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by Christi Nogle

5170 words

Six months ago, we were doing planks and pushups and eating perfect at every meal. Now me and Donny are lucky to make it around the block a couple times after dinner. That’s it for the day—and only on the weekdays, just so the dogs don’t get too hyper while we’re at work.

It’s fall. Feels good to let go.

Leaves are taking over the yard. There’s poo to clean up if anyone cared to look, but we don’t look. We’re too busy streaming horror movies and eating pasta and cinnamon rolls all weekend. Donny must be sneaking Halloween candy, too, because the bag’s going down. We can turn the lights off and go to bed at eight on Halloween for all I care. Might be nice to have a good snuggle.

We’re so cocooned, it takes us a week to notice it’s not just us, that there’s something up in the neighborhood. One day I put towels over the bathroom mirror and take the hanging ones out, and just a few days later everyone’s big mirrors are leaning against the trashcans.

It reminds me of when everybody got flatscreen TVs and dumped all the thick ones on the curb. Those blocky TVs were more than useless. They rubbed you the wrong way, like the mirrors do now.

It’s just too dark in the house to see things right. That’s what I tell Donny. When it’s dark and you look in a mirror, things seem to crawl and shift. Or if you’ve had a drink or three, you might think you look extra sexy—or when you try to cut your own hair, all the motions are off. Mirrors are strange. They’ve never been exactly right, and now they’re a little more wrong, is all.

And we don’t need them. We feel how strong and tight our bodies are getting. We feel our nails and our hair growing thicker and stronger, the lines in our chests and hands smoothing out. The spots on Donny’s arms are just a memory.

Mister and Gracie sprawl and snore at either end of the sectional. We make calzones, shortbread, big breakfasts for dinner. All winter we feel warm and full and good.

• • •

Donny’s the first to think we might be gone to heaven, but he’s the first to let go of that idea, too. He moves on to other theories that the guys cook up at work. A lot of those guys live in our neighborhood, but some of them don’t, which gets them all wondering about things like how far it’s spread, but there’s nothing on the news about it. Nothing online.

Oh, we still work and shop for groceries and pay the bills. Everybody keeps eating and pooping, that’s for sure. Everything’s easier than it should be, though. Work goes fast, me and my friends have a nice lunch every day, the appliances don’t blow out, pay lasts the month. Nobody’s got car trouble. We don’t get any unexpected calls from our parents.

Donny’s moved on to other theories, but I think we just might be in heaven—up until Donny catches his thumb on the truck door. The nail turns black and keeps hurting him. That wouldn’t happen in heaven.

• • •

We figure something’s coming, and finally in spring some gals in rubber suits come and ransack the house. One of them keeps us on the couch the whole time and says how after the rest is done, she’ll turn the couch over and go through the batting. They keep saying how gross the dog hair is every time they lift something up. It’s maybe the most humiliating thing to ever happen to me. They make fun of Donny’s comics and his books. They make fun of our food.

The dogs are kenneled up. They bark a while, but they settle when Donny uses his big voice, squeak under their breath for a bit to let you know they’re still nervous.

They’re stuck in these cages, but they still want to protect us. It’s pitiful.

It takes hours. I beg the one gal to sit us on the back porch a while ’cause it’s so nice out. There are people on the patio across the way, and we see the ones in suits rushing around their outbuildings. Some wear green suits, some pale pink. Donny presses the side of his leg against mine and rubs my knuckles.

He thinks we’re going to die. It never occurred to me, but I see in his face he already went there. I don’t know. When they’re finished, I don’t think they’ll just go—I’m not stupid—but I don’t know what’ll happen.

I say, “I was thinking we ought to get chocolate chip mint and pink peppermint and put a scoop of each on top of a brownie and then make Cara’s ganache recipe. I think it’s dark chocolate and butter. Or whip cream?”

“Keep going,” says Donny, and I talk about topping it with toffee chips and salt and black walnuts.

