This is the rare story that my sisters genuinely liked. They thought it was funny. I like it more than most stories I write, but the editor of F&SF implied he liked it less than other stories of mine he’s rejected.
Thank You For Being Swallowed
Chad’s landlady asked whether he’d seen Mark.
“Yes. Tall fellow, hispanic, hazel eyes, goatee, very-”
“Have you seen him lately?”
“Yes, I saw him Thursday.” he paused to remember exactly how it had been, “He said ‘I hope it rains more than that.’ “Then I said, ‘it has been enough to wet the topsoil.’ Then he said yeah, ‘I saw, maybe, that weather online said maybe a ten percent chance of there being more rain maybe.’ Then I said ‘see you later’ and he said ‘see you later.’ That was Thursday, about five o’clock, so six days and an hour ago. Why?”
The landlady said, “He’s late on rent and I can’t find him. I wondered if he might have skipped, but his boss called me looking for him.”
“Perhaps report it to the police.”
“I don’t call the police.”
“He is a missing person. It is the procedure.”
“Plus, he owes you a month’s rent.”
He made his goodbyes, congratulating himself for carrying on a wholly improvised conversation so well, especially that bit with mentioning Mark’s delinquent rent, and ran directly into Salina at the mailboxes.
She thanked him again for the scones.
“Are you settled in? It’s tough in a new city, but GPS’s make it easier than ever to find one’s way in unfamiliar surroundings.” He cursed himself for forgetting to say your welcome for the scones, but the prepared comment had leapt off his tongue.
She smiled. “I hardly know anyone here. And I broke up with my boyfriend before I moved.”
“Sorry about your boyfriend. Why did you break up?” A moment later he decided that had probably been an inappropriate question, but if someone told you they’d got rid of their couch you’d ask why, wouldn’t you? The model was sound.
“It wasn’t a great relationship. We were too different.”
“Yes, data suggests that the old truism that opposites attract, is, as far as coupling goes, the opposite of right. We try to date ourselves. Though I suspect that what people mean when they say that opposites attract is personality style, not attitudes, beliefs and background, which are what the studies typically study.”
“Okay. Like you say, someone more like me, he was too macho, I need to date someone nerdier.”
He nodded, looked around, pointed. “Apartment 201, Nathan lives there, he’s a computer engineer, and he collects bottlecaps.”
She shook her head. “I’ve met him. How’s your girlfriend?”
“What? I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“I must’ve confused you with someone else. I’ve met so many people, but I don’t know any of them yet. I don’t even have anybody to go to a movie with.” She bit her lip and rested a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe. Unless, would you go with me.” Her hair contrived to fall across his arm.
He thought. He looked unblinking at her face for a good five seconds, then blinked and looked at her hair on his arm. Golden red, and silky soft. Then looked at her face for three seconds more, as if trying to see into her brain. “Excuse me, I left something in the oven.”
The moment he rounded the corner he started running, to his apartment, and, panicked, called an emergency meeting with Roger and Abram.
They sat on his couch as he paced in front of it. “I think, Salina, this girl, I thu-think she, ah, flirting with, or, flirting, I, I’m not-”
Abram said “Slow down, and start from the beginning.”
Meeting someone again after an extended layoff, Chad would take up the last conversation where it had left off. He’d repeat, fumbled only slightly, what the other had said a year or five ago. It was as if one’s journal had grown a mouth, legs and a querulous gaze. So he repeated the conversation with Salina almost word for word, and concluded, “I may be reading into this too much, but I’m wondering if she was flirting with me.”
Roger said, “She didn’t flirt with you, she hit on you, she came on so hot and heavy-”
“Don’t scare him,” said Abram. “Chad, have you ever been flirted with before?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Well it’s happened. Perhaps not often, but in your nearly 30 years of life, you’ve been flirted with at least three or four times. You just didn’t notice. This Salina may simply have realized you’re the sort she’d have to concuss with her boobs for you to notice she had any.”
Chad said. “I noticed. All on my own.”
