17 Mar Huggy
“Huggy”Written by Shannon Higdon Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by Otis Jiry
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 29 minutes
“Holy shit! Is that what I think it is?” Brandon’s eyes widened into saucers and, despite being filled with an unabated rage towards his older brother just a few hours ago, Michael couldn’t help but smile and nod at the expected reaction. Even with everything that had happened earlier in the day, he still hadn’t been able to help getting worked up about showing off his new find. Especially when it was as remarkable and as…bad ass…as this was. Some habits would be harder to break than others. Plus, he had supposed somewhere in the back of his mind, it was possible that something like this would be what was needed for the estranging siblings to get back some of what was being lost between them.
“It’s fucking amazing! Where the hell did you get it? I mean…” the older boy shook his head with slight disbelief, “like, OMG. The damn thing actually looks like it could be aliv…” The word was left hanging on the tip of Brandon’s tongue when the nightmarish creature they had been admiring suddenly sprung to life and scurried from its spot on the floor next to Michael’s bed into the hidden darkness of the bedroom closet. His grin quickly evaporated and was replaced by the “I think I shit my pants” expression that Michael had been secretly hoping for all along.
Clearly, Brandon had been having the same thoughts upon seeing it for the first time that Michael had. However, once those first movements are detected, that initial impression of thinking that it was some sort of elaborate latex replica or even a genuine movie prop, gets shot straight to hell.
“Is…is it…” he stammered, struggling to wrap his mind around the thing’s incredibly life-like fluidity and the way its 20-inch tail whipped the air behind it before disappearing from view. Lowering himself into Michael’s desk chair to keep from falling, he cleared his throat and finally finished the question, all without taking his gaze from the half-open closet door. “Is it…animatronic?”
Once he had finally forced himself to look back to his younger brother for an answer, Michael’s smile only widened, stretching his slender cheeks to their limits. He shook his head ‘no’, clearly excited about sharing this moment with his older brother. Brandon, however, took his playfully deliberate unveiling of information to be unnecessary caginess and, as was often the case, found himself becoming quickly irritated even though he could still remember a time when he considered his brother’s antics to be fun.
* * * * * *
There’s an interesting dichotomy that exists between siblings separated by exactly three years in age, especially brothers. Obviously, personality and upbringing can both play a part in the opposite directions such associations trend; and, of course, it should go without saying that there are always exceptions. Every familial bond is its own unique animal…but, largely, there are two main routes these relationships generally take, and puberty is almost always the catalytic instigator of the most dramatic changes. If it goes the way of the elder separating into an overbearing, antagonistic bully, rather than acting as the protective mentor, it can particularly difficult on the younger brother. Particularly so if the two were once as tight as Brandon and Michael Knight had been in their younger, developmental years.
There had been a time, a full seven years, in fact, when the brothers had been nigh inseparable. Bonded by their love of the New York Mets, “Hot Wheels” toy cars and all things sci-fi or horror related, the boys were affectionately referred to by their parents as their “little Siamese twins”. Then, when Brandon turned 13 and Michael turned 10, things began to change. The deviations were subtle at first, nearly indiscernible. Things like choosing to talk on the phone with his friends from school rather than watching the original “Star Wars” trilogy for the umpteenth time. Or deciding to skip out on their regularly scheduled, backyard Whiffle-Ball contests in favor of some “me time”, alone in his room with the newest Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
They had been forgivable offenses so far as Michael had been concerned. It was obvious that his older brother had been going through some regrettable physical changes, not the least of which included daily battles with zits and a voice that kept wanting to skyrocket in pitch for no good reason. He could remember feeling pity for Brandon…along with a fair share of foreboding dread. It hadn’t appeared to be something particularly worth looking forward to.
Over the next three years though, the transgressions became significantly less pardonable; and, as much as he hated to admit it, the unavoidable fact was that his big bro, whom he had idolized for the better part of his young life, was becoming an absolute “dick”. Unfortunately, all the wonderful qualities that Brandon had exuded on a daily basis for so long, were being rapidly strangled from existence. By the time the older of the two received the battered, blue 2007 Hyundai Sonata for his sixteenth birthday, the Brandon Knight that Michael had always known could be, officially, declared dead. In his stead, some self-absorbed, sex-crazed, asshole doppelganger had taken up residence in the bedroom across the hall. Which now included a sign that read, “Do Not Enter! That means you, Twerp!”
As was to be expected, Michael grieved the loss of his real brother for an appropriate amount of time. Which, as it turned out, was about as long as it took for him to finally lose his patience with being constantly picked on. Eventually, the grief was replaced with acceptance…then irritation…then a pretty fair amount of animosity of his own. As sad as it was for his parents so see, he did a little celebratory dance every time Brandon left the house in his used “new to him” car that had already been dubbed, most inappropriately, “The Shaggin’ Wagon”. Michael was pretty certain, given his brother’s continued acne war, that no girl even semi-aware of their social standing was climbing into the Sonata with him. Let alone, allow any “shaggin’“ to take place.
