
She hadn’t been grabbed, spanked or propositioned once all morning. The off-color jokes and curse words that normally punctuated the mumble of morning chatter were absent. Johanna found the men’s uncharacteristic good behavior unsettling, to say the least.
Fungus, a.k.a. “The Growth”, vacated the corner booth when his companions left and moved to sit at the counter. His tendency to linger for hours drinking copious amounts of coffee had earned him his nickname, which he happened to like.
He often joked, “They call me Fungus because I’ll grow on you and make you sick.”
Tammy leaned over the counter, smiling and giving Fungus a nice view of the two growths inside her blouse. Tammy normally avoided the small bearded diner fixture, making no effort to hide her distaste. Watching her flirt with him was even more disturbing to Johanna than truck drivers not cussing.
Coffee break over, Johanna picked up a menu and made her way to a new customer seated in her section. He was overweight, balding and sweating profusely. He declined her offer of coffee and stared down at the table in front of him, dripping beads of sweat on the unopened menu she had placed in front of him. She wondered if he was on the verge of a heart attack or something.
“Can I get you something to drink?” she offered.
He shook his head. “No. Hungry.”
“I’ll give you a few minutes to decide, then. Our special is a three-cheese omelette.”
“Must… feed.” He groaned and held his head in his hands as if experiencing a migraine.
Johanna backed slowly away. “No. No. Not this again,” she whimpered.
She ducked behind the counter and grabbed Tammy’s arm, yanking her away from Fungus, who was spouting some bullshit about a woman like her needing to be kissed by someone who knew how.
“Sorry to interrupt your – whatever that was – but Tammy, look! Have you ever seen anything like this before?” She pointed at the sweaty guy.
“Sure. Seen it lots of times. Guy with a hangover.” She snapped her chewing gum. “What’s the big deal?”
“Just watch for a second. I think he’s going to do something… crazy.”
Tammy sighed and stood with her arms crossed, waiting for something spectacular to happen.
“He looks like he’s gonna barf,” she observed. “If he does, it’s your mess. Not my section.
Oh great! Johanna thought. That was just what she needed – a puker. Tammy was right; they saw a lot of hung over people on the morning shift. Pukers weren’t uncommon.
“FEED!” the man shouted suddenly.
To Johanna’s surprise, none of the male customers so much as blinked at the outburst.
Tammy laughed. “I’d say that’s your cue. Sounds like he’s ready to order.”
“No!” Johanna grabbed her co-worker’s arm. “Watch!”
Seeing a man remove his own head and suck out the skull was no less shocking the second time, though for Tammy it was a first. She ran and locked herself in the restroom, where she screamed and screamed.
Johanna ducked down and hid behind the counter where only Fungus could see her. He seemed unaffected by her behavior.
“Did it hurt when you fell from Heaven?” he asked her. “’Cause you’re an angel.”
“Fungus, what the hell?
“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine,” Fungus said.
“Are you seeing this?” Johanna pointed toward the man, who was busy draining the contents of his skull with his alien appendage.
Fungus glanced at the skull-sucker. “Oh, him?” he laughed, with a wave of dismissal. “He’s just lost his head a little. Don’t worry, he’ll pull himself together.”
“Have I gone insane?” Johanna wondered aloud. She surveyed the room. “Have you all gone insane?” she shouted. “What the fuck is going on here?”
The skull-sucker paused for a moment and reached its sucker in Johanna’s direction, probing the air with its lips and making kissing noises at her.
“Fleebie. Fleeble. Mup,” it said.
“See, Jo?” Fungus said. “He just needs a little kiss and he’ll be good as new. Better, even.” He leaned forward over the counter, eyes magnified behind his Coke-bottle glasses. “For that matter,” he added, “why don’t you lay a little sugar on me, sweetheart? Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time.”
“Fuck off, Fungus!” Johanna backed away from the counter, distancing herself from the creepy little man, to whom she felt inexplicably drawn all of a sudden.
The skull-sucker resumed sucking. Its loud slurping noises could be heard even over Tammy’s continued screaming.
