Chapter 5: Charley & Loren (Sneak Peek)

Charley couldn’t stop checking her phone. Yes, she knew she had told Ryan to give her some space, but after three days without even a text she was in full-on self-pity mode. She imagined him getting beers with his friends or watching Lost on the couch with the cats, having completely forgotten about her. While part of her knew she was being a bit dramatic, it didn’t stop her stomach from twisting into a tight ball of discomfort and nausea until she couldn’t handle it anymore. She determinedly plunked in numbers from memory and pressed the dial button.

“Hey you’ve reached Ryan’s cell. Sorry I’m not here right now, but leave your name and number and I’ll get back to you soon.”

Charley hung up and leaned back in her seat, sighing. She was on her lunch break, eating alone at the Rio Grande Cafe, supposedly taking a break from her busy work day. She flexed her wrist, which was a little sore. She had just finished tattooing a back piece that had taken three hours and featured a pair of dragons intertwining along the man’s spine, wings spread across his shoulder blades. One dragon was white, and the other was black, a variation on the yin and yang theme that was so popular. He had told Charley that the tattoo represented him and his wife, who, even though they were incredibly different, were also very in love. His wife had come with him as emotional support, and stayed quietly by his side for the whole three hours, which was even more impressive due to the fact that she was also very pregnant.
Charley wanted to be happy for the couple, but the whole time she was working on the tattoo, listening to the couple tell the story of how they met, she had been getting gradually more annoyed. It was stupid that someone else’s happiness should bother her so much, and totally unfair, but it didn’t change the way she felt. She remembered the first tattoo she ever got, and how Ryan held her hand the whole time, even when she squeezed it so hard that his knuckles were white. For the millionth time, she thought to herself that maybe leaving had been a mistake, even if it was just for a few days.
Suddenly the sound of a chair scraping across pavement alerted Charley to the fact that Matt was currently in the process of sitting across from her at the table. She blinked at him.
“Hey little sis. You look ready to murder the first person that calls you short.”
“Do I? I’m not surprised. How did you know I was here?”
“Todd told me.” Todd was her coworker at Pandemonium tattoos, a burly bald man who had a soft spot for his much younger co worker. Charley rolled her eyes.
“Of course he did.” Matt took a sip of the water that the waitress had just brought him.
“Okay, so, I hung out with Ryan a few days ago. He seemed upset.”
“Yeah well, he started it.” Matt gave Charley a pointed look.
“And how old are you?”
“Only 11 months younger than you are!”
“Then act like it. So…anything you want to talk about?”
“Maybe how frustrating Ryan is, or how he never takes me seriously and always overreacts-” Charley continued on a rant about her absent boyfriend that probably was only a few minutes, but judging from Matt’s reaction must have seemed like an eternity.
“See what I’m hearing is, I miss that bastard like hell. Tell me, am I off base here?”
Charley half smiled. “That seeing right through me thing that you do? It’s really cramping my style.”
They both chuckled a little. Then Matt looked intently at his sister.
“Go home, Charley. You can’t just run away from the one person you care about the most as soon as something goes wrong.”
Keeping her mouth shut right then was probably the hardest thing Charley had done that day, including the three hour tattoo. In the space of a minute she thought up twelve indignant excuses for her behavior, three of which were even plausible. But she gave her brother a rare hug, and, as she walked back to work, she muttered to herself, “I’ll do it, if only to make sure he’s feeding the damned cats.”

Chapter 4: Ryan & Kince

Ryan held his phone in his palm, his finger hovering over the call button. He wanted to tell Charley about the video and let her know that maybe her suspicions had some sort of merit; maybe they could talk about it together and end this frustrating silence. She could come home, and everything would go back to the way it was…suddenly Ryan slumped his shoulders. Who was he kidding? This would only make her worse. She would get more obsessive and crazy, becoming harder and harder to deal with until- he couldn’t bear to think of the consequences.

Ryan sighed and admitted to himself that the real reason he wanted to call Charley was because he just plain missed her. He wanted to hold her while watching CSI reruns on the couch with a beer in his hand and pizza in the oven. He wanted to watch her practice tattoo designs on the kitchen table. Heck, he even wanted to hear her snore like a growling bear as he tried to sleep at night. But he couldn’t, because she was gone, and there was no way around it.

That did not mean, however, that the business with the video had to be left alone. Although he couldn’t be with Charley, he could find out what was really going on at the hospital. Then once she knew the truth, Charley could finally feel that justice was served and begin to heal from the horrible memory of her parents’ death. Ryan smiled. He was going to fix everything.

***

Kince was not in the habit of following Loren home from work, but after their encounter in the freezer, he feared she might report him to…her. Every species had their leader, and the Matriarch was the queen of the Essentials. She rose to power sometime in the distant past; as the last female capable of giving birth to new Essentials, she had controlled the fate of the entire race. Soon, even she had lost the ability to reproduce, but her power was already in place. Thousands of years later, she still held the Essentials like putty in her hands. Kince often wondered why the Essentials were still so securely under her thumb after all these years. He supposed it was more a matter of habit than anything else.  She was a singular being for sure; no one ever crossed her, and she always got what she wanted.

What she didn’t want was an uprising like the one Kince had suggested to Loren. The Matriarch had a system. She preferred to remain behind the scenes and control a lesser species while leaving them blissfully unaware that they were being ruled over. That is how the Essentials were able to survive so long without being able to reproduce. If she found out that one of her own was threatening to overthrow that system, there would be consequences. Kince shuddered.

All Essentials were required to report anything and everything strange and suspicious to the queen, especially among members of their own. Her argument was that with their numbers so small, and no way of increasing them, their race could not afford infighting. Kince suspected it also had to do with the Matriarch’s desire to control every aspect of her surroundings. Nevertheless, if Loren did not report Kince’s behavior and the Queen found out about it some other way, Loren would suffer the same consequences as if she had suggested the uprising herself. So he expected her to try and report it sooner or later, and he wanted to be on hand to stop her.