Not that it really mattered. Brandon’s car was pretty much outside of the purview of his concern. The only time he ever had anything to do with the vehicle was when Brandon was forced to give his younger brother both a ride to and from school every day. Initially, the demand was met with substantial resistance from both boys. Michael was a freshman in their shared high school, after all; and having him seen in Brandon’s car every day by his peers would do nothing to aid the third-year student’s reputation. Or, “street cred”, as the older teenager put it, eliciting some pretty hearty laughter from his parents.
Even Michael stood opposed to the request, if for no other reason than he would’ve preferred to take the forty-minute bus ride with his friends every day rather than spending half that time enduring the icy silence of his brother…or worse…the non-stop harassment that came on the frequent days when he was in a particularly shitty mood. Unfortunately for them both, and despite their best arguments, their mother was hearing none of it; and, in the end, everyone in the Knight family knew that mom’s word was law with little to no possibility for future amendments.
* * * * * *
“Dammit Mikey!” he barked. “That thing is obviously not a toy. It looks real as hell…which means somebody who spent a lot of money is going to be looking for it. You better tell me where the hell you got it before you get in a world of trouble with Mom and Dad!”
Michael hadn’t anticipated his brother’s outburst, although he probably should have, and it stirred up two immediate thoughts…both of which he kept to himself. His first reaction was that Brandon had a whole hell of a lot of nerve to be threatening “trouble with Mom and Dad” after the shit he pulled at school today. He was hardly in a position to suggest taking things to the higher authority of parental intervention.
The second thought only trailed the first by a split-second and probably bore a more accurate reflection of the younger boy’s personality. It was, quite simply, that his big brother just didn’t understand the magnitude of what was happening. Brandon was still looking at the situation through the lens of rational thinking when, in point of fact, this particular moment called for the exact opposite. It was thoroughly understandable though. Michael had been in the same boat himself only 90 minutes ago so he was pretty sure his brother would be changing his tune soon enough as well.
He was confident enough, anyway, to resist the urge to placate Brandon’s squalling with a quick spill of information, opting instead to continue the slow reveal he had rehearsed in his mind for the last 15 minutes. There were a couple of seconds when he was afraid that his brother’s intensely foul attitude would once again ruin another meticulously constructed presentation. Deep inside, however, he knew that this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment that was just too damn cool to let pass without some degree of fanfare and showmanship. Besides, it wasn’t often anymore that he had such unconditional control over Brandon’s attention span, despite his brother’s eyes darting back and forth between himself and the spot where the thing had vanished into the closet.
Not letting the ear to ear grin fade, Michael patted the spot next to where he sat on the bed, sending an unspoken invitation for his brother to join him there at the foot of the mattress. Clearly, less than thrilled, it took several seconds of prompting for the older boy’s curiosity to overcome his skepticism and general disdain for acquiescing to any request of Michael’s. The semi-permanent scowl he wore while relocating, as well as the long, dramatic sigh he released after taking the new seat, suggested as much, at least. As far as Michael could tell, he was doing everything in his power to spoil the moment without making it evaporate entirely.
For once, it didn’t matter. He couldn’t imagine that there was anything Brandon could say or do that would penetrate his state of personal elation or dampen the crackling buzz coursing through the air around them. If his brother had known what he did, the boy would have a significantly different attitude and hopefully, here before too long, he would come to the same realization that Michael had: there really was magic in the world. Not the bullshit, Harry Potter amusement park kind either; but real magic…honest to goodness ‘beyond the bounds of contemporary reality’ magic. He could see the definitive and unequivocal proof of that being the case just inside his darkened closet next to his dirty socks and athletic shoes. It was swaying back and forth like some hideous, arachnid shadow.
* * * * * *
On the Tuesday that would change the course of both their lives forever, Brandon had been in unusually foul spirits, giving Michael copious amounts of shit all day. Even going so far as to punch his little brother on three different occasions while passing in the hallway between classes. By the time the school had rung its final bell of the day, Michael had no desire at all to meet his brother in the parking lot. So much so that, even with his mother’s future admonishments echoing loudly in his mind, he was still strongly inclined towards disobeying her orders. If only for today.
Often, she was napping when the boys got home from school so there was always the possibility that she wouldn’t even find out. If she did though, how much worse could it be? No one wanted to incur Shelia Knight’s wrath…no one. However, in this rare instance, dealing with his pissed-off mother seemed like a more desirable outcome than having to spend another twenty-plus minutes trapped in close proximity to the walking turd formally known as his “cool, older brother”.
The dilemma provided Michael with one of the more frenzied internal debates he’d had in a while as he teetered on the painted line that divided the cement walkway from the asphalt parking lot. He was, as far as most of the family was concerned, a “good boy”. Deliberate defiance wasn’t really his modus operandi and simply considering the possibility of flouting a set-in-stone “Mom Law” made tiny, nearly undetectable hives spring up on the back of his neck. Even still, the urge to be free of his brother for the immediately foreseeable future held strong enough sway to keep him from yet committing a single foot to blacktopped portion of the surface.