Johanna ducked into the kitchen, where she found Maddy, the diner’s owner and namesake, making out with Kevin the cook. Maddy’s uniform was unbuttoned and her large belly protruded from the front of her dress.
“Oh! You guys! That is all kinds of wrong!” she blurted. Maddy was in her sixties; literally old enough to be twenty-year-old Kevin’s grandmother!
Johanna grabbed her purse and jacket. “Maddy, I’m leaving. Something important just came up. You might want to find Tammy a Valium or something. She may have lost a nut or two.”
“Mmmnn,” Maddy replied, not taking her lips from Kevin’s acne-pocked face.
Normally the entire scene would have made Johanna vomit in her mouth a little, but as of late, she’d seen things a lot worse. Still, something looked a bit off, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Maddy, already a plump woman, seemed… plumper than usual, as if she had suddenly gained a lot of weight. She shrugged it off as her own lack of attention to such details. After all, she had never seen Maddy nude before.
Ick. She shook her head, unable to unsee what she’d just seen.
When Johanna returned to the dining room, the skull-sucker was wearing his head once again. The tentacle-thing hung from his mouth. She watched, horrified, as the appendage retracted into his now sweat-free head, bearing an absurd resemblance to a softening penis. Johanna dashed out the door without waiting for the tentacle to finish shrinking. She had a hunch what might be causing these men to behave oddly, and wondered what happened to women who were duped into kissing them.
Maddy! Wait – never mind Maddy. What about Mom? Did she kiss that guy last night?
Johanna raced home to find out.
* * *
Dr Renee Garcia sat in her office, poring over a stack of patients’ files, searching for a commonality between all of them. Besides the obvious one, that was. All of the patients were female, and all of them were pregnant. That in itself wasn’t unusual, given that Dr. Garcia was a gynecologist. Nor was the fact that the pregnancies were unexpected; those things happened all the time. It was the fact that all of the patients in the files on her desk should not, could not possibly be pregnant. This went beyond the failure of birth control methods; these women were physically incapable of conceiving, and yet they had. Some were far too old; others lacked the physical means, having had hysterectomies. Some of those surgeries Dr. Garcia had performed herself, so there was no doubt in her mind that the procedures had indeed been performed.
Some were married; some were not. A couple of them were lesbians who had never been intimate with a man.
Something her last patient had said stuck in her mind. She hadn’t dated anyone in more than a year, then a man had asked her out, sweeping her off her feet with romantic talk.
Dr. Garcia had heard similar things from other patients. Husbands transformed overnight from drunken sports nuts to sweet-talking Casanovas. Shy men who had never so much as spoken to a woman were suddenly wooing and charming the female sex like Hollywood movie stars.
This case was just like the others. A woman, pregnant, with no logical explanation as to why. Her 46-year-old patient and long time friend had undergone a hysterectomy nine years earlier, after experiencing complications following the birth of her third child. She swore that she hadn’t been intimate with a man in more than a year. As a doctor, Renee had heard that line many times, from pregnant teens still in denial, from married women unwilling to admit that their due dates did not fall within a credible range.
But this patient was different. She had known Jillian since high school and delivered all three of her children. Jill had no reason to lie to her.
Renee studied the ultrasound images she had received that day. Some were from patients in those same files. In all cases, the technicians had been baffled at what they found. The woman looked visibly pregnant – belly distended as if in the second or third trimester, but the ultrasound produced no image. Just an opaque black mass where the uterus should have been. But in many of the cases, no uterus had been present to begin with.
She picked up the phone and pressed the button to connect to her partner’s extension. Maybe Dr. Gupta was still in her office. She was curious as to whether she had noticed anything unusual in her patients.
While she waited for her to pick up, someone knocked on her office door.
“You in there, Renee?”
“Yes. Come in Lila.”
“I was wondering if you’d like to grab some lunch,” Lila said.
“I was just trying to call you, actually.”
“Great minds think alike.”
“No, it wasn’t about that. I wanted to ask you about something.
“And?” Lila queried, sidling up to Renee’s desk to see what she was looking at.
“I was wondering if you’d come across anything unusual lately. With your patients.”
“Umm. Pregnancies. Where there shouldn’t be any. Unusual ultrasound results.”
