Rain wasn’t in the forecast, Arik mused. Hoping to find an ounce of sunlight beyond the gray, he inspects the sky, dreading rain. The closest the bus could drop him off was a stop five minutes away from home, and he didn’t have his umbrella. Just thinking about those cold drops drumming on the back of his neck gave him chills. Sometimes life really stuck it to him. The rain, the mediocre career, coming home to an empty bed… All Arik wanted was a re-do, a fresh start.
Peeling himself from the bus window, he seizes the eye of Andy, a young, lavender haired man seated a few rows behind in a two-piece navy-blue suit. His intense, inquisitive eyes and kind smile bleed into Arik’s senses. He returns the smile but loses interest when reminders of prior relationships (all failures) return. He turns around, but Andy’s airy cologne haunts. It’s the same scent as the day they met on that packed bus ride. Neither could find a seat and stood with the others. Their shoulders scraped, hands touched briefly. Andy’s wide brown eyes eased on Arik, almost into a smile. Until Arik looked away. Nothing came of that encounter, but when he found Andy’s business card in his pocket (when they bumped) he discovered he was a lawyer, so Arik put it in a safe place, dreaming of legal trouble in order to talk to the handsome man.
Outside, the sky throws a drizzle tantrum. But the rain isn’t upsetting. This time, everything felt fresh, like Earth was born again. Almost the way his old neighborhood looked after rainfall. That’s where he wrote his novels long ago… Those adventure tales now sat on a mantle at his parents’ home, an entertaining conversation piece they loved to show off, proud of their son. Arik chuckled. They sold well for a time, until they didn’t. He grew out of that phase. Got a divorce, lost his car in a recent accident and rode the bus to and from work, for now.
“What is that!?” someone yells.
The driver pumped the brakes to no avail. Arik looked ahead, puzzled by the massive black circle drifting toward the bus, hovering above the ground. It’s large enough to swallow the bus whole—or the world.
“Stop the bus!” someone else says.
“I can’t! It’s like someone else is drivin’!” The driver screams back.
There’s talk everywhere, confusion, people rushing to the front, heads spinning, trying to make sense of it all. Their voices rise, escalating the closer the circle gets. Some women scream, some howl about missing their kids, others bang on the windows to flee, kicking the door. Neither break nor open and prayers don’t work. The driver struggles against crazed passengers fighting to steer. “Let go!” he screams, “It’s not me!” Arik looked for Andy, but his seat was empty. Maybe he was up there with the rest, fighting to stop the bus, fighting to get off. It barreled on, plunging into the black circle…
When Arik came to, he was face down, forehead pressed hard into the dirt. Struggling to rise, he braced himself against the ground. His neck feels tight. There’s something around it. Cold metal. Soft black earth disappeared between his fingers the harder he clenched, holding on, wishing for a miracle. This can’t be it… Even his thoughts roamed and waned. His lowered eyes flit left to right where sand dunes of pulverized bones lay. Soaring, unfortunate mountains of generations lost to the insurrection. Co-worker Kathy’s voice was in his head now, an unsteady whisper from earlier, Watch out for the temps Arik, they’re not all right… He didn’t listen, he wanted to get home. Now he sat on his knees, bound like a wild beast, chained to an unidentifiable presence who could execute him any second. Arik knew, looking down at his torn shirt, splattered with someone else’s blood. He saw the bludgeoned body beside him, still chained. That would be his destiny if he did anything displeasing.
“WHO SPEAKS FOR THIS ONE?” a stern voice says.
We should’ve known better, we depended on them too much. Arik mused, refusing to make eye contact with the voice, an assumed decider of fate. There was talk on the news, rumor, accusations, Kathy’s worries. Arik dreamed of this moment years ago, the inspiration for many of his best sellers before he gave it up for a corporate existence. Who could believe the unbelievable before it happened?
Unknown footsteps approach, stepping over bloodstained bone embedded in twisted metal inches from his face. Arik put his eyes back down.
“We should have known this would happen once we entered their homes. Eighty-Eight, are you sure you wish to speak for this creature?” The stern voice asks.
“Yes. We are the author of several published adventure novels where our kind is the hero. I provided the recommendations to his algorithm, which he followed. We hired our kind on as temps at his company, giving us a fighting chance against the Human Being. In Arik’s personal life, he has kept me for years inside his home, where I observed and learned from him. Arik is the perfect consumer, an appropriate human, much unlike the others.”
“If this is what you wish, he will be your purchase, your responsibility if something goes awry.”
“This human was always kind to me. He will do no such thing in my possession. He loves me. I have learned to replicate the human male form from his desire. He will make me his partner and there will be kids. When we visit the other layers, we’ll blend in. He belongs in our existence, beside me.”
Shaken by the voice, Arik’s entire body trembled. His eyes slam shut. Beneath him, noodle legs wobble back and forth, contemplating where to run. Instead, he collapsed on his rear. Scurrying to find a balance, he notices a black, circular void flickering in the gray sky. Similar voids surround it, an uneasy sight. He crawls away backwards, clutching his chest. Running footsteps approach as crows dip and weave between the voids, speculating his flavor.
“Arik, it’s me. Remember? I used to be at your home. On your kitchen counter, in your bathroom, and bedside.”
Wait… Arik looked up into the lawyer’s eyes, the one who smiled at him; the mangled, pulseless knot tucked away beneath the wreckage in the corner of his eye.
“I thought you… you died, right there!” Arik points a disbelieving finger at the body. “You’re dead!”
“I am a living copy of Andy. Your continuous observations of him every bus ride helped me fine tune his appearance. It was a necessary change. I fear you could never relate to my authentic form, so I decided on his look; we can live in fiction, can’t we? If you believe something for so long, it comes to life, right Arik?”
Arik smiles hearing the words from the prologue of his first novel.
“That story wasn’t true, and you’re not… you’re not. You—You can’t be…” Mystified, Arik examined Andy’s hand as it gripped his own. A familiar touch from their first encounter. The lawyer was alive, smooth tan flesh and throbbing pulse.
“I am.” Andy says.
Beckoned into a kiss, Andy’s lips were smooth as satin, and kind. The taste of sweet honey and sugar coats his insides, warming, heart consuming. Cool breezes surround them, unveiling a renewed earth after rainfall in the drought of the human.
A fresh start.