“Your yard’s real pretty,” says the gal. She walks a little away, tips her helmet up and spits on the ground, and Donny and me squeeze each other’s hands because that means it’s not something that’ll kill you. She wouldn’t take her helmet off. The old guy to the north of us whispers over the fence, “What do you know?” But she’s coming back, so we don’t answer.

“I said real pretty,” she says.

The grass is patchy but soft and bright. The crocus bed is up and some of the tulips. “Thanks,” I say.

She rocks back on her heels and says, “Yeah, I really like what you’ve done with all the dog shit.”

I get that rush to grab her by the scruff and drag her off my property, but I can’t do that, and that’s what finally makes me afraid. She’s slouching back, smirking, looking from side to side. The chemicals pumping through my blood turn to poison, and I’m cold all through.

The gal takes out a compact. She pushes her helmet back and she’s gorgeous, so gorgeous she has a boy’s haircut just to rub it in. She checks her mascara. “Gets hot in the suit,” she says, and, “Hey, you want to use this? She gestures like she’s going to throw the mirror to me and chuckles and goes inside.

They leave us outside for two minutes and know we won’t run. There are too many of them.

When they move us to the van, Donny has my hand. He’s saying, “Where are our dogs?” He lets go of me, pulling toward the house, but a man comes on one side of him and a bigger gal on the other. They put him in the back row of seats and I slide in beside him.

The dogs whimper from their kennels in the back. We poke our fingers through the bars and pet their noses. We see the vans sitting in driveways all the way out of town.

Then we’re on the highway for a good half hour, just complying our butts off.

Compliance is key, they told us back at the start of this thing, so we love on the dogs and keep holding hands and answering their questions. Anyone can see I’m complying a little better than Donny, who’s starting to quake. He asks questions of his own and they don’t answer.

Out past Hammett, the gal in the shotgun seat says she’s hungry, is there anywhere good to eat?

“Well,” I say, and not ten minutes later she’s coming out with sacks of chicken-bacon-ranch sandwiches and nests of garlic fries and small-size drinks for everybody. I taste something in my drink, but Donny doesn’t. He’s too nervous to eat, but he’s grateful for the root beer and drinks it down. I sip on my diet cherry pop and eat a few bites of sandwich before I go out, but before that I feel his hand go slack in mine, and I’m happy he won’t be nervous anymore. My arm feels heavy where I’m resting it on the kennel, and then I can’t keep my eyes open. I concentrate on the motion of the van building speed for the freeway.

• • •

“Don’t open your eyes,” Donny says. “Just lie still.” I do open them—how can someone wake up without doing that?—but I can’t see much of anything. I close them again and remember what happened.

We’re spooning in a bed that’s softer than we like. I’m the little spoon.

“I’ve got such a headache,” I say.

He feels my eyes to make sure they’re closed. “It’s the stress,” he says, and hugs me to him and then rubs my shoulders too hard. I hear the dogs breathing on the floor.

“Where are we?” I say, and Donny whispers for a long time about the room and what he saw earlier. He says the room is plain and white, about twenty feet square.

“The dogs?” I say.

“The dogs are fine—don’t they sound fine? Here, puppy,” he says and makes a smoochy noise. Gracey jumps up to us. Now she’s the little spoon. I sink my hand into her rough poodle coat.

Donny says there’s a table with padded chairs like in a motel room, and that’s all the furniture. It’s not entirely dark—a blue nightlight hangs mid-ceiling.

Oh, and there are mirrors on three of the walls. Big mirrors like on TV, the kind that have people watching from back of them.

We move in and out of conversation, in and out of sleep. We talk for the first time about how all of this started, a crawling in the mirror, just when it was dim or dark. We saw things there that we didn’t like seeing. That’s why we covered up the medicine cabinet. Just that one at first, then the one in the hall. But it wasn’t really that noticeable, was it? We didn’t like mirrors, and we maybe felt a little bit better than normal, was all.

I keep thinking the sun will come up, but after a while, Mister starts to squeak and then Gracey is pawing at me. Somebody makes a skunk fart. It’s still dark, and Donny finally says there’s no window, just another big mirror behind the bed.