So consumed with the notion of being the “bad boy” for once, and somehow finding the courage it took to achieve such a goal, Michael was caught completely off-guard when Brandon came up behind him. With his new best friend “Randy” in tow, Brandon recognized the fact that his brother was oblivious to his surroundings, lost in his own thoughts; and the older boys used the opportunity to satisfy their own cruel senses of humor. Michael, in one moment deeply engrossed in a bit of personal soul-searching, was jerked violently back to reality in the next by the rarely achieved and perfectly synchronized “Double Pantsing”.
Normally, when a target is “Pantsed”, they have time to react with enough speed to make sure the prank’s instigator gets little more than a top layer down to their knees to reveal whatever underwear the victim is wearing to the general public. In this instance, however, with Michael paying absolutely no attention, they pulled off the nearly impossible feat. With a firm tug, Randy had Michael’s khaki cargo-shorts resting on his tennis shoes; and, before he was even aware of a chill, Brandon had followed it up by pinching the sides of his “tighty-whities” and pulling them to his feet as well.
* * * * * *
“You ready?” Michael finally asked after all of Brandon’s grunts and sighed had subsided enough for him to do so. The older boy was clearly unhappy with the role of subservience he was having to play, but the overwhelming desire to know exactly what his brother was playing at kept him in place. That, and the somewhat disturbing smile that refused to leave the kid’s face.
“Just do what you’re going to do already,” was the best Michael was going to get; and, after a quick wink that really got under Brandon’s skin, he turned his attention back to the thing in the closet.
“Don’t make any sudden movements,” he offered without looking back at his brother. The older boy responded with a derisive, “pthhh,” that felt obligatory at best. When he curbed the additional comments that would have normally followed though, it was clear he was fully hooked on the line. Now it was just time for Michael to reel him in.
“Okay…here goes.” The younger boy cleared his throat once and then, while patting his lap with both hands, called out to the closet in the type of sing-song voice one generally reserved for toddlers or beloved pets. “Huuuugggyyy! Oh, Mister Huuuugggyyy! It’s okay, Buddy. Come on out here and see me Huggy.” He could hear a snide chuckle from his brother but that only lasted up to the point that the first spindly, multi-jointed leg slowly slid back into view.
“There’s my Huggy Boy,” Michael cooed. “What a good boy you are. C’mon now…come out and see Daddy.” The first leg was joined by another…and then another…and then another. Slowly exiting the closet with a pace much more tentative than when it had run away, the thing once again allowed itself to be fully exposed. Standing nearly a foot and a half off the floor on eight arachnid legs, the main portion of its body and the long, whip-like tail attached to it resembled one long spinal cord. There were no facial features to speak of, only two flat sacks attached to its sides behind the legs and a gaping maw on its underside.
The last feature wasn’t one Brandon could yet see with his eyes…but he still knew it was there. It was as bizarre and alien a creature as could be imagined and, clearly, not of this world. Despite that, Brandon knew exactly what it was. They both did. In fact, it was probably fair to say that a significant portion of the general public at large would also recognize the terrifying creature.
While the Knight boys’ parents had been strict regarding a lot of things during their childhoods, one of the things that seemed to slip by them, ironically enough, was their children’s media consumption. Comic books, TV, movies…the internet…all maintained a fairly unregulated status. The restrictions their peers were forced to live with left them very aware of the unusual degree of freedom they had been granted and it kept them from testing the boundaries too much, which helped to maintain that status quo.
Because of this, they were both quite young the first time they saw Ridley Scott’s sci-fi, horror masterpiece, “Alien”. Making an indelible impression on both of them, it was one of those taste defining movies that led into a whole new world of entertainment possibilities. Outer space movies had been their absolute favorite up to that point, and they knew they were getting that much from the DVD cover that led to the decision to watch it. They had no idea what it was about beyond that vague picture though and it proved to be a revelation of sorts as neither of them knew how much they enjoyed having the living crap scared out of them.
Every year they would watch it again, usually around Halloween, both agreeing that it was one of their all-time favorites. For that reason, along with the many sequels, prequels and additional multi-media contributions to the mythos, they could easily recognize the monstrosity originally birthed in the sick mind of the artist H.R. Giger. The hellishly disquieting collection of unnatural features slowly closing the distance between them was what was most commonly known as a “Facehugger”.
Anyone familiar with the films knew that the unpleasant, spider/scorpion-like beast was only a larval stage for something much, much worse. Although, frankly, the Facehugger was still a pretty nasty piece of work in its own right. At least that was the case in the fictional world in which it had existed up to that point. The one that was gingerly pulling itself onto the bed next to Michael didn’t appear to radiate the same sense of frenetic violence its species was particularly known for, however.