“It’s a metaphor,” said Roger.
Abram continued, “So it may have simply been a normal level of flirting adjusted for her audience.”
Chad nodded. This clear and direct reasoning was vastly better than interpreting baroque social signals.
“However, that she adjusted means she was not just reflexively flirting, but has a sincere interest.”
Roger said, “What Abram’s saying is you should ask her out.”
“I don’t know if I even like her though. I hardly know her.”
“Exactly.” Abram held up a finger, as if it were checkmate. “So how much you like her has to be estimated as the average of how much you’d like all the various people she might be, and while the least you could like her is zero, love is infinite. So, with an upper boundary of infinity, and a lower boundary of zero, the average is infinity, meaning, you’re already in love with who she might be, so you should definitely ask her on a first date.”
Roger said, “He means you never know till you try.”
“I guess.” He bit his finger, deciding whether or not to say what he wanted to say. It wasn’t as if he’d never asked a girl out before. He’d done it twice. He just hadn’t been said yes to yet. “But she’s way out of my league.”
Roger and Abram exchanged a glance and sigh. They weren’t very good friends of his, but they knew they were his best friends, so they were doing their best.
“You’re an attractive man,” said Abram. “You’re not fat, but you’re no scarecrow either. You’ve got muscle. You do push ups when the mood strikes. As for your face, it fits your skull, and that’s more than many can say.”
Roger said, “He means you’re a sexy bitch. Besides, you made her scones.”
“I was already making them so I just doubled the recipe to give her a housewarming gift. I told her that.”
“But they were good scones. A woman likes a man who’s on speaking terms knows the oven.”
Abram said, “Plus, you’ve got money.”
“I’m hardly rich.”
“You’re north of the median income and you’re not even 30. That’s impressive. And you’re a busy little saver, which I bet she can tell.”
“Women have their ways.”
“Primal instinct,” said Roger.
Abram continued, “You’re funny, sometimes on purpose, you’re nice, and you’re as polite as you know how. So if a woman likes you, that’s not insane. Indeed, it’s a sign of good judgment, and that she has good judgment is yet one more reason to ask her out.”
Roger stood up. “Say it with me. I am a sexy bitch.”
“Say, I am a sexy bitch. And pump your fist.”
Chad said, “I am a sexy bitch.” And pumped his fist.
“I don’t hear you. Louder, I am a sexy bitch.”
Chad said it slightly louder.
“Scream it. Scream, I am a sexy bitch and I’m not gonna hide anymore!”
Chad put a pillow over his mouth and screamed, “I am uh shexshy bitch und i’m gnot gunnu hide it uneenore!” Then put the pillow down.
Abram tried, “Say, I am an interesting conversationalist.”
Roger said, “No. Don’t say that.”
Abram said, “Say, I am in the top quartile of income for my age group.”
Roger said, “No.”
Abram said, “Say, I have a cool car.”
“It’s a Ford Fiesta.”
Roger said, “Just say it and make him happy.”
“I have a cool car.”
Roger beat him on the chest and shouted, “Now go out there and ask her out.”
So he sucked in oxygen, punched his palm, shouted, “Plus, I floss!,” ran out, and knocked on her door.
He’d had visions of Salina in a long flowing gown, so he’d wanted to take her somewhere fancy, but Roger and Abram had talked him down to California Pizza Kitchen. So they ate pizza with their fingers, and instead of a gown she wore jeans and what might be a blouse. Some girl shirts were blouses and others were not, and he presumed there was a logic to this.
He was glad they’d talked him down to California Pizza Kitchen. A fancy restaurant would’ve made him more nervous, and he was already so nervous he’d sprouted a few hives, and had taken an allergy pill to keep them down.
He asked if her shirt were a blouse, and she blinked and said it was a feminine Tee, which was different from a masculine T-Shirt in that it was cut to contour to curves, instead of being rectangular. She pointed to the picture of a Dalek on the chest, and the words “Dalek Sympathizer.” So they talked a little about Doctor Who, but not a lot, because he’d never finished it. He said he didn’t watch a lot of TV.