“Good morning,” calls some man through a speaker. “Okay if we walk the dogs now?”

“Why are we here?” yells Donny.

“We’d like to go outdoors too,” I say.

“Okay to walk the dogs now?” he says, and Donny must nod, because the dogs are running towards a sound off to the left, and then they’re gone from the room.

“There’s a restroom behind the bed on your right. Feel for the door,” the man says from the speaker. “Feel free.”

And a gal comes on. “You ought to take a shower, too.” I catch the first cackle of a bunch of people before she must turn the speaker off, and it’s quiet again.

• • •

The light is blue, very low. We’re fine if we keep our eyes down. No mirror in the bathroom, so it feels more normal in there. Sometimes we make it in the shower and sit on the floor afterward, not wanting to go back to the bedroom.

There’s plenty of water, but they aren’t feeding us much, just vending machine sandwiches twice a day, once in a while a candy bar. They leave it on the table by the door when we sleep. They sent in bleach one time in a paper cup with a straw, another time gasoline. I screamed and beat on the walls when they first sent in things like that, but now I just flush it. I don’t like it going into the water supply, but it’s that or let it stink the place up.

I thought they were doping the dogs, but Donny says no, the dogs are just depressed because we aren’t doing anything. With no TV and no light and no good food or walkies, I’ve pretty well soured on the cocooning myself.

I want to move now. I get down and do some pushups and try to do some plank moves and Burpees and things like that. It’s tough with no music to keep going. It starts to burn, and I’ve got nothing but the burn to hold onto, but I keep at it, longer and longer.

One time I stand by the door and beg them to take the dogs away somewhere. My parents’ place if they can, or just somewhere. Even a shelter. They’re cuties; they’ll do all right.

Donny tells me no, stop it, the dogs are better off here. He pulls me back on the bed and shushes me with his hand. But there’s nothing wrong with the dogs. Whatever’s going to happen to us doesn’t need to happen to them.

We’re not stupid. We know we’ve been infected by something—some alien thing or some government thing. An experiment, an attack, it makes no difference now.

Things like this happen. It just feels unfair to be the ones it’s happening to.

Donny wonders if it was in the food. Or a meteor that came down near town. Or it came on the little feet of mice.

He sleeps more than I do. He says he has no hope anymore, though he’ll feel hopeful for me if I say he should, and I say of course he should.

Donny has a good ten years on me, harder years too, and I’ve always assumed I’m headed toward a life without him. We don’t have any kids, just the dogs.

“It was noticeable, if we’d’ve cared to notice,” he says.

“Maybe,” I say.

“We just wanted to stay happy as long as we could,” he says.

• • •

One time when Donny’s sleeping, I look into the mirror long and hard. Couldn’t explain why, not if you tortured me. I spoon behind him until I’m sure he’s out, then I stand and open my eyes.

At first it’s just a shifting, shimmering movement too small to notice. My face—I know I’m holding it still—but it’s moving slightly, crawling around the jaw. Then the mouth smiles and stretches tight, the motions just enough to bring on that alarmed feeling that made us cover the mirrors in the first place.

I start to see some things about my insides. Movements under my skin: muscles, heart, ribs. I lift my arm and see the motions at every point—all these arms stuck in the air between the place where my arm was and the place where it is. And a big dark cave where my guts ought to be.

The mirror’s telling me something true that no one else can see.

I’m hot and weak when I finally look away. I go on my stomach for the cool floor, not far from Mister. After a while, I feel cool and slide closer to him. He’s a husky-border collie mix, soft fur smelling of dander and the dirt from outside this place. I hug him into my belly and he sighs. I close my eyes.

He’s a special dog. Always so cute, his black and white patterns partly ordered like his mom’s were and partly wild like his daddy’s. Ice blue eyes. He was always special ’cause of his looks but later it was ’cause he was so smart and good.

I worried about him all the time when he was a puppy. I’d jump in and save him from every little thing. That’s why he’s such a baby now. Paranoid, Donny says.