Huggy, after lifting its last leg from the carpet, stopped next to Michael for a moment to sway back and forth. The simplistic movement exuded menace to Brandon and he fully expected the Facehugger to lunge for his head when it was done with its unnerving, little dance. When it, instead, crawled gently into his brother’s lap, he found himself releasing a reflexive sigh of relief, only just then realizing that he had been holding his breath as he waited for the thing’s inevitable strike. While the rational portion of his brain knew full well that what he was seeing could not be the thing that it looked like, it was still difficult to separate the deeply ingrained fear of a nonexistent space-fiend from the amazingly lifelike facsimile next to him.
The Facehugger turned three small, cat-like circles in Michael’s lap before tucking its legs beneath and wrapping its tail around its “body”, and settling in. As monumentally out of place as the concept should have been, Brandon had to admit that its actions were actually kind of cute, if not a little sweet; but then again, those were attributes that one applied to a sentient, living creature. Which the thing in his brother’s lap absolutely was not. Clearly, Michael had swallowed the red pill on this one and was all in on his new pet being a biological impossibility come to life. Then again…he was still just a kid; not like Brandon who was already having to shave once a week. He hadn’t had an opportunity to see how the real world worked yet. What more could anyone really expect of him?
“Where…” Brandon finally forced a word through his now suddenly dry throat. “Where did you find that thing?” After a moment, his brother looked up from the alien resting on his thighs, smile still fully intact, eyes wide and sparkling.
“He’s pretty cool, right?”
“Yeah,” the older boy was forced to agree. “It’s incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it. That thing had to cost a fortune to make.” He paused before pressing the issue, this time a bit sterner. “Where…did…you…get it?”
Michael broke his brother’s intense stare and went back to admiring the Facehugger. Only after several seconds of silence did he finally reply.
“I found him where a storm drain emptied into a creek.”
“What creek?” Brandon demanded, not giving him a chance to continue uninterrupted. It was pretty much how all their conversations went these days.
“The one on the other side of the Hammermill subdivision. You know…the back-way home.”
“What the hell were you back there for?”
Continuing to stare at Huggy, only now because he couldn’t bring himself to look back up at his brother, Michael wasn’t sure how to answer. The last thing he wanted to do was to piss off Brandon and that was a legitimate concern giving that the Shaggin Wagon’s ownership rights hinged on the older boy’s ability to get his little brother to and from school each day…and to keep him safe in the process. Then again, the only reason Michael was even out there in the first place was due to Brandon and his little sycophant’s abhorrent behavior in the school parking lot. If anyone had a right to be pissed off…it was him. With that in mind, he decided to answer honestly.
“I was trying to avoid running into you and Randy again.”
Anticipating another routine blow-up, he waited for a moment; but all Brandon had to say on the matter was, “Oh,” so he decided to finish the relatively anti-climactic story.
“You know the drain on the north end…where we saw those rabbits that one time?” Brandon nodded, which he perceived peripherally and took to mean ‘yes’. “That metal grate was all, like, bent outward. Like somebody wanted to tear it off but couldn’t. I don’t know.
Anyway…Huggy had gotten his tail stuck in it somehow. He was just going crazy…flipping and flopping and squealing…but couldn’t get it out, no matter what. At first, I could tell he was stuck…but I couldn’t really see what he was until I got closer. Which I definitely wouldn’t of if he wudn’t!” Michael chuckled at his own admitted cowardice.
“When I finally got close enough that Huggy could see me…” He paused, unsure of the anatomical vernacular, before reevaluating. “Well, you know…close enough that he could tell I was there. He stopped going crazy, calmed right down, and started making this new noise. I don’t really know how to describe it. I don’t know; maybe kind of like when a dog whimpers…but much, much…weirder. It didn’t sound like anything I ever heard before…but somehow I knew that it was Huggy’s way of asking for my help.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Brandon interrupted again. “I know you, Skid-mark. You get scared of your own shadow.” He snickered derisively. “Just last month you cried to Mom and Dad because that bush outside your window sounded like claws scraping the glass at night. Mom made Dad trim it down the next day. Remember?”
“Look…I can’t explain it. It was just a feeling. Like some kind of instant bond. I knew he needed my help…and I knew that he wudn’t gonna hurt me.”
“Wasn’t,” Brandon corrected his brother. Which was ironic since, technically, Michael was the one that usually did the tutoring.
“Whatever. The point is, I freed Huggy’s tail…and he didn’t jump on my face and start pumpin’ a bunch of space babies into my tummy. Instead, he started rubbing all over me, all sweet-like. Then, when I tried to leave, he started following along next to me like a dog. When I got back to the street, I asked Huggy if he wanted me to carry him, he jumped right up into my arms and sort-of crawled under my coat to hide. I swear he understood exactly what I was saying to him.
All the way back home from there, he kept his tail wrapped around my waist and his legs was holding on to my sides…but it didn’t hurt a bit. He really is, like, super gentle…and super smart too, I think. Probably the last of his kind.”
“Mikey.” Brandon’s tone had changed to something Michael hadn’t heard in a long time. Difficult to pinpoint, it almost sounded like ‘compassion’. “Mikey, look at me.”
The younger boy forced himself to meet his brother’s gaze again.
