“But what doesn’t make any sense to me,” Dad began, “is what’s causing it!”
Thus began a long search through the house. They dug up the pipes, but they were in good condition, not leeching copper or lead, or letting some outside pollutant in. They threw away every caustic household cleaner they had, and the symptoms did not abate. Every poison, whether it was bug poison or artificial fragrance, was disposed of.
Still, their son got sicker and sicker. The ravages of disease are never pleasant to look upon, least of all in one’s child. The happy, laughing child who just a few months ago was barely containable now lay limp and pale in bed.
Their doctors were at a loss and wanted to bring him into the hospital for intensive care and study, but Mom wouldn’t have it. She was convinced her son was dying.
“I won’t have him dying in that cold hospital, scared and alone where he doesn’t know anyone, with all those nurses constantly bothering him and hurting him with their needles and their damn tests,” she hissed. “Haven’t we put him through enough?! Enough tests! Enough needles! If I have to lose my baby I won’t lose him in that horrible place!”
Dad was more hopeful. He thought there must be some cause, something he could get destroy, that would save his son. Men are like that. He cut out artificial additives altogether, cut out GMO crops, cut out antibiotics. Still, his son withered and paled. He got rid of all the electronics they didn’t need, he bought the most advanced air filters he could get his hands on, he stapled the drapes to the walls and used UV lights like the ones he’d seen in a documentary on Iceland instead of the sun. Nothing. The disease marched on.
Finally, at his wits end, and accepting his wife would die herself before she let her son die in a hospital, Dad bought a house deep in the countryside, far away from any civilization. Off the grid. Perfectly primitive. You didn’t hear about diseases like this back in the old days, so he was convinced it must be some modern ailment, brought about by technology or pollution or something, something he could escape.
Their son seemed a little happier out in the country. He sat by the window when he was well enough to get out of bed, insisted they push his bed up next to another so that when night fell, he could see the stars. Mom started gardening, and he was able to sip purees and broths of the crops she grew. His room was full of flowers and other lovely things from out in the woods and pastures surrounding their tiny home.
Still, the disease continued. Less and less of him was there every day, and he was replaced by the disease. Pale, bloodlessly so, losing bone density every day. Although his strength was returning, the disease seemed to go even faster, determined to steal him away before he gained enough strength to shake it off.
One day, Mom came in with a huge squash to show him, and found him curled under the bed. His limbs were entirely rubbery, and he sagged like a sack full of jelly when she picked him up.
“Mama,” he gurgled, smiling toothlessly, the holes where they’d fallen out still gaping in his gums. “That’s a big squash!”
The last little frayed bit of her sanity unraveled at the sight of it. She laughed and said, “yes, it is, baby!” and cooed at him, as though nothing was wrong at all. She never realized how bad it was, never again. It was a mercy.
Dad swallowed down vomit when he saw what was left of the boy, and made sure he was some yards from the house before he started weeping. It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair. They were a good family, he’d always been generous and charitable, said his prayers, washed his hands. Why did his son have to suffer?
He’d have done anything to take those horrible symptoms onto himself, if only it meant his son would get to live, and his wife wouldn’t have to bury a child. No mother should ever have to bury her own baby.
From that day on, their son shunned daylight, and only came out at night. Mom stapled heavy sheets to the windows of his room and carried him out to see the stars every night instead.
Swelling of the head started after the last of their son’s ribs dissolved. Still, his mood and energy improved. He laughed and sang like he always had, though he could no longer leave his bed. Mom spent all her time with him, so Dad had to take up the slack in the garden. All his friends in the nearby small town pitched in to help, though he refused to show them any but the initial pictures of his son.
They could tell by the haggard, haunted look on his face, the manic glint of his wife’s eyes the few times they’d seen her, and the sheer amount of gauze and ointment they purchased that something was happening. Something bad.
Wives made pot pies and cakes, and husbands gave Dad a light discount, stepped in on missed shifts for him. Tiny things, the only things they could do. Sometimes, they noted the blood and what they assumed was some sort of pus staining his collar and the rims of his sleeves, and gave a prayer for the family. Please, Lord, they prayed, let the boy die. Let his family have peace. Let him have no more pain.
One night, Dad came home, and something was walking around his house, accompanied by his wife. His mind refused to acknowledge it as his son, at least at first. It was too much.
“Look, darling, look, he’s walking again!” Mom wept, throwing herself at him. “Moving out here was what he needed! You were right! It’s a miracle!”
“Dad, was work fun?” The voice was more bubbles than words, bubbles and ringing, but somehow, Dad understood him just fine.
They spent the night together out looking at the stars. Mom and their son sang ‘twinkle little star’ until Dad was so goddamn sick of it he wanted to smash their fucking heads in. How could she be so calm?! He understood that she was dissociating–he looked it up on the internet when the sight of it terrified him to the point of nightmares–but for the love of God! Would it kill her to be a little less obnoxious?!
He felt bad afterward, when both of them were asleep. It wasn’t their fault. His temper… it was getting the better of him.
The thing that had been their son joined them for breakfast, a sheet over its head to shield its snow white flesh from the sunlight. It ate bacon and eggs and giggled when Mom wiped its chin clean. Just like he had. But it couldn’t be him. No disease… no disease could really be like this. It was beyond medicine.