I swear I can almost read Mister’s mind sometimes, and my goodness, he’s unhappy now, restless and stir-crazy and hopeless. He thinks he did something wrong and we’re punishing him.

In the space between my belly and his back, I feel something I’ve never felt before—something between warmth and bubbles popping. I hug him real tight and keep thinking I should let go now. I really should, but… there’s less and less of him to let go of.

I’m on my back now, pushing his jaw down into my chest. I see clear as day—my body from the waist down, my abs, white boxers, thighs all blue in the light. From my ribs up is the white fur, a furry paw sticking out near my sternum. His jawbone under my hand—and then just my chest bones under my hand. He’s gone!

He’s not, of course. He’s part of me now.

In the minute it took to take him into me, he never fought, never made a peep. I feel him waking up now, and he doesn’t panic. He doesn’t struggle. He’s warm and safe inside me and knows it. He’s energized, plotting because he knows a lot more now, and he still wants to protect me.

He’s grateful. I’m grateful too, at first, but the feeling starts to come that I’ve done something wrong. I don’t care about the people behind the mirrors, but I don’t want Donny to know.

I want to run. I’ve never felt caged in my life until just this second.

Donny’s still asleep. I rush to the shower. The water wakes him up, of course, and he’s asking why I’m in there, and I say I got too hot. There’s only a little blood, a couple dark drops that the water washes away.

When I sleep, I dream that I ate Mister, every bit of him, bones and fur and teeth and gristle, watching myself in the mirror the whole time. I dream that when I went into the shower, I left a slick of blood I had to lap up afterward, but that isn’t what happened at all.

• • •

It’s a bad time for Donny and me. I keep worrying the people behind the mirrors will say something about what I did with Mister, but they never do. I tell Donny they let the dogs out and then he just didn’t come back in with Gracey and maybe they sent him someplace better.

Donny paces. He’s mad at me ’cause I was the one who told them to send the dogs away.

He won’t let Gracey out again. He cleans up her messes with toilet paper and flushes them and swears at the guy on the speaker.

A bad time. Once, he hurls something into the mirrors. He peeks—just for a second—and says there’s no room behind the mirror. I happen to have my eyes open when he says it, and it’s true. Behind the broken glass is just a wall.

• • •

With Mister inside me making me stronger, I look in the mirrors anytime I want. My hair is different in the mirror, eyes glowing pale blue. My head has that tilt, and if I look a long time, Mister’s face comes in more. It’s good to see him.

Donny doesn’t say I’m any different. When I pull pieces of my hair around to look, they’re dark and plain, same as always.

One time I’m looking in the mirror and the door opens. Donny’s asleep and even if he was up, he wouldn’t look. It’s the gorgeous one with the short hair, wearing a doctor’s coat, leaning in from a bright hallway. She smiles, and the second I start towards her, she clicks the door shut.

Another time she says through the speaker, “Why didn’t you do this earlier?”

“Do what, you crazy bitch?” Donny yells even though he knows I don’t like that word.

• • •

Gracey’s scratching at the door and Donny jumps up to drag her to the shower. He’s trying to train her to go in there so he can hose it down. She whimpers.

“Just let her outside,” I say. “Maybe they’ll take her someplace better.”

Donny puts his face right up against mine. “They killed Mister.”

“They didn’t,” I say.

I can’t remember the last time we had a real blow-out. I usually try to make up right away; I’m doing that now. Please, you’re right, and please calm down, on and on like that. I smell that Gracey’s done her business and rush in to take care of it. I don’t know if my cleaning it up will make him madder, but probably not. It’ll probably soften him. The stress-poo is so nasty, but I wipe it with the toilet paper and water and hose off the shower and clean it all again with a little dot of shampoo.

I wash my hands and feet and dry them before I come back into the room. It’s to the point in the fight where if Donny pushes, I’ll start getting real mad, but if he lets go we can make up. And he’s dying to let go. I see it. He’s on the end of the bed. He holds out his arms, and I go to him. We hold each other. His face is in my belly, and I start to feel warm tingles there. I’m looking sideways into the mirror and see his eyes are open, looking straight up at me.