“You know that’s not a real animal…right?” I mean, don’t get me wrong. You did real good bringing it home like you did. It’s probably the coolest thing I’ve seen in my entire life. But…it’s not real. It’s not alive. Not like Uncle Frank’s dog or the neighbor’s cat.”
Michael could see in Brandon’s eyes that he believed what he was saying. It was a difficult pill to swallow. That, however, only meant that more convincing was in order.
“Look at him, Brand. Take a good look at him.”
Both brothers looked back to the Facehugger and, after a few moments, Brandon pressed. “I told you I think it looks amazing. It’s very life-like. So are the dinosaurs we saw at Universal Studios. That doesn’t mean it’s real.”
“Look at its sacs.” Michael remained undaunted.
“What do you mean?”
The younger boy pointed at the two flat sacs that hung behind the abomination’s rear legs and for the first time Brandon took notice of how they were moving, slightly inflating and deflating in a recognizable pattern. Michael went ahead and verbalized it anyway.
For once, Brandon did not have a quick response, derogatory or otherwise; and, after a few seconds, Michael felt that his little victory deserved some taunting.
“No answer for that one, huh?”
“It’s…it’s…” Brandon finally stammered. “Okay, look…it’s probably just part of the machine. You know? It’s like, built to look like it’s breathing. So…that doesn’t mean anything. It’s definitely not proof-of-life.”
Neither of them said another word for a full minute and a half as they each pondered the mystery that lay before them, each in their own way. It was Brandon that finally broke the silence when, after reaching into his coat pocket and pulling out a Swiss Army knife, he said, “There’s really only one way to settle this. We have to cut it open.”
* * * * * *
It still took a full second, and the cackling laughter of Sarah McClain, for the complete realization to take hold that he was fully exposed before a large number of his classmates…his female classmates. To make matters worse, the air was brisk, and he had just been thinking about his mom; so, he wasn’t really representing well. Not that, at age 13, there was a ton of room for improvement but, at the very least, Jenny Campbell might not have screamed out, “It looks like a bean!”
Face flush, stomach roiling, Michael dropped his books and clamored for his Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear. Spilled papers and folders began to scatter in the wind and, in a misguided effort to grab the homework with one hand while still trying to wrangle his undergarments back into place with the other, he lost his balance. Tripping over his own shorts and sprawling into a less than flattering position on the ground sent the steadily growing group of his peers into hysterics. No one, including Brandon, lifted a finger to help. There was only laughter, pointing and the all-seeing eye of several smartphones recorded the moment for posterity from several cinematic angles.
Even as he laid there biting away the tears and working to get his shorts back where they were supposed to be, he knew the entire scene would be on YouTube and Facebook by the time he got home, neatly edited and set to a cartoon soundtrack. It was the kind of monumental prank and subsequent embarrassment that would have lived in infamy by word-of-mouth alone. The fact that it was so public and so well documented would only intensify the attention it would receive, and Michael could see himself passing through the next ten years as little more than a walking, talking internet meme.
Honestly, it was the sort of thing that a lot of people committed suicide over. Although, in that moment of mortifying abasement, Michael’s thoughts were centered more on killing Brandon than himself. It was, without a doubt, a new low for his brother and when he looked up from his spot on the ground to see the sneer on Brandon’s laughing face, it was too much. The tears finally spilled forth…although it was “rage” that finally broke the ducts.
It took another full minute to gather his wind-swept belongings…unaided of course…before he could finally flee the scene of the crime; but, once his slender legs did begin to carry him away, he never looked back. There was no way in hell he was riding home with that bastard now. If Mom did get pissed, then he was pretty sure he would have a story that would turn the tide of her ire in an alternate direction. Normally, and despite some of his more grievous offenses, Michael was not one for ratting out his brother. They had made a “non-tattling” pact when Michael was five and Brandon was eight and, for some damn reason, Michael had felt compelled to continue to honor the agreement. Today, however, that last shred of a sibling bond had been whittled away, and he no longer harbored any sense of obligation towards his brother.
That wasn’t to say he relished the idea of being a rat on general principle though. Certainly, if his mother were to have asked him in that very moment, Michael would’ve held nothing back…probably sending her to the webpage where she could watch the transgression as well. That said, the walk home would take a little over two hours and he was smart enough to know that he might feel differently once he’d had an opportunity to calm down. Forgiveness was definitely out of the question, but not being sold down the creek to Mom and Dad was still within the realm of possibility.
Once he made it past the first couple blocks, there were two ways he could go on foot to get back home. There was the main route that stuck to the sidewalks and roadways he knew well. Unfortunately, that path would keep him exposed to his brother who would, undoubtedly, be passing by at some point with Randy in the passenger seat.
Since he’d had just about all the brutality he could take from the pair today, Michael opted to go the other way, which led through a largely uninhabited area of the small town, long since reclaimed by nature. While it wasn’t a route he was terribly familiar with, the prospects of becoming lost in the overgrown region were still more desirable than having to deal with his sadistic brother again before being back home where Mom and Dad’s presence acted as a strong deterrent to some of Brandon’s more despicable tendencies. Besides, they had just read “The Road Not Taken” in English class that day and when Frost took the path “less traveled by”, it seemed to work out well enough for him so…perhaps that was a sign.