“Nothing comes to mind.” She paused to think for a moment, then shook her head. “Everything ok?”
“Sure. Just thinking out loud. Thanks. As a matter of fact, I could use a bite to eat.”
The bell jingled in the reception area.
“That’s odd,” Lila said. “I could’ve sworn Doris locked the front doors.”
The clinic was closed from eleven to twelve for lunch, and their receptionist, Doris, had already left.
“I’ll check it out,” Lila said. She left the room and returned moments later escorted by two burly men in black suits. They held her at gunpoint.
Renee held up her hands. “We don’t have much cash on the premises, but it’s all yours. Please don’t hurt us. We don’t have any drugs here.”
“Dr. Garcia, Dr. Gupta, you’ll need to come with us. Please do not discuss with anyone anything you may have seen, or we’ll be forced to kill you.”
“What?” Renee quavered. “Who are you people?”
“Renee, I think we’d better go with them.”
“You don’t have a choice, Dr. Gupta.”
Renee and Lila led the way out of the clinic. A long, glossy black vehicle resembling an armored truck was parked at the curb.
“Can I lock up?” Renee asked.
“That won’t be necessary. Get in. And remember. No talking to anyone.”
A door swung open on the side of the vehicle and one of the black-suited goons helped them inside while the other made his way to the driver’s side and took a seat behind the wheel.
Large tinted windows covered the sides and back of the vehicle. Renee realized they were one-way glass; she could see out, but hadn’t been able to see inside the bus. They were on a bus. Rows of seats held other men and women, most of whom they recognized. Doctors, lab technicians, nurses, all of them medical staff to some degree. Even Doris, their receptionist, sat alone in a seat, wide-eyed and terrified.
Goon #2 spoke into his headset. “All sealed up back here. Move out and detonate.”
A loud boom shook the vehicle as it drove away. Renee knew even before she saw the flames and cloud of debris hurtling skyward that her clinic was no more.
* * *
Johanna arrived home to find the house empty. Her mother had to work that day, but not until noon. Johanna’s breakfast shift ended at eleven on weekends – plenty of time for her to take over care of Zoe while her mother worked. It was only 9am, so where were Mom and Zoe? Charlie was presumably at work by now, but Johanna really had no desire to see her brother now that he had transformed into one of those skull-sucking freaks, whatever they were.
On the kitchen table, she found a note from her mother:
I had to go to the doctor, and this was the only time Renee could see me. Zoe is at Arlene’s. If you get home before I do, could you please pick her up?
A doctor appointment? On a Saturday morning? Johanna knew the clinic was open Saturdays, but her mother usually made appointments on her days off. She worked afternoons at the salon to coordinate her schedule with Johanna’s.
Was her mother sick? A cold chill gripped Johanna’s guts. Was Mom hiding something from her?
She went next door and rang Arlene’s doorbell. Zoe answered.
“’Bout frickin’ time! Spring me outta this hellhole. It’s boring as shit in here. No Xbox, no internet. She just watches those stupid reality shows all day.
“Zoe! Language!” Johanna scolded.
“Pfft. Like you care. I learned it from you.”
“Thanks Arlene!” Johanna called.
“Anytime, sweetie,” Arlene rasped, a cloud of cigarette smoke billowing around her head. She remained glued to her usual spot on the couch, the cushion of which had probably formed a permanent impression of her ample butt.
“I don’t know why Mom made me stay with her. I can take care of myself just fine. Doesn’t she know cigarette smoke is bad for kids?”
“I guess she had no other choice. Her appointment was before I got home.”
“So? I coulda’ stayed home with Charlie.”
Johanna grabbed Zoe’s arm just before she reached the front door of their house. “What? Charlie’s home?”
“But I thought he had to work today. He always works on Saturday.”
“Well, he ain’t working today. Look, his car’s still there.”
Charlie’s green Honda Accord sat in the driveway. Johanna had parked in the alley and gone in the back door, so she hadn’t seen it until now.
“Zoe, have you noticed anything… strange about Charlie lately?”
“Not really. I mean, he’s always been kind of a weirdo, right?”
