In seventeen years, I’d had three owners. The first was a sadistic son-of-a-bitch I called Douche. The second had a head shaped like an eraser, so Eraserhead was the only possible name for him. The last, the one on the floor holding a cooking stick, reminded me of the actor Sam Elliott, so I called him Old Sam.
Watching his colors slowly fade, I had to wonder what Dania and the guys in the play group would do in this situation.
At the start of our play dates at St. Anselm’s Park, we’d convene for a mutual check-up. The Fellowship of the Knobby Jumpsuit. It was our support group. The last time, Dania’s cheek was swollen and purple.
“Grover flipped his shit again,” she said. He reminded her of a puppet from a kids’ TV show. “He threw me into a wall, and that is how my evening went. Next?”
Standing rule: When you say next, you don’t have to talk about it anymore.
Alberto said, “Mussolini and me tossed a beat-up old football around yesterday.”
“Sounds like a good day,” said Cody, scratching his improvised foam-and-twine neck brace.
“It was, till he hit me up for sex later.”
We laughed, and then we didn’t. Alberto wasn’t smiling.
“How would that even work?” I said. “It’s a whole-body thing with them, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I can testify. He tried wrapping around me, rubbing. I broke away, don’t ask me how. Slept outside. It’s too disgusting to contemplate. Somebody Next already.”
No one else seemed interested, so I said, “Old Sam had a fit after I pestered him to take me outside for a dump. Like, where else am I supposed to do it, right? Your crazy slugface houses don’t have doors or windows, Blue Meanie! He kicked a hole in the wall like, there’s your door, now get off my ass.”
They smirked. Cody said, “Guess we all got it bad.”
The truth was that Old Sam built me a door with a flap, because taking me out through the walls caused him too much pain. Age had crept up fast on him. I lied to the others because they caught slugface-hell on the daily.
“I wish Grover would take it out on the wall instead of me,” Dania said. “I should move in with you.”
We had a thing going, Dania and me.
“If you could get away in the first place,” I said, “why not just run off and be a stray?”
We’d sneak off during these play dates and have some playtime of our own, before the slugfaces dragged us back. It was one of the few things that made life bearable.
“Stray life is hooray life,” Cody said. “I’m joining those bastards first chance I get.”
“Join?” Dania said. “It’s every stray for herself, near as I can tell. And have you ever gotten a close look at one?”
“A stray came up to the fence last week,” Alberto said. “Didn’t look so good. Red circles on his skin.”
“It’s called ringworm,” she said. “To which I say no thank you. And incidentally, I’m as sick of kibble as the rest of you, but I’ll take kibble over bugs and rats any day.”
“Along with the occasional beating?” I said.
She punched my arm. Hard. Confirming what her expression had already told me: I was gonna get me some later.
“Don’t kid yourself,” Alberto said. “Strays eat fresh veggies and fruit all summer long. The one outside the fence, I watched him dog a whole cantaloupe. Wouldn’t share, just flipped me the bird. Hope you get the diarrhea I told him.”
“Where’d he find a cantaloupe?” Cody said.
“Abandoned gardens under the electrical towers,” Alberto said. “Miles and miles. Cantaloupes, watermelons, corn, tomatoes, zucchinis. Mussolini takes me for a walk around there sometimes, I’m telling you. All free for the picking.”
Just the thought of biting into a slice of cantaloupe, or one of those massive tomatoes people used to grow, juice dripping. A watermelon of yearning smacked me hard in the chest.
Good God, to be a stray.
What really killed me about strays was the way they dressed. Crazy T-shirts, jackets with sports logos. Torn jeans. Chucks. The way we used to dress in the Befores. What I wouldn’t give for that, ringworm be damned.
To be a stray dressed in yesterday, wandering the Earth. Attached to nothing.
Nostalgia’s the worst. It always dredges up the memories, kids, wife, then comes the power dive into deepest, blackest depression. I saw it coming when, thankfully, Cody spoke up again.
“Why do we put up with this slugface shit anyway?”
“Like we have a choice?” Dania said.
“Hear me out,” Cody said. “Remember way back when people tried making pets out of lions and tigers and chimpanzees, and everyone was like they’re wild animals, they’ll never be tamed, but the people didn’t listen, and then one day the animals attacked, and the owners ended up dead or horribly maimed for life? Why aren’t we like that?”
We gassed out a communal sigh.
“Slugface powers,” Alberto said. “Which you already know about. They live partly outside time, that’s why they shimmer. Smack the ghost out of you before you can even pick up a baseball bat.”
This was truth. The last scientists theorized that slugfaces existed partly in higher dimensions. Their tech was no better than ours. They had no armaments or spacecraft. Their one advantage was some kind of multidimensionality. That single advantage had made dominating Earth as easy for them as chasing squirrels off a picnic table.