* * * * * *
“Cut him open?” Out of all of the suggestions Michael might have anticipated from his brother, “cut it open,” was nowhere on that list. “Why in the world would you want to do that?”
While it was true that in the last year and a half a small, but still growing, streak of perverse cruelty had begun to cut a groove through the bedrock of Brandon’s developing personality, he hadn’t yet progressed to the point of wanting to harm other living beings. He had brandished the utility knife on a few occasions before and, unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time he had threatened to use it either. When push came to shove though, the sixteen-year-old was all talk…and Michael knew it too. In this particular instance, however, there was nothing in his face or tone that suggested anything but complete seriousness.
“To prove a point…obviously.” Michael’s face twisted into anguished confusion, clearly signifying the need for elaboration. “Look,” his brother continued, a bit softer this time, “I’m not saying we got give it a full autopsy. Just a little cut on its tail…or one of those sacs on the sides. If it’s like I say it is then there’ll be gears and computer chips and all that kind of robot stuff.” He paused to fight off the involuntary smirk. “On the other hand…if it’s like you say, and Huggy is really a real Facehugger, then it’ll have acid for blood, which will eat right through the floor.
Either way,” this time he was unable to keep from smiling, “it’ll bring a small fortune on eBay.”
Michael looked from Brandon, whose eyes sparkled with the promise of digital dollars, to Huggy, who was resting quietly in his lap; and then back to his brother. Spine hardening with rigid resolve and taking special care to maintain eye contact, he slowly but firmly let Brandon know exactly what his thoughts were on the subject.
“You are not going to cut Huggy. Not on his tail. Not on his sacs. Not anywhere. Also…we are not going to be putting him on eBay. He’s mine now…and he’s not going anywhere. This is not up for discussion.”
The older boy’s smile began to falter as he studied his brother’s face and the unprecedented resolution behind it. This type of conviction was definitely a new development and Brandon was actually a little proud of the kid for finally standing up for himself. Not enough to allow the defiance to stand, mind you, but still…it was good to know he wasn’t completely without a backbone. At the very least, knowing that it wouldn’t completely decimate his little brother made what he was about to do a little easier.
“I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, Ratface,” he finally began after several seconds of razor-sharp silence, “but your new little pet doesn’t belong to you anymore.”
Michael shook his head with confused disbelief, hoping that when Brandon expanded on the statement it would take on a different hue; even though, in the pit of his slowly-beginning-to-churn stomach, he new full well what the son-of-a-bitch was going to say. Regardless, as if going through the motions, he stammered, “Wha…wha…what the hell are you talking about, Brand?”
“Oh, come on now,” Brandon chuckled. “I thought you were supposed to be the smart one?” His smirk, which had become a semi-permanent fixture as of late, had returned and Michael wanted nothing more than to slap the smug expression from his face. Doing crap like this was bad enough but seeing the deliberate pleasure on his face was downright nauseating; and, in that particular moment, the younger of the two brothers had a thought come to mind that he honestly couldn’t remember ever having before. Was Brandon evil?
On the surface the notion seemed ludicrous, but when one began dissecting the facts and comparing them to what most people considered ‘evil’…things weren’t so cut and dry. There was a fair case to be made that his brother had begun showing all the signs of a future ‘Bad Guy’. A Michael Myers or Hannibal Lector was probably a stretch, but he could see a Draco Malfoy being well within the realm of possibility.
“But I guess if you wanna’ play dumb, I’ll spell it out for ya. That thing in your lap…whatever it is…is mine now. It belongs to me.” Michael opened his mouth to protest but Brandon raised a finger to his face and cut him off. “And before you go askin’ ‘why’ and all that bullshit, I’ll tell you. It’s because I want it…and there’s nothing you can do to stop me from taking it, short of getting your ass kicked so much that I’m too tired to take it right away.” He paused, the smirk twisting into a sneer.
“And here’s the really beautiful part…you can’t tell Mom and Dad either. Because, guess what? You tell on me and I can guarantee that they’ll find that thing and then…bye, bye Huggy.”
Michael could feel the moisture beginning to pool in the corners of his eyes and he bit his tongue to keep the floodgates from opening. Brandon would not see him cry! He could not remember ever hating his brother as much as he did in those passing seconds.
“But if you play nice…and not be a pain-in-the-ass, little douchebag…then you can still see your little buddy. And nobody needs to know. Hell, I’ll probably let you keep it in your room half the time or more. The only real difference is…” He paused dramatically, before continuing with a noticeably harsher tone; “it belongs to me now and I can do whatever the fuck I want to with it. And that includes cutting it open a bit to see what the damn thing’s made of. You understand, Numbnuts?”
