OF HUMANS AND INSECTS
by Julian Maven
The smoke, tiny particles of carbon and carcinogens, enters your lungs and you cough a deep, rich, helpless rasp of a cough.
It always begins this way. You look around the pub, your immediate surroundings, the way a rabbit might, having stumbled blindly into a coyote's den. There are a few sad, listless people sitting alone. A bartender is across the bar and down a ways, muttering to himself, arranging half-full bottles of bourbon and brandy, ale and vodka, scratching at his day's growth of stubble. A young woman, horse's-mane blonde, sits at a corner table, crying. In her hand is a cocktail glass full of blood, presumably drained from some small mammal. Another table holds captive a middle-aged sarariman, the star of a thousand private,
censored adventures and fantasies, his hands hanging dead at his sides, a stare of total slack-jawed nothing plastered across his face.
On your immediate left is a man. You try to ignore him, but he blows smoke in your face. You cough again.
"You're a hot ticket, you are," he leers, through teeth of stained ebony. "Lemme buy you a drink."
He is bacteria anthropomorphized. His numerous flagella hold, in no particular order: a stein of lager, a fat and eternally malodorous cigar, a sheaf of pornography, a doctor's note proclaiming him free of all venereal disease, a bouquet of wilted flowers and a pair of handcuffs (for himself, naturally). His jellicated body parts are held in, barely, by reams of blue polyester and white leather. Around his neck you notice a sign that reads, alternately, "GENETIC FALLOUT INEVITABLE, PLEASE KEEP DISTANCE" or "OUT OF ORDER, DO NOT DEPOSIT CHANGE" or simply "COWARD." Taped to his bare skull with layers of thick Scotch tape is a yellowing Polaroid photograph of a possum's face. You can almost see the instinctual fear working beneath the glint of beady, stupid eyes.
A drink. You nod, slowly, not out of any desire for alcohol but instead out of fascination with this near-human specimen. He grins with victory, thinking the game is his, and calls the bartender over. He orders two Harvey Wallbangers. He doesn't ask you what you want. He's quite certain he knows what you're after.
The bartender clearly speaks nothing but some sort of personalized conglomeration of French, Bavarian, Klingon, and Inuit. He does, however, comprehend (after a few repeated efforts) the words Harvey and Wallbanger, and before long all you can see are his hands flying, liquor droplets stinging your eyes as they individually escape the inertia of the vortex. He pours the noxious beverage into two tall test tubes and graciously proffers them outwards. You take yours and peer into its depths; you cannot bring yourself to drink. You are starting to wonder how you got here in the first place.
The evolutionary anachronism next to you pulls a rusty switchblade from the inner recesses of his jacket. You flinch, momentarily, then realize he is only cutting a hole in his face-photograph, approximately around the mouth area, in order to pour his drink down his bony gullet and from there wherever God designed it to go. You are so intrigued with this process you don't notice the man has been talking for a few moments.
"So what's a sweet piece of ass like you doing in a scummy place like this? It's no place for a broad." He says this last word with sublime, almost supernatural, irony, unaware of the truth he's speaking. Then he lowers his voice confidentially. "You could run into some extremely unsavory types around here, you dig? No respect for the ladies, I tell you."
Your initial disorientation is being replaced with calm expectation. You know where this is leading. You know what the result will be. Neither you, nor this man, nor the bartender with his imaginative manner of communication, nor the crying woman in the corner can affect the destined outcome.
"What's your name, doll? Unless you want me to call you 'doll' for the rest of the night!" He guffaws, and a gang of rotting baby pterodactyls tumble from his mouth-hole and splatter horrifically on the tile.
"Jane," you say. It is the first word you've said, perhaps ever. A minuscule part of this man realizes the implications of this. For a brief moment, a true nanosecond, he stares at you in stark terror from beneath the photograph, which is rapidly flaking away. Then his blessed stupidity seizes him again.
"Well, 'Jane,'" he says, settling into an unintentional satire of seriousness. His entire tone belies his true intentions: in his mind, this is a business transaction, no more. "I think we both have the same thing in mind. I can arrange to satisfy your ... cravings if you're willing to submit to my unorthodox methods." He dissects you lustily with his dagger-eyes, rending skin from flesh, flesh from bone, bone from marrow. "Understand?"