Oh, thank God they hadn’t taken him to the hospital. This thing may not have been his son anymore, but it was obviously a child. Those doctors… they would have done just what Mom thought, and tortured it with tests and procedures. And they wouldn’t even have gotten their son back. This was no disease. There could be no cure.
The ends of its white… it was hard to call them arms, but since it had long, delicate fingers at the end, they weren’t quite tentacles. So, appendages. The ends of its white appendages were starting to go all translucent, like a jellyfish. Its eyes had lost their lids some time ago, but now its eyes were growing. The whites and irises tinted darker and darker, until they were ink black.
One night, while they were stargazing as they always did, the creature looked down from the galaxies and stars, and they were still there, reflected in its eyes.
“I love you, Daddy.” Its mouth didn’t open, but Dad still heard it.
“I love you too.”
The slit that remained of its mouth twisted, and Dad found his own mouth moving without his consent, garbling out the word ‘son.’ The last thing he saw of the creature before he ran into the woods to vomit was it smiling and leaning into his wife.
He couldn’t take any more of this. He was going to have to do something. It would be easy to run, run away and abandon the monster and the madwoman it had made of his wife, but… but that was evil. He was a man, and no real man abandoned his wife. What other choices did he have, though? This little display had made it clear that if he displeased the thing, it’d have no trouble forcing him to do what it wanted.
He’d have to take it by surprise, then. He’d have to kill it.
His chance never came. He spent a few days and nights trying to psyche himself up, sharpening his ax until it was razor sharp as no ax was really meant to be.
Then, they appeared.
Two more creatures, about as tall as a normal person but so slender, with those huge staring eyes full of stars, came pale and shimmering from the woods. Mom clutched their tiny creature closer, and it clung to her, distressed at the sight of them. Dad ran to get his ax, and by the time he’d returned, the two things were right upon his wife.
“Oh,” she said, though they’d made no sound. “Oh, I see…”
One waved a hand without looking up, and Dad found himself staggering forward to join them, grip still tight on his ax.
“Well, I wish someone had told me! …no, that makes sense, you’re right.” She nodded. “I understand. Did we do fine? We love him–oh, I’m terribly sorry! We love it very much, you know…”
She rose to her feet, and for the first time since their appearance, turned to her husband.
“Darling, did you know–this–this one here is our son, well, this little guy’s, it’s its real parent! We were watching after their child for it! It wasn’t a disease!”
It was its artificial form fading away. It can only be sustained for so long.
There was no sound. Neither of the beings regarded him. But information flowed into Dad’s head nonetheless, and he knew it was from them.
We didn’t mean to cause such distress. But after you moved, it was hard to locate you. We apologize for all the trouble this caused you. But we’ll be taking the child now, and your troubles are over.
“W–wait just a goddamn second!” Dad exclaimed, brandishing the ax. Neither being flinched, but Mom squealed and turned away, shielding the creature in her arms. “If this is your child–where the Hell is mine?! My wife was pregnant–she gave birth–where’s our real son?!”
He is with us. We have been caring for him with the same care you showed this child.
“Oh, he’s alright?” Mom cried. “Can we–can we have him? Can we even see him?”
This world would prove deleterious to his health. You are not as sturdy as we are, and he has spent much time with us.
The other turned its expressionless, mouthless face toward its companion, then stepped forward. The information flow it sent out had a different feel than the other’s; not a different voice, or different timbre, but it came into Dad’s head with greater care, greater control.
If you would like, sweet one, you may accompany us. You can be with your real son. He will be pleased to see you. He watched you caring for his match and was well relieved that you showed it such loving care. Yes. Yes, it would be a just reward for you to come with us.
“Wonderful!” Tears flowed down her cheeks. “I didn’t really want to have to say goodbye to this child. I’ve been with it for so long, it’s practically my own. I feel like it’s my own.”
This sentiment is why you shall be rewarded, sweet one.
The first being, the one with the rougher ‘voice,’ held its hand up as Dad approached.
Do not think we didn’t taste your intentions, feeble little human wretch. You wished to kill this child.
“No!” Mom flinched. “Darling, that’s not true, is it?!”
You wished to kill my little child. You wanted to sink that ax into its tender head and murder it. You will not be rewarded. You shall be punished.
Know that if your mate had not been so kind, hateful creature, this punishment would befall your own spawn.
That night, the nearest neighbors were disturbed by panicking animals and baying dogs. When they went out to investigate, they saw bright lights in the woods. Thinking it must be poachers, they grabbed their guns and went to investigate.
One family thought to go ask the new people, the city slickers with their sick boy. They had to admit some curiosity, some hope to see the sick child, but they were mostly concerned that these newcomers wouldn’t know how best to handle poachers. Afraid one of them might get shot by an idiot with an itchy trigger finger or a sickness. You could never be too careful, living this far out in the woods.
The cabin’s lights were on, the door was open, but it was eerily silent as they approached. When they cleared the bushes, they found the husband, facedown in the yard.
They turned him over, knowing he was dead by the pool of blood he lay in. The ax was buried in his neck, his own two hands clutched around the handle. As for the wife and the boy, there was no sign of either of them.
Inside the house was everything the family had still owned. Covering a great deal of it was partially dried slime, almost like snot. It had a faint glimmer to it, as though there was glitter suspended within.