She confessed to being a Netflix fiend, and he wished suddenly that he watched more TV. She tried video games, and he latched onto talking about Portal, because he’d played that one. Friends had told him to.
At least she was talking. He had thought that, for whatever reason, almost all girls agreed with him, but eventually had intuited, from reading studies on differences in confidence levels and conversational styles, that they were just more likely than men to carefully not voice a conflicting opinion. This put him in the impossible situation of having to figure out what they meant from the things they didn’t say instead of the things they said. But Salina called him an idiot and said frame rates didn’t work that way.
“Explain it to me.”
She explained why a higher frame rate wasn’t necessarily better, and it made sense, so that was great.
They talked about work. They talked about Mike, who was still missing. She said she’d hardly learned his name before he was gone. They talked about pizza.
Then it was movie time. Since the theater was at the other side of the same lot, they walked. He was frightened that she might want to hold his hand, but she didn’t try. He thought nervously about kissing. He’d researched how to kiss, but it seemed mostly like the sort of thing you learned by doing. Apparently plenty of experienced kissers were bad kissers, so she’d probably think he was just another one of those. Not that they’d kiss. Supposedly kissing on the first date was common, but that was hard to take in. Perhaps he’d peck her on the cheek at the end of the date if everything went swimmingly.
Her hair swayed as she walked, and kept brushing him. Beautiful hair, and very long. He asked if it didn’t make her hot, and she laughed and said that was part of the point. It took him a moment to get the pun, and was uncomfortable once he did.
Her stomach growled, audibly. He asked if she were still hungry, and she said “not for food.”
“You want junk food? Popcorn?”
He bought popcorn in case she changed her mind, but didn’t say that was why. She’d chosen the movie, but he wished now they’d made a joint decision, because she’d chosen horror. Horror movies kept him up at night.
They took their seats, and she talked about horror movies, and he made polite noises till she realized he didn’t know what she was talking about. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’m about to watch a horror movie even though I don’t like them. Yet many people do like horror movies, and I don’t understand why. So, Explain it to me.”
She was silent so long he thought she wouldn’t answer. “We have deep, ignoble fears. About sex, about foreigners, about race, about God, about science and society. These anxieties crouch in the dark uneasy corners of our minds, and they pull, without us realizing, at our strings.
“Horror pulls our anxieties out from their noisome lairs, their cranial control rooms, and pins them on the screen, visible, gigantic, clearly reprehensible, and fictional. Frightened, we tell ourselves, that it’s not real, and so confront consciously whether our anxieties are based in reality.
“But actually, that’s a lot of phooey. People who like horror like it because they like to scream.”
Chad had once found a baby kitten, so young it still had to be genitally stimulated in order for it pee. He’d spent half the night trying to bottle feed it. It wouldn’t stop mewing, but it wouldn’t understand the bottle. By two in the morning he wished he’d left it where it lay. By three he’d contemplated putting it back in the bush. But finally, it had eaten, and, stomach bulging, it had crawled up his shirt, lain on his sternum, and purred itself to sleep. He’d lain totally still as warmth stole over him and his whole chest shivered, from breastbone to shoulder blades.
This felt like that. The warm shiver in his chest. He told himself falling in love on the first date only happened in musicals. To his relief, the great wave of falling-in-loveness passed like a roll of choppy surf. He said, “What are the deep ignoble fears pinned to the screen in this movie?”
She laughed. “The fear of hillbillies. Evil sadistic hillbillies wearing butcher’s aprons. Very primal.”
She talked about particular horror movies, and his mind tinkered around with dirty thoughts. He forced his eyes north of her neck, then, with another effort, north of her lips. Clearly, the very word date, which neither of them had actually said, but certainly he’d been thinking, was working in strange and unwelcome ways on his mind, and regions lower. He got a little tongue tied thinking about that, but mostly kept up the conversation. In the absence of a clue he’d learned to make do with constant friendliness, lots of smiles, and mildly amusing one-liners.