Kince soon found that tailing somebody was not exactly an easy task for a hemi-pelagic; having to limp at every step slowed him down considerably. He found himself sighing with relief every time she stopped to look in a store and found that he appreciated her compulsion for shopping for the amount of time it afforded him to catch up with her.

After the 3rd store, Kince smiled smugly to himself. Loren was blissfully unaware that she was being followed. That smile quickly turned to a frown as he saw a hooded figure pause a block away from Loren, looking in her direction as she happily shopped for a pair of heels. He had seen that same figure pause outside the last store Loren entered. Was someone else following her as well? It certainly seemed like it. Wearing a hood was a strange choice for a nice bright summer day, and the figure, scrawny and probably male (from the absence of certain…physical characteristics) seemed strangely fidgety. Kince surmised that either he was tailing Loren (badly) or he was on drugs.

Kince’s eyes narrowed and his focus shifted. Kince may have been following Loren, but he would never wish her any harm, no matter how hurt he was by her rejection of his plan. This figure’s intentions did not seem benign, though, and he was not an Essential, so Kince felt a sudden urge to protect Loren from the  suspicious outsider in any way he could. His first thought was to punch the guy in the face, but making a scene would put both him and Loren at risk of exposure, not to mention pissing off the Matriarch. Also, considering his disability, Kince was not exactly going to win any fight he started…at least not fairly.

Kince backtracked, stepping into a local coffee shop, still within plain view of Loren and her potential stalker, who was looking more suspicious by the minute. He then pulled out his phone and called Loren. He watched as she rummaged through her purse and found her phone.

“Hello?”

“Hey Loren. It’s Kince.”

“Umm, hi. Look, I’m kind of in the middle of something right now-”

“There’s a problem with one of the blood samples from yesterday. Can you meet me at the hospital?”

“Right now?” Loren sounded irritated. “I basically just left.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. Superior Ecton said it was urgent.” There was a pause on the other end.

“Okay. I’ll be right there.”

***

Kince watched Loren unlock the main hospital doors from the edge of the parking lot. Between Kince and Loren, the hooded figure peeked around a bush, flinching whenever Loren made the slightest movement. Kince would have smirked if he wasn’t so tense. Humans were hilariously pathetic sometimes.

Loren yanked the door open and slipped inside, leaving the door unlocked behind her. Kince paused and shifted his focus to the stalker. If he followed Loren into the hospital, there would be no doubt that he had bad intentions. Sure enough, after a couple minutes, the hooded figure walked briskly to the door. Kince saw his head begin to swivel and correctly assumed the intruder meant to check behind him; ducking behind a parked car, Kince fought the urge to put a face to this mysterious figure. When Kince raised his head once more, the door was slowly drifting shut. Waiting a minute of his own, Kince formulated a plan. Then, when he was sure enough time had passed that he could cross the parking lot without fear that the hooked figure would turn around, he proceeded to enter the hospital.

***

Ryan stepped into the hospital, his heart pounding in his chest. He resisted the urge to wipe his sweaty palms on his jeans, and mentally berated himself for wearing a hoodie. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, and besides, stalkers did that in all the movies, but Ryan was finding out the hard way that his current garb just wasn’t practical. He bit his lip and listened for movement. When he heard the jingling of keys off to his left, he quietly tiptoed  in the direction of what he hoped was Loren. Panic washed over him as he realized for the first time that he had no idea what to do when he found her. His plan was to catch her in some sort of illegal act, but how to do that without her seeing him? He would have to hide somewhere. A supply closet, maybe?

Ryan, deep in thought, had not noticed the footsteps creeping up behind him. Hearing a rustling sound, he turned around just in time for a heavy metal box to hit him squarely in the face.

***

Kince hadn’t meant to break the intruder’s nose, only hit him in the back of the head to knock him out and prevent him from hurting Loren. However, he couldn’t deny that it felt good. Finally after millennium of silent disapproval from the rest of his race, he felt a small sort of release at being the giver of pain instead of the receiver. Then Loren screamed.

“Kince what the hell? Is this how we treat patients now? God, you are out of control! I’m going to the Matron right now-” Kince tried to protest but Loren continued on a high pitched diatribe until Kince was forced to shout.

“He was stalking you, ok? He followed you in here!” Loren stopped mid accusatory remark and stared at the crumpled, bleeding figure on the floor. Then she looked up at Kince. “Oh.” She averted her eyes, another “human” mannerism she had picked up. Then she looked at Kince, her unblinking eyes wider than usual.

“So you were trying to protect me?”

“Yeah whatever.” Kince brushed off her question, trying to ignore the incredulous tone. The Essentials took care of their own; he would have done it for anyone. Loren nodded and looked back at the man on the floor.

“So what do we do with him? If the Matron finds out about this-”

“It was to defend one of our own. She would excuse it.”

“Not from you.” Kince sobered up at the truth of her words. The Matron had made her dislike of Kince clear for as long as the Essentials could remember; she hated that he was weak. According to her, he had outlived his usefulness long ago. She would be glad of an excuse to euthanize him, regardless of the Essential’s small numbers. Kince turned to Loren, suddenly aware of the power she held over him.

“Are you going to tell her?” His breath caught in his throat, which was weird, because Essentials had no need for breathing at all; so why had he been expelling breath in the first place?

Loren’s face betrayed nothing this time. No human mannerism fluttered across her face to give Kince any hint as to what she was thinking. Then a groan emitted from the pile on the floor and Kince and Loren sprung into action. Kince hit the man again with the metal first aid kit, this time in the back of the head, like he had intended at first. Loren disappeared for a minute, returning with a hospital bed. Together they managed to lift the unresponsive human onto it; admittedly Loren did most of the work. They then agreed to toss the human in an unused room on one of the top floors, which were only used for overflow. They wheeled him into the elevator and passed a silent few moments as it ascended. When the elevator dinged, they wheeled the bed into the furthest room on the floor. The man had been lying face down on the bed, and Loren realized he might suffocate, making this situation an even more complicated. She slowly turned the man over, then dropped him with a gasp.