“I’m not talking about Goth music or facial piercings. I mean, he’s been acting weirder than usual. Like, quiet and polite or something.”
Zoe shrugged. “I dunno, maybe. What’s the big deal?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Whatevs. Can I go play Black Ops now?”
Zoe ran inside and made a beeline for her bedroom. Johanna cringed when Zoe’s door whammed shut, shaking the entire house.
Johanna tiptoed down the hall to Charlie’s room. The door was ajar. She peeked in. The room was empty.
She searched the rest of the house, room by room. She even checked the basement, attic and closets, but Charlie was nowhere to be found. It appeared Charlie had gone out, presumably to work, and left his car at home. Maybe it had broken down and he’d gotten a ride from someone.
Now that Charlie was part of the tentacle brigade, Johanna half hoped he’d never return. At least not until this mess, whatever it was, was sorted out.
She poured a glass of orange juice and sat down at the kitchen table. She needed to have a long talk with her mother – about Charlie, the men at work, her mother’s date – and she wanted to know the reason for the impromptu doctor appointment.
Johanna’s cell phone buzzed. She picked it up. It was a text message from her mom:
I’m going 2 b late. Renee sent me to the hosp for an ultrasound.
Mom, are u ok?
Yes I’m fine. Just a routine checkup. I’m going to work right after.
I’m home and got Zoe with me.
Off work early?
Yes and no. I’ll xplain l8er.
Johanna contemplated how she was going to explain to her mother the things she had seen. Men did inexplicable things all the time, but tearing their own heads off and making kissy faces with tentacle-lips was definitely a new one.
A piercing scream from Zoe’s room jolted her out of her reverie.
Johanna jumped up and bolted toward Zoe’s closed door.
“Get off me you fucking freak! What the hell’s wrong with you?” Zoe yelled. A thud followed, then Zoe’s door opened and she burst out of the room, crashing into Johanna.
Zoe pointed back toward her room. “That fucktard was hiding in my closet! And then he tried to kiss me! Ewwwww!”
Charlie lay sprawled on the floor of Zoe’s room.
“What happened to him?”
“I kicked his ass, that’s what. And he deserved it, that creep!”
“Thank god for karate,” Johanna said, grabbing Zoe’s hand. “Come on, we’re getting out of here.” She pulled her sister out the back door and together they ran to Johanna’s car.
“Where we goin’?”
“I don’t know. I think we need to find Mom.”
“She said she was going to the hospital for some tests. She has to go to work after that, so let’s meet her there. We can hang out in the mall until the salon opens.”
“Can I go to the arcade?”
“Sure. Just don’t kiss any strange men.”
“Don’t be a sicko!” Zoe made a gagging noise.
* * *
Jill drove down the winding road, looking at the sleepy little town below. Like many hospitals, theirs was situated on high ground, atop what in this case, was the only hill in an otherwise flat landscape. Over the years it had become known as ‘Hospital Hill’. Her brow furrowed as she replayed in her mind what the ultrasound technician had told her.
“Your last period was when?”
“2005. Sorry, but I can’t remember the exact month, not that it matters.”
“Yes. Hysterectomy. That’s what it says here.”
The technician turned away to rattle some notes into her keyboard, then continued with the scan, muttering, “Same as before. Strange.” She laid the scanner on her instrument tray and handed Jill a box of tissues to clean the gel from her abdomen.
“Am I done?”
“Yes. You can get dressed now.”
“Is everything okay?”
“I’m not allowed to discuss it with you. You’ll have to see your doctor, but what I can tell you is that she may send you back for another scan. Our equipment has been malfunctioning lately, and I wasn’t able to get the images she wanted.”
Jill was pretty sure it was her own equipment that was malfunctioning, not the hospital’s. It was impossible, yet she had all the symptoms of pregnancy. Judging from the size of her belly, which had literally grown overnight, she appeared six to seven months along.
Having no uterus to support the pregnancy theory, there had to be another explanation, and all of the possibilities terrified Jill. Visions of tumors, massive blood clots, liver disease, kidney failure and other horrors swam in her mind. She needed to talk to Renee, and wondered if her friend and physician was still at the clinic.