The two dudes in front of them talked also, which was fine, but they kept talking once the previews started, which wasn’t so fine, and kept talking once the movie had started.
“Shh,” he said, but nothing, so he upgraded to “Shush.” That worked for a moment, till one of them whispered into the other one’s ear, and the other one laughed. They didn’t talk constantly, just frequently. He would’ve fetched an usher if he hadn’t wanted to cause a scene on his first date. A muscle in his neck jerked rhythmically.
Then the hillbillies started torturing the campers, and their talk became a welcome distraction from the movie. He sat absolutely rigid, hands white-knuckled, attempting to strangle the arm rests. His eyes were often closed, but it didn’t help much, because he could hear. She put her hand over his. She grinned at him, obviously amused, but the hand helped a little, and before long he was clinging to the entirety of her left arm. The little girl hillbilly was the worst.
He was not much embarrassed. He fancied that, so long as he maintained some composure, this would be endearing. Or not. He didn’t realize he’d been eating the popcorn tell his hand found the bottom of the bucket.
The movie ended. The lights rose. Chad took several breaths to calm himself down. The men turned around. One whistled at Salina the other pointed his middle finger at Chad. Then they shuffled out the theater with everyone else. Chad stood with his hands at his sides, unsure what to make of this.
“Was that whistle catcalling?”
“He doesn’t whistle very well.”
“No. I’d be embarrassed to catcall with such poor pitch control.”
“I’d never seen catcalling before. Except one time when I did it, I guess. I was calling my cat outside my house, because he’s not supposed to be outside at night, I was just making kissy noises to call him in, and this women walking by gave me the nastiest look and crossed to the other side of the street.”
“Yeah, you’re laughing like it’s a joke, and it is, but it’s also a true thing that really happened.”
They got frozen yogurt at a place just outside the theater, talking about the movie mostly. He spoke of his aversion to horror, saying he’d likely spend the night with the light on, a baseball bat at his side, and, perhaps, his bicycle helmet on.
Then the yogurt was eaten and they went toward his car.
He spotted the loud guys from the theater, walking through the parking lot, not close. He shrugged.
Salina looked at her phone. “I’m sorry, I have to make a call.”
“It’s a private call.”
He walked a few cars away, to give her space.
He waited two minutes before letting himself become impatient, then walked a wide arc to get a view of her, and just remind her of his presence. She wasn’t where he’d left her.
“Salina?” He walked through the cars, and didn’t see her. “Salina?” Had she ditched him? Was this that? But why? Even if she thought it’d been a bad date, he was about to take her home. And she didn’t even have a car here. Had the date been that bad? Had he been that awkward or offensive?
A scream rose above the soft jazz playing on outdoor speakers. A thought came clear that the catcallers from the theater had found Salina, and were doing …something. He took out his phone and ran toward the scream. In the shadow of trees, at the back of the parking lot where there wasn’t any light but the reflected glow of the city.
He saw a deeper shadow in the darkness. Like a giant porcupine was having a bad hair day, or a giant Venus fly trap. There was another scream, quieter, muffled.
“Hello?” He shone his keychain flashlight, but all it did was take his night vision away, so he couldn’t see the strange shadow anymore. He gulped, arm hair prickling, and walked forward. He reached the curb without finding any monster, and shone his light on the asphalt. There was a torn shirt, covered in greenish-pink slime that was probably someone’s puke. There was a squat, ragged palm tree at the edge of the curb. It must’ve made the shadow.
He jumped, then recognized the voice. “Salina?”
She walked in range of his keychain flashlight. She was tightening her belt. One bra strap was around her arm. Her long hair stood on end, like a porcupine having a bad hair day.
“Are you alright?”
“Seldom better.” She smoothed her hair and replaced her bra strap. “Sorry, sometimes when I’m on the phone I start walking without realizing it. By the time I hung up, I’d gone a ways.”
“I heard screaming.”
“That was me. I saw a raccoon.”