Kince was busy fetching the “patient” some water and food, so he had no idea that Loren recognized the face of someone she had met just a few days ago…what was his name? She took a closer look. Despite his bloodied face, it was definitely him. The one with the tattooed girlfriend…who was probably calling the police right this moment, reporting him missing. She went over to the supply cabinet and retrieved a washcloth, wet it in the sink, and began to clean the blood off his face.

An overwhelmingly unpleasant sensation caught Loren by surprise as she assessed the giant purple bruise stretching across the bridge of his nose. She lifted the back of his head to check for bleeding. She found she was relieved to find none, but the unpleasant sensation returned when she felt an incredible bump forming that she was sure was as purple as his nose. By then Kince was back, and he put the water and food on the nightstand before motioning her to leave. Loren stole one last glance at the injured human before closing the door firmly and locking it behind her.

CHAPTER 4: Ryan & Kince (sneak peek)

Ryan held his phone in his palm, his finger hovering over the call button. He wanted to tell Charley about the video and let her know that maybe her suspicions had some sort of merit; maybe they could talk about it together and end this frustrating silence. She could come home, and everything would go back to the way it was…suddenly Ryan slumped his shoulders. Who was he kidding? This would only make her worse. She would get more obsessive and crazy, becoming harder and harder to deal with until- he couldn’t bear to think of the consequences.

Ryan sighed and admitted to himself that the real reason he wanted to call Charley was because he just plain missed her. He wanted to hold her while watching CSI reruns on the couch with a beer in his hand and pizza in the oven. He wanted to watch her practice tattoo designs on the kitchen table. Heck, he even wanted to hear her snore like a growling bear as he tried to sleep at night. But he couldn’t, because she was gone, and there was no way around it.

That did not mean, however, that the business with the video had to be left alone. Although he couldn’t be with Charley, he could find out what was really going on at the hospital. Then once she knew the truth, Charley could finally feel that justice was served and begin to heal from the horrible memory of her parents’ death. Ryan smiled. He was going to fix everything.

Chapter 3: Ryan

Staying at Melanie’s for a few days. Don’t forget to feed the animals.

            -Charley

Ryan ran his fingers through his unruly morning hair as he read Charley’s note, written with impeccable handwriting on a post-it shaped like a kitten. He had bought her that notepad soon after Vader had joined their little family. Carefully, he put the note back on the kitchen counter and opened the refrigerator. He had intended to make Charley breakfast before she went to work at Spirit, the tattoo shop in the city, in an effort to make up for his actions last night.

I suppose I could still bring it to her at work, he thought. No, that would be going too far, figuratively as well as literally. She clearly needed her space. He turned on the stove and cracked a couple of eggs into a pan. Hearing the noise, Vader and Kitsune, their gigantic orange tabby, ran over to Ryan and rubbed against his calves, purring.

“I know she fed you before she left. You can’t fool me into feeding you twice, you rascals.” He glared down at them, then realized he was overreacting. It wasn’t the cats that had Ryan grumpy, nor was it the morning light that had so rudely filtered in through the living room window and woken him up sweating on the couch. He frowned. It had not been a restful night’s sleep.

After breakfast, he checked the cats’ bowls (just to make sure) and peeked in the hamster’s cage to make sure she had enough food and water. She did. Then he checked his watch and smiled. He still had about an hour before his lifeguard certification class at the local community college.

As he went to open the windows in the living room, to hopefully lessen the apartment’s persistent smell of cat, something crunched under his bare left foot. He looked down and saw the papers that Charley had tried to show him last night. Sighing, he dropped to his knees, slowly and carefully picking up each piece of paper, smoothing them as best he could. He placed them on the counter next to the kitty post-it and jumped in the shower.

Dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, Ryan dried his hair with a towel while brushing his teeth. For some reason, he couldn’t stop thinking about the papers that Charley had tried to show him last night. He wondered what “evidence” she had come up with to prove the existence of aliens. Maybe there was something weird going on. He snorted at his own foolishness, then sobered as a thought plagued his mind. If there wasn’t anything to her ramblings, Charley was actually crazy. Like needed-to-be-committed crazy. That was an alternative that Ryan hated to even think about.

The thing was, he knew Charley. She had some weird ideas, usually during her manic-depressive episodes, but those were explainable. For Christ sake, she had watched her parents die right in front of her. She had seen a therapist every week for the six years after their deaths, and her episodes became fewer and fewer. Besides yesterday, the last time Charley hid in the bunker to protect herself from “aliens” was nearly six months ago. It was a delusion, for sure, but she always acknowledged the irrationality of her beliefs and never let them affect her life outside of her strange episodes. Until now.

When his class had finished, Ryan’s curiosity about the papers had become a full on obsession. He needed to see what Charley had found, and yet he feared it. What if she truly was deranged, and the papers were delirious ramblings? What else could they be? He had to know if the woman he loved was insane or not. He raced home, coasting through stop signs and almost running a red light. He just couldn’t get back fast enough.

Ryan tossed his keys on the counter and was just about to pick up the papers when a little blinking red light alerted him to the fact that he had a voicemail. He deliberated for a minute, hand hovering over the papers, before picking up the phone and pressing the button.

“Hey Ryan, it’s Matt. Charley called me at lunch, and said you had some sort of fight last night. That sucks. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I’m here for you if you need to talk. I know my little sis can be tough to deal with sometimes. Besides, I miss you. Let’s get a beer, ok? Call me back.”

Suddenly, Ryan felt a little less freaked out. Matt would know what to do, just like always.  Ryan picked up the papers and pressed the redial button, shoving his feet into the boots he had just kicked off. Soon they had made plans to meet at Soren’s Pub down the street. Fishing for his keys in his pocket, Ryan realized he left them on the counter and felt a little twinge at the fact that Charley would have reminded him had she been there.