* * * * * *
To get to the clearing with the little creek that made up the largest portion of the “back way”, Michael had to first make his way through nearly 100 yards of a thickly forested region that sat directly behind the dilapidated and mostly deserted Hammermill subdivision. It wasn’t too rough going though so long as he stayed on the dirt path worn by a thousand short-cuts, which led from the subdivision to the clearing.
At the halfway point, he came upon a cleared-out circle about ten feet wide with several ancient lawn chairs spaced around the remnants of a fire long since extinguished. There were rusty beer cans littered about the site and an algae-covered cooler that had been turned on its side as a makeshift coffee table. Most likely it had been a spot for teenagers to hang out and get drunk, or even a campsite for some homeless contingency. Although, with several vacant houses very close by, the squatters in the area probably had better options.
As it turned out, whatever purpose the little circle was originally devised for, it now had a new one. It was the perfect location for what Michael had needed most in that moment. To fling his books and bag to the ground with a thud, lower himself into a rust-covered chair…and bawl like he hadn’t done since he was a small child. Up to that very moment when he finally allowed the tears to run freely, he had been keeping the mortifying reality of what Brandon had done to him at bay. He had stumbled away from the school like a soldier from a grenade explosion, shell-shocked and not yet fully aware of just how badly he had been hurt.
Now, in this quiet seclusion where only the trees could judge him, there was time to reflect, time to inspect the damage…and it wasn’t pretty. Brandon’s cruel joke might as well have been an act of war for the PTSD it was going to leave behind, and the brutality of its effect on his psyche was only just coming into view. Surely, the entire school had now been able to view his humiliation. If past experiences were to be considered, then it probably had its own Facebook page as well, along with a link to the YouTube video entitled, “Little Bean-dick Gets Pantsed.”
Getting through his freshman year had been difficult enough for the geeky beanpole of a thirteen-year-old, what with all the unwritten rules of coolness and the impossible to navigate social hierarchy. Now, however, he might as well see if he can talk his mother into home-schooling. The thought of having to return to school and all the additional abuse it now promised was too much to process, and just trying to do so was enough to keep the faucets on high.
With his entire 110-pound frame lurching forward on each uncontrollable sob, causing the weather-worn lawn-chair to creak in protest each time, Michael spent nearly forty minutes rocking the chair. The expression of raw pain was irrepressible now that he had let it free…and he didn’t even try to hold it back. After the first couple of minutes, it would’ve been impossible to re-cork that bottle anyway. It was cathartic…to a degree, at least…and he was more than willing to let it run its course, even as his abdomen began to ache from the unintended exercise it was getting.
When, eventually, he did manage to regain his composure, he still spent another fifteen minutes sitting quietly in the little tree-lined sanctuary allowing his simmering cauldron of emotions to slowly shift from glowering self-pity to unadulterated fury, hatred and the desire for revenge. Everyone that truly knew Michael would openly admit that he was one of the most forgiving people they had encountered; and goodness knows he had forgiven a lot of shit from his brother…especially in recent years. However, today’s incident was one he couldn’t imagine ever letting go of and the fact that he was picturing, for the first time ever, the way Brandon’s skull might look after a little ‘love tap’ from the “Carlos Beltran” signed baseball bat that hung over his bed only reinforced the notion.
Never in his entire life, had Michael desired to cause pain to another human being. At least that used to be the case, and he hated Brandon that much more for taking that from him as well. Something deep inside had snapped and, while it hadn’t been immediately apparent, he was gradually coming to the realization that he wasn’t the same person he was just a few hours ago. If it came down to it, and the opportunity to hurt Brandon arose…to really hurt him…well, he no longer felt confident that he wouldn’t do so. Besides, by his estimation…the son-of-a-bitch had earned himself some pain.
* * * * * *
“Please don’t!” His skin prickled and burned from the blood boiling beneath it and it felt like a thousand fire-ants were crawling through his hair as Michael pleaded with his brother. Brandon had just taken Huggy’s tail into his left hand while slowly lowering the exposed blade of the pocketknife with his right. He had stretched the tail of the still resting creature so that if, on the one-in-a-million chance that his crazy little brother was actually right, it did spill acid blood from the incision, then it would just eat through the bed and not either of them.
“You’ll hurt him!”
Michael wasn’t sure he actually believed that. The species was, at least as far as their fictional lore was concerned, pretty durable; but, at the same time, he had already fully embraced the role of protective caretaker for the creature he had rescued. Plus, while the bond that had been nearly instantaneously formed between them was quite strong, causing the little guy unnecessary pain or distress could only work to damage it. It wasn’t a stretch to say that he was already feeling something like ‘love’ for his new pet, and he didn’t want to give Huggy any reason to fear him.
“Please, Brand! I’m begging you. You don’t need to…”
“Just shut up already!” Brandon cut him off. “If you don’t let me concentrate then this cut’s gonna be a lot worse than it needs to.”
Every nerve in Michael’s body tingled uncomfortably. He wanted to scream…to throw punches…to run out of the room and tell his mother and father what Brandon was trying to do. Circumstances, however, held him silently in place. All he could do was watch through the tears beginning to blur his vision. He had no way of knowing just how misplaced the target of his concern actually was.