“Oh.” But why had she screamed? Raccoons didn’t attack. But sometimes girls were like that. Maybe she was afraid of mice too.
They didn’t speak on the ride back. He hoped the silence was more companionable than awkward.
He saw her to her door, because that’s what he’d seen in chick-flicks. It was only a few doors down from his.
She said, “Come in for some coffee.”
“I don’t drink caffeine this late, or I can’t fall asleep.” Then it occurred to him that in movies, being invited in for coffee was an invitation to have sex.
Like murder and dragons, sex was something he saw a lot in stories but didn’t have any personal experience with. That made it feel imaginary, even though he knew it wasn’t. They’d have sex, then they’d hitch a ride on a unicorn to Neverland. No. If he went in, there’d be coffee. He’d had experience with coffee. He didn’t want any right now.
It was likely, however, the right way to end the social experience. Go up, extend the date, then go home and have a little extra trouble falling asleep. “The movie will keep me awake anyway, so I might as well be alert.”
He followed her in. There wasn’t much, not even a table. It had the look of a place not lived in, which made sense, given she’d just moved in. There wasn’t a coffee maker. He wondered if she used those packets of instant coffee powder. Some of the brands were surprisingly palatable.
“Just let me change into something more comfortable,” she said, and disappeared into her room.
He’d seen movies where a woman said exactly that, then reappeared wearing a sheer silk robe of burgundy red, and nothing else. He told himself that was foolish. Women’s shoes were often uncomfortable. Women’s clothing in general even. So she wanted to change into something more comfortable. Sensible.
He looked around as he waited. There was some greenish-pink gunk next to the sink, dried on. He took a tissue from his pocket and turned the faucet. No water came out, so he spit on the tissue, and rubbed at the gunk. It came up, smelling sharp and musty. It made the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He rooted around for a trashcan, finding it finally under the sink. There wasn’t any trash in the trashcan.
No. There was one thing. He took it out. A watch. Something had chewed through the band, but the face was fine. It showed the correct time. It looked like Mike’s watch. Mike who’d gone missing.
“Chad, could you come in here?” Her voice sounded throaty, warbly. He gulped. Had he ever gone into a girl’s room before? Of course he had. His sister’s. Besides his sister’s? His cousins’? Besides his cousins’. He’d helped people move. He could be counted on to show up right on time, not leave untill it was done, and work hard in between. But never alone with a girl—with a woman—he wasn’t related to.
He looked at the watch. “Glories of mass production,” he muttered. Cassio must have made thousands of them, all alike. He dropped it back in the trash, the dirty tissue on top. “Coming.”
“I’m in here.” That odd voice again. Perhaps she wore a retainer.
He pushed the door halfway open and didn’t see her. “Salina?” No answer. He stepped inside, and the door closed behind him.
He turned around. Salina stood against the door. She was naked.
He turned bright red and looked at the ceiling.
“Seriously, Chad, look at me.”
Slowly, by degrees, contracting each muscle in his neck individually, he lowered his eyes to her, but kept his gaze carefully north of her neck. Then north of her lips. “Are you wiccan?”
“Just, wiccans, skyclad. You know. Why are you naked?”
She put a hand to his chest and pushed him slowly across the room. He stopped letting himself be pushed when the back of his knees hit the edge of the bed.
She kissed his ear. “Let’s have sex.
“But we hardly know each other.”
“So Jesus,” he said.
“You said you’re agnostic.”
“Yes. But Jesus still doesn’t like pre-marital sex.” Unicorns didn’t either. It wasn’t pure.
She tipped him onto the bed and fell over him. She kissed him, and he was too dazed too remember what the tutorial had said about how to kiss.
Her hair fell over him. There was a lot of it, red-gold and soft as feathers, falling over his face, wrapping about his ears. Growing from her head and neck and pits, grabbing him all about, growing from her legs and arms, hairs one, two feet long.
She kissed him again, pulled back and smiled, and her teeth were like an open zipper.