Matt signaled the bartender as Ryan slid into the stool beside him.

“Two beers please. Garden IPA.” The bartender nodded and turned away from them. Ryan started to pull out his wallet. “I got it man, I’m the one who invited you out after all.” Gratefully, Ryan smiled and put his wallet back in his pocket. Any other day, he might have put up a fight, demanding to pay at least half, but today he just didn’t have the energy. Instead he watched the bartender, a twenty something in a dress shirt with a towel flung over his shoulder, pour their beers with careful attention. He leaned his elbow upon the glossy mahogany counter and rested his head on his hand, suddenly feeling exhausted.

A beer was placed in front of him, and Matt clapped him on the back, pulling him out of his stupor. “This’ll make you feel better. Wanna go sit somewhere?” Ryan nodded, and followed Matt as he wound his way through the maze of bodies to a dimly lit table near the back of the bar. He noticed Matt’s confident posture as he walked; he seemed as comfortable here as he had on the football field some years earlier. Matt’s broad shoulders seemed to part the sea of burly men all by themselves. It was impressive, and Ryan became acutely aware of his skinny, lanky frame. Matt had that effect on people.

“So.” Matt gestured towards Ryan as he took a sip of his beer.

“So?” Ryan scratched his head. Matt rolled his eyes.

“Tell me what happened and stuff. Come on, don’t make me go all therapist on your ass.” Ryan chuckled, then took a swig of his IPA.

********************************************************************

“Jesus, Ryan. I had no idea she had gotten that bad.” Ryan found himself quick to go on the defensive.

“Honestly, she has been getting a lot better lately. I mean, when you think about it-“

“I am thinking about it,” Matt interrupted, “and it doesn’t matter how often this is happening. The scary part is, it is becoming more real to her. She used to call me after and tell me how she felt bad for you, because she knew that it was irrational but she believed it in the moment. But now it sounds like she really and truly believes this girl is an alien. Based on what exactly?”

“She works at a hospital?” Ryan shrugged, grimacing. “I don’t know, she came up with better reasons, I just don’t remember them.” Ryan noticed he had been biting his nails as Matt took a deep breath.

“She never told you what happened to our parents, did she?” Ryan stared forlornly into his beer glass, nodding. After all of this time with Charley, it still hurt him that she never trusted him completely.

“She said talking about it would force her to relive it and she didn’t want that.”

Matt nodded. “I’m not saying that’s not the truth, and everybody has their secrets, but it would really help you understand this situation better.

You know that Charley was in the car with Mom and Dad when it crashed, right?”

“Yeah she told me that part.”

“Did she tell you anything else?”

“Nope.”

“Okay, that’s what I thought. Well, the paramedics came and they let Charley ride along in the ambulance to the hospital. I have no idea why; she must have been pretty freaked out and I can only assume there was blood everywhere.” Ryan leaned in towards Matt, his knuckles gripping the edges of the small square table. “Anyway, when the ambulance got to the hospital, Charley wasn’t allowed to go in with them, and started to get hysterical. She clawed at the paramedics and screamed bloody murder until they put her in the psych ward where I had to go pick her up.”

“Later she told me her side of the story. According to Charley, Mom and Dad were both alive after the crash and in the ambulance. She says she even remembered Mom trying to talk but not making any sense.” Matt stopped here, swallowing and closing his eyes briefly. “There is this one moment Charley describes that still haunts me, even though I know it was probably a figment of her imagination trying to cope with a crazy situation.

The paramedics yanked Charley out of the ambulance and quickly placed Mom and Dad on stretchers. Charley reached Mom and grabbed her hand just as the paramedics started to cover the bodies with a white sheet. As they shouted ‘Two DOA’s, take them to the morgue,” Charley swears she felt Mom squeeze her hand.” As Matt sat back and took a long gulp of his beer, Ryan noticed a few beads of sweat gathering on his forehead. “Anyway, that’s sort of indirectly where the alien thing started. First she was on and on about hospital negligence but then it became weirder and weirder until she decided that everyone who worked at the hospital was an alien using human bodies for…something.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah it’s not exactly a straight line, just a kid trying to cope with a horribly tragic event.” Matt paused. “Sometimes I wish it were me instead. I feel like I fucked up not being there for my baby sister. I mean, yeah, I know, there was no way anyone could have known, but, I just…” Matt broke off, not crying or even tearing up, just staring at his shoes. Ryan cleared his throat.

“So, what should I do?” Matt pursed his lips.

“Wait for her to come home (I’ll check up on her daily for ya) and then try and get her in to see Karen ASAP. Beyond that, I have no idea what to tell you, just that you can call me whenever. You know that right?” Matt suddenly leaned across the table and looked into Ryan’s eyes. “I mean it.” Ryan nodded. A few minutes of awkward silence occurred in which the other voices in the pub gradually reached a crescendo, until Ryan pointedly looked at his watch. The good thing about Matt was, he wouldn’t try and make useless small talk when he knew it was just for show. Matt took the cue and they said their goodbyes. Matt even offered Ryan a rare hug. As they exited the bar, Ryan took out the papers from Charley and tossed them in the trash can without a second glance.

Ryan got home and booted up his computer. He intended to go over his notes on CPR for his lifeguard safety class in anticipation of a test coming up. He noticed he had a few new emails, and went to check them. One stood out to him. It was from “the Underground UFO” and contained a video file and no text. Ryan raised his eyebrows and decided to move it to spam. His cursor lingered over the email before his curiosity got the better of him and he clicked on the file.