A bright flash lit up the sky over the town. The unmistakable mushroom cloud of a large explosion rose directly above the area in which Renee’s clinic was located.
Jill slammed on the brakes. No. It couldn’t be. It had to be a different street. She found the white spire of the church, then counted the streets from there to the explosion site. One. Two. Three. Magnolia Street, where the clinic was located, was three blocks from the church in the direction of the main road leading out of town.
She fished her phone out of her purse and called the clinic. No answer. She tried Renee’s cell phone and got no answer there either. She had to know. She put the car in gear and made her way down the slope toward the cloud of smoke. As she drew nearer the clinic, bits of debris littered the street and she stopped the car to avoid losing a tire to broken glass and twisted metal. She walked the final block feeling as though the shards of glass crunching beneath her shoes were actually eggshells that needed to be delicately tread upon to maintain the illusion that everything was all right. When she reached the site of the explosion, her worst fears were confirmed. Where Renee’s clinic had been not more than an hour ago was a smoking black hole, with dirty red flames licking around the edges.
“No! No, no, no,” she whispered, shaking her head.
Maybe Renee wasn’t there… maybe she had gone to lunch early. Then Jill saw her friend’s car, still parked in her reserved space in front of the clinic. What had been a shiny silver Lexus an hour ago was now a blackened hulk sitting on four flaming tires.
A sob caught in her throat at the realization that her friend was gone. “Renee…”
She needed to go home.
She needed to collect her children and make sure all were accounted for, then gather them close until they found out what was going on. Was it a terrorist attack? An act of war?
She texted Johanna:
I’m coming home. R u there yet?
NO! Whatever you do, don’t go home!
Zoe and I are at the mall waiting for you. Just get over here and I’ll explain. Do NOT go home!
What about Charlie?
Fuck Charlie. Just get here ASAP!
Jill took a last tearful look at the burning clinic before rushing to her car. Sirens rose around her as she sped away toward the mall, passing the first of the fire trucks to reach the scene.
* * *
Johanna had never been so relieved to see her mother. She gave her a huge hug.
“You didn’t go home, did you?”
“No, I came straight here, like you said. Where’s Zoe?”
Johanna nodded toward the arcade. “About halfway through a roll of quarters, I’d guess.” Her mother looked shaken up. “Are you ok? What’s with the hospital stuff?”
“I-I don’t know. I just don’t know what’s going on.” Jill burst into tears. She opened her jacket to reveal her swollen belly.
Johanna gaped. “Mom, are you… pregnant?”
“Of course not!”
“Then what did the doctor say? Surely Renee has some explanation for… whatever this is.”
“No, that’s what I’m afraid of. Not that I’m sick, or… something. Jo, Renee is dead. Her clinic just blew up. I saw it from Hospital Hill.”
“What? Who blows up a clinic?” Johanna asked, although she knew. Anti-abortionists blew up clinics all the time. Overzealous drug addicts, looking to loot the place, but underestimating the power of a fertilizer bomb was another likely possibility, given the clinic’s rural setting.
Johanna pulled Jill into her arms and let her sob into her shoulder. Mascara smeared all over the shoulder of her pink waitress uniform, but Jo didn’t care. She was about 90% certain she would not be going back to work at Maddy’s again after what she’d witnessed that morning. She led her mother to a bench and sat down with her, wondering how in the blue hell she was going to tell her about Charlie, and the other men.
An explosion rocked the building, accompanied by the sound of shattering glass and the screech of metal on metal.
Terrorist attack! Was the first thought to flash through Johanna’s mind and from the look of alarm on her mother’s face, she could tell that she was thinking the same thing.
“Zoe!” Jill shouted, bolting for the arcade to protect her youngest daughter.
Johanna moved tentatively in the direction of the blast. When she rounded the corner, she saw with relief that it hadn’t been an explosion at all, just an automobile crash. A large shiny black vehicle was wedged into a secondary mall entrance, near the food court. It was stuck tight, like the driver had tried to drive into the mall, then only managed to fit the cab of the vehicle through the opening.
The passenger door opened and a soldier jumped out. Her fatigues were splattered with blood.