Brandon got the knife all the way to the spot he intended to slice through but the moment the cold steel made contact with whatever it was its skin was made from, the Facehugger came to life. Reminiscent of Uncle Ted’s iguana, Pat, that would sit still as a rock for hours on end before suddenly springing into action with an inconceivable speed, Huggy went from being relatively motionless to a flurry of activity quite evocative of its onscreen persona.
Before Brandon had an opportunity to react, let alone cut anything but his own thumb, the Facehugger was upon him. In less than a second flat, it had scurried up his chest and settled upon the boy’s face, it’s tail tightening around his neck. It was an image Michael had seen a hundred times before on the plasma flat screen in his brother’s bedroom. For that reason, perhaps more than any other, the bizarre…one might even say ‘alien’…behavior wasn’t nearly as psychologically striking as it probably should’ve been. There was something about the familiarity of what he was seeing, and its firm position within the world of Hollywood make-believe, that gave him pause when he maybe should have been reacting instead.
Clawing desperately at the otherworldly beast’s vice-grip, Brandon jumped to his feet in surprise; and, as he began blindly stumbling about the room, Michael was surprised to find that the smile was beginning to creep back into the corners of his mouth. As terrifying as it might have appeared to an outside observer, there was something oddly…satisfying…about seeing the way the tables had been so suddenly turned against his in-house tormentor…like the physical personification of karmic retribution. It wasn’t’ until his brother smacked the back of his head against the bookshelf with an audible thud that he finally decided it was enough.
“No Huggy! Stop it! Leave Brandon alone!” He didn’t know why the command would work…only that it would; and when and when the Facehugger responded immediately by unfurling itself from the older boy and leaping back to the corner of the bed, it didn’t come as any surprise. After all, he had already determined the baby Xenomorph’s high intelligence, as well as its ability to comprehend much of his vocabulary.
Brandon’s now unconscious body fell to the floor next to the bed, the blue in his face slowly returning to pink. It was obvious that he was still breathing, but when he didn’t wake up in the first minute and a half, Michael began to wonder if he should go get help after all. The bookshelf had clocked the older boy pretty good. It was possible he had a concussion. Michael couldn’t remember what all the rules were when it came to concussions, but he was pretty sure that the victim wasn’t supposed to sleep. Then again…
There was another option to be considered…an opportunity that almost seemed dictated by fate. What were the odds that on the very same day that Brandon would completely sever the last bonds of brotherly love between them, he would develop a new, seemingly just as strong, affection for a creature that shouldn’t even exist? If the last five minutes of his life had made anything clear, it was this. Huggy had his back and Brandon did not.
Going even further down that road, it was apparent that, at only sixteen, his older brother was still growing, still developing, and changing into something different in the process…something that appeared exponentially worse every day. How shitty was he going to become? What kind of living hell would he make Michael’s life be once that day came?
Truthfully, they weren’t questions he really wanted the answers to. It sucked that he even had to ask them in the first place. Huggy, somehow sensing the emotional agony, nuzzled up against his leg as he stared at Brandon’s heaving chest and wondered if it made him a monster for even having such thoughts. Especially when they didn’t just end there. After all, Brandon wasn’t the only party present that hadn’t reached their final stage of development.
* * * * * *
Careful not spill the overpoured iced tea, Michael carried the requested beverage to his mother on the back patio, before settling into the deck chair next to her with the comic book he would pretend to read while eavesdropping on her conversation with her sister.
“Thanks, Sweetie,” she smiled at him before returned her attention to the phone call. “Honestly Marci, I thought we were going to have to take him to the hospital. He was in and out for nearly twenty-four hours, but then this morning he bounced up right as rain…and hungry.” She chuckled. “No…no…really. I swear that kid must’ve eaten twenty pancakes this morning. I mean, I know he was just getting over something, but I’ve never seen Brandon eat that much in one sitting before. He was just wolfing it down.” She laughed again. Michael loved the sound of his mother’s laughter.
“No…I think he’s in there playing video games right now. I told him he could stay home on Monday as well if he wanted, but since he’s already begging to go hang out with his friends, I’d say he’ll be okay enough to…”
Sheila Knight was cut off mid-sentence by a scream of abject pain coming from somewhere within the house. It was Brandon. Michael recognized it immediately. It was the same noise his brother had made when he broke his ankle four years ago while they had been climbing trees. Their parents hadn’t been there, so Michael was the only one present for those moments when the pain was at its worse.
“Marci, I have to go,” she offered bluntly before hanging up on their aunt and running into the house. Michael didn’t follow. Thirty seconds later, Brandon cried out again. This time, however, it ended with an abrupt gurgle…and then was immediately replaced by the piercing shriek of his mother.
Still in the chair on the patio, Michael fought to hold back the smile that would, in another moment or two, be highly inappropriate. His life was about to get dramatically better. And being bullied again…by anyone…was a thing of the past.
Shannon Higdon Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by Otis Jiry