“What the hell are you doing?” he says.

I move away and come around the bed, get under the covers. Gracey jumps up and tucks into a ball between us.

“What were you doing?” he says.

“We can take Gracey someplace better,” I say. She hasn’t been groomed forever, and I have my hands deep in her rough fur. I don’t know what Donny thinks I’m doing to her, but he starts to pull her like he’s booting her off the bed. I’m already falling into her, covering her with my chest and arms.

“Come, take part of her,” I say, but he’s off the bed now, just watching. It’s fast and clean as can be, just a few drops of brownish blood on my T-shirt and the covers and that rush of thankful feeling again.

I’m frozen there in the rush of her. Everything’s frozen in place.

“I’ll get this cleaned up,” I say, and I go off to scrub the bedspread before the stain sets.

When I get back, he’s at the end of the bed, head in his hands.

“What do you look like to yourself? In the mirror, I mean,” he says.

I don’t answer ’cause he’s still mad. The room feels cool with no covers and nobody to curl up to. I do a few squats, turn to the mirror. If I just glance and do not focus, I think I see what Donny sees, me like I’ve always been but better. Everything tight, skin clear with good color, my plain dark hair somehow glossy. I close my eyes.

“If I look long and hard, I see what we’re becoming,” I say.

“You’re making it happen faster,” Donny says.

It’s true. Whatever life we thought we’d enjoy just a little while longer, it must be over now. Gracey’s just beginning to wake up in me, and I’m already hungry for something more. We ought to be out in the streets now. This rest has done me good, but some kind of struggle is what I need. Some kind of work.

“You should be looking, too,” I say. “It isn’t bad.” I’m thinking of the two of us breaking out together.

“How will we ever get home?” he asks.

“We won’t be going home,” I say, “but as long as we’re together… ”

He’s heartbroken. He’s thought about dying but he hasn’t thought about living and not going home. We’re all made up, just like that, but he’s ruined.

He’s like Mister was before I saved him. Sad and mopey, all the will gone out of him.

• • •

It’s hard to touch Donny now without taking him. The fluttery warm feeling starts six inches ahead of the touch, like static. He says he has nothing—no one but me, no home. His hope went a while ago, and now he can’t even touch me.

I should take him. “Can you?” he asks.

He’s nice enough to pretend the thought hasn’t occurred to me.

“If it happens, I want you to look in the mirror right after,” he says. “See if you see me.” He’s scared, but he’s not the type to delay things. He takes off his T-shirt and moves me to his lap.

I take my shirt off, too, and all at once I’m thinking how much bigger he is—and how he must be hungrier than I am, and I’m scared. I feel his arms around my back and we’re kissing lightly, chest to chest. The last time we tried it in the shower, not too long ago, we couldn’t find my opening. It’s gone. I have my whole hand reaching around in my boxers for it, but it isn’t there. Still, the static feeling stops, and the tingly bubbles-popping feeling doesn’t get stronger, and there are still two of us. We’re grateful. We make out for a while and do a couple of things, take another shower and spend a long time getting dry.

We sleep right after. I’m the little spoon, but I’m on his side of the bed, which makes me think, as I drift off, how that never happened before.

I dream of eating him all up, of course, just like with Mister. I never had that dream with Gracey—she brought doggy dreams like the ones you imagine when you see them yipping and wiggling their feet—but I have the same nightmare all over again for Donny. Gnawing up the bones and licking all over the floor. It’s so gross and goes on such a long time, and when I wake, I feel that guilt all over again, that I’ve done something wrong. I’m alone on the bed, and Donny isn’t in the bathroom. I’m pacing around, thinking they took him and then knowing… it was me. I took him.

I have the guilt again, but it isn’t fair ’cause I don’t feel him inside me. No good feeling to push back the hurt. I’m about to finally lose it, and then I look into the mirror.