Immediately his attention was captured by the presence of his new friend Lauren in pink scrubs in what looked like a hospital setting. He recognized her immediately from the way her hair was styled, which made him wonder if this video was taken the day he and Charley met her. There was also another woman there, presumably a doctor, and a girl with long blonde hair sitting upright in the patient’s chair. Ryan watched as the “doctor” told the girl she was putting her under for chemotherapy, and the girl drifted off into a peaceful slumber. Then Ryan stared in disbelief as Lauren slipped a needle into her IV and took fourteen vials of blood before leaving with it, at which point the doctor came back and woke the girl up, telling her, “The chemo seems to be going well; are you feeling any side effects?” Then the video ended as abruptly as it began.

Ryan sat back in his chair. He wasn’t an expert on chemo by any means, but he was pretty sure that simply taking blood was not the way it worked. And the video didn’t seem fake either, although he intended to take a closer look once he had time to process what he’d seen. Of course, this didn’t by any means point to Charley’s crazy alien theory, but there was definitely something…odd about the video. Not to mention; who sent him this video and how had they known he knew Lauren?

Ryan saved the video to his computer. Then, summoned by Vader, he fed the cats and went to bed. With Charley gone, he could use the bedroom again, but with all the confusing puzzle pieces whirling around in his mind regarding that video, he doubted it would make much difference in the quality of his sleep.

Chapter 2: Kince

Superior Ecton pursed her lips as she flipped through her planner. “We have a problem.” Lorin immediately put down the patient’s chart she was holding and went to Ecton’s side. Her superior handed over the planner.  In a moment Lorin noticed what was wrong. There weren’t any chemo appointments scheduled for this week. Since putting the patients to sleep during uncomfortable chemo sessions had become the norm, that was the only way Lorin and her fellow extra-terrestrials could take the blood from humans without them noticing. But they couldn’t take blood if there were no patients. Ecton grabbed Lorin by the shoulders and looked into her hazel eyes, a strangely human gesture, although no humans were present. “You know what this means, don’t you?” Lorin nodded, gulping.

“It’s time to visit The Bank.” Lorin gave the planner back to Superior Ecton and made for the elevator as quickly as she could. When it arrived, there was (surprisingly) no one else riding it; she had a cold metal cage, capable of fitting an entire bed and quite a few people besides, all to herself and her thoughts.

It wasn’t the blood bank itself that all of the Essentials hated so much, Lorin mused. It was…him. As she thought of the technician who ran the lab she shuddered in distaste and discomfort. The fact that the blood was old, and therefore not as potent as fresh blood only meant that all Essentials on Lorin’s floor would have to make several trips down to the basement until the next patient showed up for chemo. Which would hopefully be next week, but since people canceled or moved their appointments so often, Lorin didn’t feel particularly comforted by that fact. The elevator doors creaked open with a sigh and brought Lorin out of her own head and into the freezing labyrinth of the basement. She was always careful when coming down here; once she took a wrong turn and ended up in the morgue.

Looking at the human form devoid of life was strange to her; on the one hand, the Essentials had no bodies, therefore they could not die as these humans did. They would never smell of decay and preservatives. No one would ever cut them up to see how it happened or put little numbered tags on their toes. But they would fade into nothingness, still in possession of their intellectual faculties but unable to communicate with the world around them in any way, without the antidote of another being’s life force. There was a part of Lorin that she didn’t quite understand that would rather be enslaved by the fear of death than the possibility of disappearing completely.

Making her way safely past the morgue, she approached a door marked “DO NOT ENTER: AUTHORIZED PERSONEL ONLY”. She took a deep breath and knocked three times. The door swung open to reveal a pale man limping back to his desk. He flicked his hand as a greeting, then swung himself awkwardly into a swivel chair, facing Lorin at last.

Even though she knew what he looked like, the man’s appearance startled Lorin anew every time she saw him. The entire right side of his body did not function, from his shriveled right leg and arm to the muscles of the right side of his face. His left arm and leg were incredibly muscular to compensate for carting his whole body around, making his appearance even more unsettling.

“What do you want, Superior Lorin?”

When he talked, the left side of his mouth opened, while the right remained drooped in an eternal frown. Lorin stared at it, horrified and yet fascinated with these obvious imperfections. Kince was an Essential, just like Lorin, but defective in a way that dated back longer than any of them could remember. They did have bodies, once, and Kince’s original body must have been damaged somehow. The mystery of how they lost their bodies would not be so difficult to solve if anyone could remember that far back. The Essentials had been alive to see star systems explode and new universes form. Since they consistently moved around to a new civilizations with different ways for measuring time, they had eventually lost track of their ages, and with it, their entire history.

Whenever the Essentials, who always traveled together, entered a new world and created bodies for themselves from the essence of other beings, Kince’s body had the same problem. There were variants, of course; on a planet where the organisms had seven eyes, five of his worked, but on another, he was completely unable to move. Kince was the dark secret the Essentials carried with them to every new planet, a burden on the backs of an otherwise perfect race, as they viewed themselves.

“Stop staring, please. God, it’s like I’m a circus animal. I should start charging admission.” Being constantly judged by his peers, and acutely aware of his differences in every new body, Kince had developed an attitude to protect himself at the cost of everyone around him. Lorin shrugged as Kince grinned smugly, proud of his use of human examples to insult a fellow Essential. Lorin thought his disloyalty to members of his own race was pathetic and disgraceful, considering they had taken care of him for who knows how long.

“Level 4 is out of blood. We need some of yours.” Well, Kince was denied access to fresh blood to ensure that those able-bodied Essentials who could defend themselves in the event of a war could be ready to fight immediately. The humans would call that unfair, but Kince wanted the race to survive as much as all the rest did. And besides, no one euthanized him, which would be much easier, and his rude remarks were tolerated with stony silence. Lorin almost felt jealous of her inferior at times. It seemed as though he could run his mouth to anyone and everyone without fear of the consequences. When she asked Superior Ecton why this was, the other Essential stated matter-of-factly: “There is a reason we keep him in the basement.”

Kince gestured to the reason with his functional left hand, a huge metal door with a small window at about eye level. Kince eyed Lorin from his small desk until she reached out her hand, attempting to control her frustration from manifesting itself physically.