Johanna ran to her. “Are you okay?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” she said, “but he’s had better days.” She nodded toward the truck. Through the open door Johanna could see the silhouette of the driver, slumped against the steering wheel.
“Sonofabitch tried to kiss me, so I blew his brains out.”
“What the fuck?”
“I’ll explain later. Right now I need to get these passengers out.”
The woman slid underneath the vehicle and unlocked something. “Help me with this, will you?”
Johanna crawled on her hands and knees, then flipped onto her back and scooted over to where the soldier was struggling to open a sliding panel.
“Wedge your feet here and push, on three.”
Johanna did as she was told and together they managed to force the panel open. The soldier drew her sidearm and aimed it into the opening.
“Stand down, Agent Stone. It’s Sergeant Wells. I’m entering the rear of the bus now. Everyone okay in there?”
Several voices murmured the affirmative.
“Sergeant Josie Wells, U.S. Army. Please move away from the emergency door. I’m coming in now.”
The soldier stood, then crawled up into the back of what appeared to be a large bus, from Johanna’s point of view.
“Any injuries?” Josie inquired. More murmurs. “Ok, we are going to exit through this panel in an orderly fashion. We have had to make an emergency stop, but you are safe and have nothing to fear. Who’s going first?”
Johanna slid out from under the bus to make way for the passengers. She heard a ripping sound and felt her uniform tear away from one shoulder.
“Shitballs!” she muttered. Maddy made her waitresses pay a deposit for their uniforms, which was as good as gone now that this one was damaged. Then she remembered that she probably wouldn’t be working at the diner anymore, so it didn’t matter.
The men and women emerged from beneath the bus. Johanna offered a hand to help any who looked like they needed it. Most were familiar faces; in a small town like Esther, Oklahoma it was next to impossible not to have seen each resident at least once.
Her mother arrived, dragging Zoe, who looked none too pleased at having been kidnapped from the arcade. When she saw the bus, her eyes widened and she stopped resisting.
“Wow! Cool! How many casualties? Are there like dead bodies and guts everywhere in there?”
“Sorry to disappoint you, but no. Just one. The driver.”
“Oh my! Should we get help for him?” Jill asked.
Johanna shook her head. “He’s beyond help. He came down with a bad case of bullet through the head.”
“Whoa…” Zoe stared in awe, leaning toward the bus in hopes of getting a glimpse of the driver.
A scuffle could be heard inside the bus, then Sergeant Wells spoke again, in a sharp, commanding tone.
“Agent Stone, I need you to stand down now! Step away from the woman! Sir! Stop!”
Three shots rang out in rapid succession, followed by screams from inside the bus and more from the group gathered outside.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Calm down! Please exit the bus one at a time. Do not panic. Move in an orderly fashion!”
The rest of the passengers emerged more quickly than the first group. Sergeant Wells brought up the rear. Johanna noticed more blood on her uniform than before. Some of the passengers had blood on them as well.
Jill let out a small scream, dropping Zoe’s hand to run into the final group of passengers. She threw her arms around a blood-splattered woman.
“Oh my God, Renee! Are you all right? Are you hurt? Jill sobbed, dabbing at her face with the sleeve of her blouse.
Johanna hadn’t even recognized Dr. Garcia underneath the red mess covering her face.
“I’m fine,” Renee said, hugging Jill back. “I’m not injured. It’s not my blood, it’s…” she choked back a sob, unable to finish the sentence.
“I thought you were dead. I thought I saw your clinic blow up.”
Renee shook her head, glancing over at Sergeant Wells. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
Johanna marched over to the fountain, where Wells was washing the blood from her face.
“What’s going on? What is all this?”
“It’s top secret.”
“Really.” Johanna crossed her arms defiantly. “Does your secret have anything to do with men eating their own heads?”
Wells sighed. “I guess it doesn’t matter at this point. The mission has been compromised and I’ve just killed two superiors.”
“Let me guess. They tried to get kissy-face?”
“Don’t these people deserve an explanation?”
“And how do you suppose we do that without creating panic?”
“I think we’re long past panic, Sergeant.”
“I guess so.”
A small crowd had begun to form and questions rose around them like the humming of insects. Wells held her hand up, silencing the crowd.