I focus until the being there shifts and shimmers. It isn’t me exactly, or Gracey, Mister or Donny, but it’s something of all of us, with a gaping cave in its belly. And it reaches—not close to the ceiling, that would be an exaggeration—but it reaches higher than it has any right to.

My arms and legs, if I look down at them, if I’m honest? They’re not mine. They’re Donny’s. It was him that got me.

Only I don’t think of it that way, not at all. I think of it this way: We’re strong now, and good. We’ll tear apart the corner of the room—the corner where the door is—tear with our teeth, with our claws. Just as soon as I think of it, we’re doing it. Splinters in our mouth, something chalky. We’re whining as we squeeze through the opening.

We smell the outdoors and long to be there. But before we go, we take a right turn down a bright hallway.

We pass a kitchen so bright our eyes sting, smelling of food and drink and people, and more of the dirt from outdoors—oh my God, the things we smell! Our mouth is dripping wet, and we come to the end of the hall.

The gorgeous girl stands by a locker, turns and gasps, and this time it’s not a dream: We take her neck in our sharp teeth. We shake her, one two three, and drop her just as a man runs into the room. We take him by the neck—and our mouth tastes the two distinct flavors of their rich salty blood. It’s the most sensation we’ve ever experienced. We test the flesh of his cheek and find it tough and tender, like nothing so much as sucking at our own wound. With a bit of guilt, we let the meat slip out of our mouth.

We turn toward another man, much older. We know this one is good. Is it his scent or his wakeful eyes? The way he holds his hands in surrender? We take this one in that other way—so fast, just a pressing into him and the rush of him waking into us. He is grateful, and he too is hungry.

• • •

The city outside is a small one, deserted at twilight. We know this place. It occurs to us that we have a good car parked forty feet away. It will feel better to walk the streets, or run—how long since we’ve run?

The people are all holed up behind curtains. A glowing cartoon-character blanket hangs on a window many floors up. It means that room never had a curtain. It means the people are hiding from something.

We aren’t curious. After all, we’ve been commuting to work all through the crisis and listening to NPR just about three hours a day—not to mention what we learned through the observations and consultations at the center, not to mention what we learned from friends and family. We know what the scientists know, and we know what their kooky relatives know, and none of it is good, but it doesn’t make any difference.

In any case, there is always someone who thinks he can sneak out after curfew—or if there isn’t a straggler, well, doors are our playthings.

It doesn’t matter what’s happened because we’ll all be together, so many of us now, getting stronger and smarter. We’ll do our work at twilight, and it will warm us through the cold hours.

Sometimes, in the days to come, we’ll feel that we might have done something wrong, but we’ll tell ourselves, “No, we’ve done right,” and list all of the ways we’ve been right—indeed, righteous. The voices will be so good and so strong—and so many—that we’ll believe them.

Sometimes we feel sorry we can never go home again, but the word comes to us, hiraeth, a name for that feeling. We have known the word for many years, we heard it on a radio show, learned it from our grandmother, a word we just recently learned. The many beasts in us, those who never knew language until now, they find this word especially poignant. And so, when we think of home, we think of hiraeth and a memory of our nests and our mates and our littermates warms us. We mourn for our lost homes as we celebrate the new home we’ve taken in our selves.

Our body, when we glance in a mirror, is Donny’s fine middle-aged body, shirtless and sweaty, his grizzly beard and thick salt-and-pepper hair grown to his shoulder blades. When we look longer—and by now we have to stand before a mirrored skyscraper at dusk to see our height—we are something else entirely.

Christi Nogle’s most recent short stories have appeared in Pseudopod, Hermine Annual, Fusion Fragment, The Arcanist, Pulp Literature, and XVIII (Eighteen) from Underland Press. Christi teaches college composition and lives in Boise, Idaho with her partner Jim and their dogs and cat. Follow her on Twitter @christinogle or at christinogle.com.

Issue 31

June 2020

3LBE 31

Front & Back cover art by Rew X