“Could I have the keys?” Kince pretended to look shocked.

“Surely you have been briefed on human niceties same as the rest of us. Wouldn’t want our rudeness giving us away, after all.”

“Please hand me the keys, Kince.” He grinned hugely out of the left side of his mouth, enjoying the moment. Lorin took the keys a little forcefully and turned away from the unpleasant man. To her frustration, she heard him struggle to get up from his desk and, as she turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open, he followed her inside, shutting the door behind them. Lorin turned to glare at him, but paused upon noticing that his entire demeanor had changed. His expression was completely blank. To a human, that would not be alarming in the least, but Kince was an essential, and to stop using the facial expressions and mannerisms of a human, even for a few minutes, could arouse suspicion in the sometimes very observant creatures.

 After a moment of panic, Lorin reminded herself that they were alone in the blood bank, and, even if she were to stop blinking until pain and dryness reminded her why humans did it in the first place, no one would be there to witness it, much less start freaking out. Of course, there was that one girl yesterday who had immediately stiffened when Lorin told her where she worked. That a hospital should make people nervous was already a step in the wrong direction. She would have to notify Superior Ecton of the matter.

Of course, humans had a lot of strange reasons for disliking things. Lorin thought about the pervading smell of decay in the morgue and realized that hospitals were the place where human death occurred in the highest rate on a daily basis when compared with almost any other type of building on the planet. This girl’s reaction was perfectly normal; most likely someone close to her had died in a hospital, and Lorin had triggered those memories upon meeting her. Human emotions can be so complex, Lorin thought. I’m so glad the Essentials don’t have to deal with those sorts of things. But then her attention was drawn back to Kince, and she wasn’t so sure. Having noticed her drifting off, he was looking down at the skin and bone of a leg that he was forced to drag behind him everywhere he went. He gingerly touched it with his good arm, then frowned. Suddenly, he punched his thigh as hard as he could, then quickly glanced up to see if Lorin had been watching. She had. Without a word, he gestured to her to follow him down the frozen hallways, towards the newest samples of blood.

Lorin had to help Kince slide open the large glass door that contained the precious red vials, lined up perfectly in a row. Lorin wondered how Kince managed on his own, without the aid or supervision of a single other Essential. They had tried giving him human lackeys, but all had quit within the first week of being hired. He apparently was not easy to get along with. Nobody had been surprised.

They collected the vials and placed them in a test tube holder. There were thirty-seven in all, the exact number of Essentials working on the third floor. Kince packaged it in a metal container marked with HAZARDOUS MATERIALS and they made their way back to his office. Kince was unusually quiet during this whole situation, and Lorin found herself almost enjoying his company.

“Wait,” Kince suddenly stopped before the metal behemoth that separated the two essentials from the rest of the hospital. “I have something I want to talk to you about.” Lorin gave him a pointed look, expecting some sort of odd, insulting remark.

“Okay, go.” Kince paused, staring into Lorin’s eyes with his startlingly pale blue ones. His face was attractive at rest; the slight droop of his right eye gave his expression a singular depth.

“Before I start, can I sit down? My good leg is killing me.”

“Can’t we just sit in your office?” Lauren gestured towards the door.

“No. Here is fine. Trust me.” Strange words. Kince must have picked them up from a human. Lorin shrugged and sat gingerly on the floor, then emitted a gasp when it chilled her thighs through her scrubs. Kince closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Then he opened them and trained them on Lorin.

“I have been spending a lot of time alone, and with that has come countless hours to think about the future.” Lorin shifted uneasily. “Every day, I interact with humans. The doorman at my apartment, the nurses who bring me urine samples, even a lost patient or two. And they all treat me the same way.” Kince broke Lorin’s gaze, and looked intently at a spot on the ceiling. “They all hold doors open for me, smile sadly, and ask me if I need anything. It’s pathetic.

They think they are being so kind to me, but how they really feel is obvious. These stupid, gullible creatures actually think they are better than me. They have no idea that I belong to a race of creatures so much more intelligent and wise than they could ever hope to be. Just because I look like this,” he made a sweeping gesture towards the right side of his body, “they think I am weak. They think I am helpless.” While Kince said all of this without any sort of expression or even a single twitch or blink, Lorin was struck by the human quality of his words. She spoke slowly and without inflection.

“Where are you going with this thought process, Kince?”

“My question is: if we are superior to these humans, and we know that we are, why are we hiding from them? Why cower under layers of deception?” Immediately a list of reasons sprang into Lorin’s mind and poured out of her mouth, a list she had been told so many times she knew it perfectly.

“Lorin, I gave been given the same information as you have. I know what Superior Ecton would say. But I’m not talking to her, am I? I’m talking to you.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying, it’s time we stopped hiding. We could rule this planet. Humans could be made to serve us, maybe even worship us. And yet we treat them as if they were the threat and underestimate our own power.” Lorin was completely at a loss for words. In the entire length of her life, long before this small blue planet rose out of nothingness she had never heard an Essential speak like this before.

“How could this be achieved?” Kince sighed.

“I don’t know. I haven’t figured that part out yet. But one thing I do know is, I can’t do it alone. I need some Essentials on my side.”

“You need me on your side.” Lorin stated, suddenly understanding. Kince nodded without breaking eye contact. “I…” Lorin was annoyed with the way her words stumbled out of her mouth. A warning from Superior Ecton floated through her head. “Anyone who jeopardizes our way of life will be euthanized, Essential or alien. There are no lengths we will not go to insure the survival of our race.”

“I have to go.” She bolted upright and tossed the keys down to where Kince was struggling to get up, before yanking open the metal door and fleeing to the comfort of the fourth floor, away from this strange Essential and his strange ideas. 