He tried to scream, but her eyeball fell down his throat. It wasn’t an eyeball. It was a knot of hair, a ball of yarn, coming apart is if attacked by a cat, came undone like one of those 3-D puzzles where it seemed impossible to get the hoop off the rod, till all at once, inscrutably easily, it came undone.
Her arms were gone, nothing but hair, her feet were gone, nothing but hair, her body was gone nothing but hair. A giant mass of red-gold hair pulsed on the bed, a dainty mouth with teeth like zippers at the center of it. A bulge in the middle like what a man might make, or a very large pillow, gyrating, twisting, turning, but every moment a little less fight, till at last it was still.
“Mmm.” “Mmm.” The half obscene moaning of a woman enjoying her cheerios more than seemed reasonable. Something feather soft stroked his face. “You were good. Very good. I’m sorry. You’re a nice guy. But needs must when the devil drives, and those others just didn’t satisfy.”
He couldn’t move, but managed a groan.
A mass of silken hair felt around his neck, felt his pulse, and lifted up his head. Two hairs pried open his eyelids, and he thought a seductive man-eating monster should look more like a giant spider and less like the ferret that lived on Donald Trump’s head.
He was not so afraid as he had been in the theater, and he felt every moment a little stronger.
“A survivor,” it said, sounding both pleased and frustrated, like a woman who has been offered free ballet tickets, but for an evening on which she’s already committed to attending the school board meeting. “Likely to be a serial survivor if so.”
He tried to move but couldn’t really.
“Mother always said this time would come, when I’d tire of one-night feeds and meet a man who could satisfy me more permanently.” She bit her lip. “Tell me more about your job.”
Abram’s words came blearily back to him, “I’m in the top quartile of income for my age group. And I drive a cool car.”
She said, “It’s a Ford Fiesta.”
“It’s a cool car. And I’m a busy little saver.”
“I bet you are. And hardly the least bit deader. What am I going to do with you do?” The zippers did their to best bite the absent lips.
He tried to turn his head, and thought he could’ve if the hairs hadn’t been holding him. He muttered, “This is a hell of a way for my first date to end.”
“What was that?”
The monster must have good ears.
“Did you say not a first date, but your first date?”
He shifted. “I was very focused at school, then I was very focused at work, so, it’s only recently that I really started to, you know, think about, you know, romance.” he trailed off, then tried again, “I was even about to sign up for a dating website. Bad luck for it to end like this.”
“This is how it always ends.”
“For man-eating alien monsters.”
There weren’t any eyes, but there was certainly an impression like eyes narrowed in speculation. “It ends like this for everyone. This is normal human sex.”
Sex was mysterious, certainly, but. “This is not how it’s been described to me.”
“The truth is taboo. Like talking as if Santa is real even when there aren’t any kids around. Actually, most people don’t know. Most people haven’t had sex.”
“They say they have.”
Come to think, he’d lied about it to. “I’ve seen videos of sex, and it didn’t look like this.”
“Well okay.” His arm moved a little more freely. He thought he could even stand up if he wanted to. He considered the idea that dear old mother had done this regularly to dear old father, and dear old father had liked it, and decided it did seem like the sort of thing dear old father would like. “I’m still not sure I believe that.”
The monster contracted, hairs binding together into fingers and face, till what was left was a beautiful and naked young woman.
Chad turned bright red again, tried to roll out of bed but couldn’t because she was still holding him, and settled for staring at the ceiling again.
She said, “How else are you going to get a girlfriend?”
Salina sighed. Her long silky hair swayed, making quiet rustling like a thousand tiny clinks. “Let’s not rush. But how about a second date? Would Tuesday work?”
His social calendar was far from full. “Tuesday’s fine.”
She slept against him, spooning, her hair draped gently about his neck. He was weak as a newborn kitten—well, he’d heard sex was tiring—but couldn’t fall asleep, because every time he closed his eyes, he saw, in his mind, a vision of a cleaver-armed hillbilly standing at the foot of the bed.
Thank you for being swallowed,