You can hardly help but lose yourself in his eye sockets. In the gray, dusty half-light of his skull you can see partially decomposed brain tissue. Of course you understand; you've always understood. This demon, this beast on the prowl, this beggard of the hunt ... He desires but one thing. And you have every intention of giving him what he wants.
You nod in assent.
He licks the dirt-caked earthworms wriggling around his toothless face hole with something that looks like a chunk of rotting meat. "Then let's get to it." He turns to the bartender, who has become something of an existential anomaly. "One more for the road, Pete."
The bartender leaps over to your end of the bar in a single bound. "My name isn't Pete, sir," he says in a cultured baritone. You've never heard such perfect English, but then, you haven't heard much English to begin with. "It's Fred."
"Well, Frank, I need something to take the edge off."
The bartender raises a bottle of vodka in his right flipper, a cocktail glass in his left flipper, and a flask of vermouth in his central flipper. With a deft process of motions, he mixes an exquisite martini and slides it across the oak bar top to your companion.
He polishes it off in one swig and, alcohol trailing down his chin like the silvery wake of a snail, gives you a lead-lidded, stupid grin. He stands. "Shall we, then?"
Without waiting for a response, he makes for the door, arrogance streaming off him and condensing on every surface available. You follow him out. The stink of him is so strong, you could give him a year's start and still track him halfway around the world.
You allow yourself a small, hidden smile. This is going to be fun.
* * *
If possible, the air outside is filthier than the atmosphere inside the bar. You are in a narrow alley, blocked on all four sides by huge, mold-coated cement walls. There is detritus, littering the corners, human and otherwise, but you expect no interruptions. The garbage of a thousand past meals, encounters, and injections is more active than the biological remains hunched unconscious in the shadows.
A swell of ecstatic joy rises in you. You've never been happier to be human.
The man is shorter than you expected. Stocky, squat even, with great folds of flesh hanging from him. When he was sitting, his rumpled clothing hid these folds, but now you realize he is literally skin and bones: the skin of a giant hung from the bones of a dwarf. No mind: he has what you require, regardless of his outer dimensions.
He stares at you dumbly. He has been here so many times, the actual thrill of the moment has long worn away, leaving only a gaping maw with no pretenses or distractions. There is no anticipation or hesitation in his actions, simply genetically programmed acts. Code, software; his mind, or what little remains of it, is locked away behind doors of rote progression. He shanks his trousers down around his knees and looks
Not expectantly. Not even hopefully. He just waits for you to do your part.
You gaze at him in appreciation, his fleshy bits dangling impotently, his face finally revealed in full, not remotely frightening but pathetic, absurd. He begins to whine, a tiny angry buzz in the back of his throat; this is taking too long. He's a strange one; nevertheless, he will make for fond memories.
You unsheathe your claws. One hand, then the other.
The unsheathing is an inaudible, almost unnoticeable thing. You wonder, in passing, if he knows what is about to happen, and one look on his bald face says he does. He isn't terrified: by that you are disappointed. There is no fear in him, eaten away long ago.
You thrust one clawed hand into his twitching belly, the other into his chest. Bone cracks, flesh rends. Once you have a sufficient grasp of his internal organs, you viciously open your embrace, quite effectively rending him in twain.
There is no blood, and by that you are surprised: no life fluids, only a vast variety of insects. They have made a home of him, a utopian nest in which dung beetles and cockroaches, flies and moths and hornets, might live in perfect harmony. You are momentarily concerned by this, and begin your search.
Within moments, you locate the one abused and neglected asset of this fading creature, the one thing you need from him. Not what you'd been hoping for, as you hold up his heart, glistening black, to the faint gray light of the streetlight above. But a sufficient meal nonetheless.
You bite into the heart, smearing juices across your face. For a brief second, you lose your features and become truly human: white teeth tearing, wide eyes staring, nostrils flaring.
Then the mask returns, unwillingly, and you toss the bloodless remains in the gutter. You are satiated, hunger driven away for a few short hours, and your eyes sharpen for the next victim in the cycle of the hunt.
Story copyright 2001 by Julian Maven firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration copyright 2001 by Patrick Stacy email@example.com
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