“I’ll tell you what I know, but you must agree to remain calm regardless of what you may hear or see in the next few hours.”
People slumped on benches, leaned against mall furnishings or slid to the floor as Josie began to speak.
* * *
Nobody knew exactly when or where it began, and its origin was still unclear. It was believed to be an alien pathogen, although biological terrorism hadn’t been ruled out yet. Only men were affected, and the method of transmission was also unclear. The only thing certain was what happened afterward.
An estimated 72 hours after coming in contact with the pathogen, the victim would begin to exhibit strange behavior, namely removing his own head and consuming the contents. A tentacle-like appendage grew in place of the head. After the head was empty it was worn as a helmet of sorts, concealing the alien’s identity and allowing it to blend into the population.
The thing was, the aliens didn’t know enough about human civilization to assimilate effectively. To gain information about their enemy, they resorted to humankind’s foremost source of entertainment: movies.
Their mission: To invade Earth.
Their means of invasion: Eliminate the men, who they saw as the primary threat, then take their places and impregnate the females with their own kind. Impregnation was accomplished by implanting an egg in the female’s abdomen, via the tentacle.
A single kiss was all it took.
The aliens mimicked what they saw in movies, quoting Bogart and Gable and other classic leading men in a cheesy attempt to woo the women into relinquishing a kiss and sealing the fate of humankind.
* * *
The small crowd was silent for several minutes after Josie finished speaking.
Finally, Renee spoke.
“Am I to understand that only men are vulnerable to… whatever this is, and women are immune?”
“Provided they don’t kiss any of the men, yes.”
“And so those pregnancies I’ve seen… the unexplained ones. They are a result of that?”
Jill covered her mouth and stifled a sob, tears spilling out of her eyes. Johanna put an arm around her.
Renee waved an arm toward the wrecked bus. “And what is the purpose of this?”
“Homeland Security’s feeble attempt to keep the situation secret. Too many doctors were seeing strange pregnancies and starting to ask questions. They’ve sent out teams to round up medical personnel and destroy medical records.”
“By blowing up clinics? That’s insane!”
“That’s America.” The soldier shrugged. “Other teams are out there right now, collecting all women who are visibly pregnant.” She glanced at Jill. “Once impregnated, the egg, or whatever it is, grows rapidly, becoming visible overnight.”
“What happens when it… hatches?” Jill asked.
Josie looked down at her boots and shook her head.
“No!” Johanna shouted.
“I’m sorry. They have been trying to study it, to find some kind of antidote, but so far none of the female subjects have survived.”
“What about the men?” Johanna asked.
“We are under orders to eliminate any men who exhibit romantic behavior.”
A nervous laugh rippled through the males in the group.
“So guys, what that means is, be sure to act like men and don’t try to get romantic with any women or you might get shot. Sorry.”
* * *
SIX MONTHS LATER
Sentry duty was long and tedious, much like her previous job at Maddy’s Diner. Johanna paced to stave off the numbness creeping into her toes. It wasn’t easy finding footwear that fit anymore, since all the stores had been looted long ago. She’d had to resort to a pair of mismatched high-heeled boots from a display window because they were the only ones left in her size. On the run from a particularly tenacious Fleeb doing a poor imitation of Pepe Le Pew at the time, she’d had no time to shop around. The irony of a shoe shortage in a world ruled by women never escaped her for a moment.
A lot had changed in the past few months, though it seemed like years had passed since the day she witnessed her brother’s self-decapitation in the kitchen. She was still working at Maddy’s, but her job description these days was different, as was the diner itself.
Maddy was long gone, having exploded giving birth to an alien embryo after being impregnated by Kevin the fry cook. On the day Johanna lost her mother in likewise fashion, she swore revenge on the invaders.
Armed with assault rifles, Johanna and Zoe went on a grief-stricken rampage, shooting every man in sight, infected or not. Johanna had to admit, the kid was a good shot. All those hours spent playing Call of Duty had paid off. Zoe was well-equipped to survive in the world in which she would grow up.