Chapter 1: Charley

“Please come out of there, sweetie.” Ryan knocked on trapdoor of the basement for the sixth time. His knuckles made a loud metallic rap on the smooth grey surface, a shiny square that stood out against the cement floor of the cold dark underbelly of the house. Just being down here gave Ryan chills. A muffled sob came from below, and Ryan laid down and pressed his ear to the door. “I’ll stay here all night if I have to.” He was momentarily startled when a soft vibrating mass rubbed past his leg, before recognizing the small black paws of their kitten, Vader. The cat was even worried now.

After twenty minutes, Ryan heard a loud clanging from below, and knew it was the sound of the trapdoor being unlocked. He got up and backed away from it, squatting a few feet away and petting underneath Vader’s chin. Slowly, the door opened and a woman emerged. Ryan was struck by how fragile she seemed, tiny and pale, in stark contrast to her jet black hair, which was currently half-covering her eyes. What he could see was red and blotchy. She smiled sheepishly as she rubbed her tattooed forearms with her palms and sat next to Ryan.

“It’s so cold in here.”

“It would be, compared to that tiny greenhouse of a bunker down there.” Ryan laughed, admittedly a little forced.

“Blame my grandfather, he’s the one crazy old coot who built it.” The girl came and sat next to Ryan, putting her head on his shoulder. They sat silently for a few minutes, at which point Vader began mewing and pawing their legs insistently.

“It must be dinnertime,” Said Ryan, checking his watch. He stood up, pulling the girl by the hand to the stairs leading out of the basement. She hesitated before them, and Ryan turned around and looked into her eyes.

“Are you with me, Charley?” The girl sighed and closed her eyes for a moment. She looked so fragile, so delicate, in this moment of weakness.  

“I know it seems like I’m being irrational, but I know we aren’t alone here. There are aliens among us, manipulating us like puppets, I just know it.” It was Ryan’s turn to sigh. He had heard this argument before; she used it to defend her actions whenever she was having an episode like this one.

He knew what she wanted him to say; that she was making total sense and that he believed her. But he knew this was just a paranoid delusion. They had been living together for two years and still, when she got like this, he didn’t know what to do. He was trapped between lying to her and hurting her feelings. There was no way to win. He just had to wait it out.

“Let’s feed Vader before he starts going after the hamster.” Charley chuckled and they headed up the stairs. Crisis averted, at least for now.

******************************************************************

“Keys?”

“Check.”

“Wallet?”

“Che- oh crap I left it in the living room.” Charley smiled smugly as Ryan ran to grab it. She always insisted on this routine before they went out, and he usually complained that they were wasting their time. However, as she never hesitated to point out, one of them usually did leave something behind. What was implied but tactfully never mentioned was the fact that it was usually Ryan.

Wallet recovered, they finished the checklist (animals fed, windows shut, etc.) and climbed into Ryan’s silver sedan. Charley had completely calmed down from a few hours earlier, and Ryan smiled to himself. It was good to have her back. When she was having a paranoid episode, he felt as though he were talking to a stranger, and it terrified him. But now Charley was singing along to Macklemore in the passenger seat, pretending to hold a microphone in her right hand. Moments like these, when Charley was full of happy silliness, reminded Ryan of the first day they met.

Some kids were trying to bully him in kindergarten. Then Charley arrived on the playground, a tiny little girl in a frilly blue dress and pigtails. She licked her hand, then shoved it in the bullies’ faces, shouting “I have cooties! I’ll infect you and then you’ll die.” They promptly ran away and Ryan & Charley had been friends ever since. The progression into a relationship had been so natural they hardly noticed it; they shared everything already, falling in love just sort of happened. Charley had been there for him during the times no one else wanted to be seen with the chubby kid with all the acne, and, later, in high school, when all the shit went down with Charley’s family, Ryan stuck by her side. On days like today, it was tough to be Charlie’s boyfriend, but he loved her and knew she felt the same. His friends were sometimes skeptical, but it had always been worth it to be with her, despite everything she did. It didn’t hurt that her episodes were few and far between though.

“Hey! Earth to Ryan. Anybody home?” Charley laughed and tousled his hair, and he realized he must have been driving this whole time and yet remembered absolutely none of it. Nevertheless, they were parked at the diner, safe and in one piece. Charley sprung out of the car, ran around to Ryan’s side and basically pulled him out of the driver’s seat. Social events were always her forte and she absolutely adored being with as many people as possible. They made their way inside and were immediately greeted with catcalls and kissy noises from their loud friends at the corner table, on account of they were holding hands. It was a rare moment of physical affection in public and the gang made sure to capitalize on it. The couple wasn’t big on PDA usually; in fact it was a running joke among the friend group that, even though they had been together for years, no one had ever seen them kiss. Ryan and Charley glanced at each other and rolled their eyes before sliding into the red plastic booths on opposite sides. They quickly noticed a new person, and the obligatory introductions were done.

“Hey, I’m Lauren. I just transferred here for work.”

“Oh, awesome.” Charley flashed the girl a bright smile.

“What do you do?” Ryan pitched in.

“I’m a nurse at the new hospital that just opened on Birch Street.” Charley, who was shaking the girl’s hand immediately stiffened. Ryan clenched his hands under the table, although the rest of the group remained blissfully unaware. Charley paused mid-shake and the girl shot her a quizzical half smile, trying to be polite while clearly noticing Charley’s strange reaction. Charley dropped her hand and forced a smile. For a heavy moment, Ryan worried that Charley would say something odd, and his breath held in his throat. But the moment passed, and Charley seemed to settle down. The physical tension seemed to leave her body and her smiles began to seem authentic. In fact, it appeared she and Lauren were becoming fast friends; Charley was asking all sorts of questions about the other girl’s life and the attention put her at ease within the group.

Ryan found himself relaxing among his friends, enjoying a good meal and good conversation. The rest of the night passed by in a blur, and Ryan was grateful for a fun, stress-free evening out.

As soon as Ryan and Charley had said their goodbyes and climbed back into the car, Charley’s mood changed. She who had been bubbly and talkative just a few minutes earlier sat in silence the entire ride home, and Ryan took her lead and let her have her space. He knew she would talk when she was ready.

“I’m going to bed,” Charley mumbled as she got out of the car. Ryan knew he was supposed to hold his tongue but he couldn’t stand it any longer.

“What’s wrong?” Charley bit her lip thoughtfully.

“You’ll think it’s stupid and crazy.”

“No I won’t. Come on, you can tell me anything.” Considering her calm, if subdued demeanor, Ryan was pretty sure she wasn’t having an episode, so he didn’t expect her to say anything crazy. Charley took a deep breath and sat down on the sofa. Ryan followed suit.

“I think Lauren is an alien.” Ryan blinked. Then he licked his lips. Then he blinked again.

“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

“The new girl. Lauren. I’m pretty sure she is an extra-terrestrial of some kind.” Suddenly Ryan wanted very much to bolt out of the apartment, away from her. Annoyance and anger reared their ugly heads, but he subdued them as best he could and tried to think of what to say.

“What makes you think that?” He tried to make it sound concerned instead of irritated. “Look, I know you don’t believe me, but I kept grilling her, and she couldn’t tell me anything about where she went to school or how long she had been a nurse.”

“Maybe that’s because you literally just met.” Ryan could feel the hard edge creeping into his voice.

“Yeah, I thought that, but I also noticed the way she looks. Absence of any superficial flaws. No moles, birthmarks, freckles, scars, acne; I mean everybody has blemishes on their body.”

“She was probably just wearing makeup.”

“I know this is hard to believe, but here is the kicker. I asked her what she does at the hospital, and she gave me some vague thing about patient confidentiality. She’s a nurse, not a doctor. And I was like, jeez, im not asking for names, just like, general tasks, and she changed the subject on me.”

“Maybe she just doesn’t want to talk about work while she is out trying to have fun.” His voice was gradually getting louder, but he was beyond caring at this point.

“Just listen, ok? There have been all of these hospitals suddenly springing up, and it is like, where is the money for it? The population has been growing at a steady rate, so why double the number of hospitals in less than a year? It just doesn’t make sense. There hasn’t been any government legislature on this, and my taxes haven’t gone up, so how on earth are these hospitals being funded?”

“Charley do you hear yourself? You are complaining about more people are getting medical care? And blaming it on, of all possibilities, aliens? What are they gonna do, cure us to death?” Ryan’s voice had amplified into full out yelling.

“Yeah, I know it sounds insane, but I looked up these records when I started noticing the new hospitals and what I found was-here look for yourself.” She tried to hand him some papers that had been lying on the kitchen table but he wouldn’t take them. She held them up and began to point to statistics and try to explain them and Ryan listened for a few seconds before impulsively slapping the papers out of her hand. They spread across the living room floor, and neither Ryan nor Charley said a word as the pages fluttered to the ground. Ryan stared at what he had done, then was jolted back to the situation by the bedroom door slamming. He groaned inwardly as he realized he would be sleeping on the couch tonight.

Prologue: Lorin

The woman sat limply in the chair, an I.V in her arm. Her eyes were closed, mouth slightly agape, and her thick blonde hair spilled over the edge of the chair like a golden waterfall. She appeared to be in a peaceful nap. That wasn’t too far from the truth. A slim brunette dressed in pink scrubs attached the needle to the IV and studied the patient for any signs of consciousness. Finding none, she began to fill the needle with her blood. The needle was filled in no time, and she inserted the next vial.

When the procedure was done, another woman with a white lab coat introduced a stimulant into the patient’s system through the IV to wake her up. The blonde blinked and smiled. The doctor told her the generic human things you tell a patient with cancer: “The chemo is going well, are you feeling any side effects?” That sort of thing. At that point the brunette nurse left. In the freezer room, she took the first vial of this woman’s blood and inserted the needle into a vein behind her knuckle, breathing deeply. Carefully, she deposited the other vials of blood in specified containers, each marked with the name of one of her superiors. Then she sat down, and let the blood spread throughout her system, that sustenance from humans taken under the guise of medical procedures. The young woman leaned her head against the wall and remembered something that had happened earlier that day.

She and “Doctor” Ecton, her Superior, entered Room 23, where a patient lay under the heavy grip of a sleeping compound they had synthesized in the lab earlier in the day.

“Look at him, Inferior Lorin.” Ecton began, gesturing at the bed. “Look at that pathetic human, sleeping there, unknowingly sustaining our race, giving us life from his own body.” Lorin obeyed. “You and I, Lorin; we hold this man’s life in our hands. If I wanted to, I could remove every ounce of blood in this man’s body and have enough to live on for weeks, maybe even months.” Lorin looked at the man; balding, layers of fat practically spilling out of his checkered hospital gown, emitting a grunting from his nose that some humans did while asleep. She was struck with how helpless he seemed, lying there, and felt a sort of delirious joy she did not understand.

“Why don’t you?”

“Because this way, not only do we have a basically endless supply of blood, the vapid creatures actually thank us every time they leave. Some have even bought flowers or invited us to partake in their puny little lives. Of course, we do cure them of their pathetic little illnesses some of the time, it is necessary, but they remain unknowingly under our thumb, sending their children to us, and their children’s children, and the cycle of ignorant trust keeps us alive.”

She laughed then, a high, clear sound like the clank of metal against metal. Laughing was something they had not experienced before; it was a uniquely human way of showing amusement by repetitively expelling air and sound from the diaphragm. Truthfully, it took a while to get used to. However, like all other human behaviors, they imitated these “emotions” as they are called, in order to blend in seamlessly with this alien race. And it worked flawlessly; Lorin and her kind walked into cafes and along city streets without the slightest fear of being found out. It was a marvelously intricate deception that was intended to continue indefinitely. It is a beautiful and satisfying life that we have built for ourselves, Lorin thought. Of course, not all of the Essentials agree.