A surge of female warriors rose, following Johanna’s lead. An unlikely army of women from all walks of life – bank tellers, beauticians, school teachers and more – history’s most fashionably dressed infantry waged war on mankind. At first they were met with considerable resistance from the real military, but as more women took up arms and more men morphed into kiss-crazy babbling Fleebs, a global shift of power took place.
Maddy’s diner was now an outpost, due to its location on the interstate at the edge of town. The sign inviting travelers to come in and eat lay in a heap of rubble after being blown up with a grenade launched at a fuel truck driven by a Fleeb. ‘Fleeb’ was what they called the infected men, after the sound they made through their proboscis.
Pockets of resistance still remained. The men had gone underground, and for good reason, because males were shot on sight, Fleeb or not. The object was, blast all men, take no prisoners. However, some women were still suckers for… suckers, and pregnancies still occurred from time to time. Some of the men tried cross-dressing as a disguise, but most did a lousy job of it and were easy to pick out. Nonetheless, all who entered Estrogenesis, Oklahoma had to check in at one of the outposts, where they would be transported to the hospital for blood work and a doctor’s examination to confirm their gender.
What would become of the human species once all men were eliminated? That was the question on many minds. Sperm banks held a possible solution. Once the threat was contained, women could become pregnant again in hopes of repopulating the species.
Would male children born into the new world be immune to the Fleeb pathogen, or would they, too become infected? Nobody knew. If the Fleeb was there to stay, the only solution was to eliminate the male offspring and keep the females. As an Amazonian society, humankind’s time on Earth was destined to expire once the last sperm was gone.
Copyright © 2014 Mandy White
This story is featured in the WPaD Anthology Goin’ Extinct.
Who can come up with a dozen different ways to end the world? We can!
This apocalyptic collection of short stories explores numerous ways in which life as we know it could end. From the traditional nuclear apocalypse to cosmic events, zombies, mysterious alien substances, evil corporations and even… coffee. These stories will shock, entertain and tug at your heart strings. For your post-apocalyptic reading list, ‘Goin’ Extinct’ is a must-have.
Including stories and poetry from: Mandy White (Author), David W. Stone (Author), Diana Garcia (Author), Marla Todd (Author), Nathan Tackett (Author), J. Harrison Kemp (Author), David Hunter (Author), Michael Haberfelner (Author), Jade M. Phillips (Author), Gina McKnight (Author), Mike Cooley (Author), , Chris Da Cruz (Author), S.E. Springle (Author)
Table of Contents
- Existence is No Longer Profitable ~ David Hunter
- Zoila’s Zombie ~ Jade M. Phillips
- Battle of the Bean ~ Mandy White
- ~ His Beating Heart ~ Poetry by Marla Todd
- Zombie Days ~ Marla Todd
- Skeet Beecham’s Confessions from the End of the World ~ J. Harrison Kemp
- ~ The Quell ~ Poetry by Diana Garcia
- Quietus ~ Diana Garcia
- Purple ~ David W. Stone
- It’s All Over on Elm Street ~ David Hunter
- Dead Matter ~ Mike Cooley
- ~ Electrical Chaos ~ Poetry by Sara Jane
- Survival of the Fittest ~ Michael Haberfelner
- The Last Summer Storm ~ Val Fox
- Captain Sandy and the Airship at the End of the World ~ Marla Todd
- Insectisorium ~ David W. Stone
- ~ Untitled poetry by S.E. Springle
- Finding Tennesee ~ Gina McKnight
- Never Mind the Humans, Here’s the Rodents ~ Michael Haberfelner
- Lullaby ~ Nathan Tackett
- ~ The Great Flood ~ Poetry by Chris Da Cruz
- Just One Kiss ~ Mandy White
Enough of the official description…
The first time I read this book I laughed out loud – not because it was funny but because it is SO GOOD.
WPaD is the acronym for Writers, Poets and Deviants. We are a diverse group of writers who came together on the Internet to support and encourage each other.Our collaborative works are charity fundraisers, with a percentage of royalties being donated to Multiple Sclerosis in support of members of our group who live with MS.
WPaD books are available worldwide in paperback and ebook editions.
Find WPaD Publications on Facebook for updates on our upcoming projects Or follow us on Twitter: @wpadpublication