God knows why they kept a few of us alive in their homes. For good luck? As coal-mine canaries? Are we really so cute and endearing?
“Come on, Cody,” Dania said. “I want to murder slugfaces as much as anyone, but face it, we’re lapdogs.”
“Speak for yourself,” Cody said, adjusting his foam collar. “Wild animals find a way, even if they have to tear the face off a bitch. I ain’t no lapdog. I’m a wolf, a rabid wolf in the house, ready to rip out slugface throats when they least expect it.” He snarled and snapped at us.
“Well, you’ve got the foaming at the mouth part down anyway,” I said.
Even if it had been possible to kill Old Sam, I’d never felt the slightest impulse. Maybe I’m a lapdog, too, I thought. If so, I’m not the only one.
That didn’t make it feel any better.
Now here he was, dead on the floor. And I remembered Eleanor.
Old Sam’s one friend.
Eleanor hated me. She’d slap me around whenever I came within reach.
She paid Old Sam a visit most days. If she were to find him dead, she’d either kill me, or hand me over to be euthanized.
My next move had become crystal clear: Grab your things and peace-out of Old Sam’s. Find the fallow gardens. Make friends with the strays. Onward and upward.
Still, there was a slugface mystery that hadn’t yet been solved. Curiosity had gotten the better of me.
No one had yet figured out what gave slugfaces their fifth-dimensional powers. I suspected that, whatever it was, it had to come from within their bodies. From some kind of organ.
When he was in pain from trying to pop through walls, Old Sam would get relief by holding this humming green gadget against his lower-right belly.
From my hidden stash, I grabbed a rusty survival knife, traded from a stray for a half-sack of kibble. I cut away Old Sam’s clothes and plunged the knife into that spot.
Dark clots and purple blood gushed everywhere. I ignored the stench and dug past fat, noodly intestines and lumpy blobs until I found a black cherry-shaped thing, about the size of a volleyball. It weighed two or three pounds, which I learned after carving it out. Something inside tumbled around loose, some kind of metallic gravel.
I shook it gently, just listening to the jangling sound, and the rest of the room slowly faded out and in. The faster I shook it, the faster the fades.
This is what it’s like to shimmer like a slugface, I realized. The world appears to be shimmering, but really it’s you that’s doing it.
Thing was, the organ worked for me simply by holding it, shaking it. This by-touch function was better than any human organ I’d ever known. I could shake Stephen Hawking’s brain until it turned to goop in my hands and still not understand quantum mechanics. But here I was, shaking the slugface shimmer organ, and shimmering just like a slugface.
I had to believe this was the thing I was looking for.
I needed time to experiment, to learn whether I could see around time with it. I wrapped it up in a spare jumpsuit, knotting the sleeves and legs. In another jumpsuit, I wrapped the knife, a few day’s kibble, and a bottle of water. I slung it all over my shoulders and split through my door flap.
Just my luck: I ran smack into Eleanor.
She burbled loudly at me in their incomprehensible language.
“Blow it out your ass, your highness,” I said, and headed for the tall grass. It pissed her off enough to kick me to the ground.
I scrambled to my back and, on impulse, grabbed the makeshift sack with the organ in it and shook it hard. The gravel whizzed around inside, and the townscape of slugface homes seemed to recede, wrapping around me as though painted on the inside of a massive, curved cylinder.
At the same time, strange new limbs sprouted from Eleanor’s back, limbs I’d never seen or heard of in all my years of living with slugfaces. I realized they’d always been there, phantom, fifth-dimensional limbs, and I was only now seeing them because the organ in my hands had given me entry to the higher dimension all slugfaces inhabit.
One of her phantom limbs arced toward me like a giant cobra and whipped down. I rolled aside just in time and sprang to my feet, all the while shaking the organ.
Another limb swung toward me, carrying a massive, mallet-shaped end. I leaped out of its way just as it smashed into the soft ground, burying itself deep. As Eleanor tugged to free it, I climbed along its thick tentacle arm, letting Old Sam’s organ swing in its sack as I grabbed my knife.
I jabbed it deep into Eleanor’s lower-right belly. The blade stuck into something that vibrated so forcefully it nearly rattled the bones from my hands. I realized I’d struck the same organ as the one I’d carved out of Old Sam, only now it was alive and functioning inside a slugface’s body.
“Bullseye!” I said.
Eleanor shrieked, and her blood geysered at me as I cut around the buzzing organ. In seconds, the black orb rested in the crook of my arm, and Eleanor’s phantom limbs had retreated into her back.
Mired in four dimensions now, her shimmering ceased. She swayed dizzily, slack jaw working the air until, finally, she slumped to the ground.
I added her organ to the sack next to Old Sam’s. From that moment on, I called them buzzers.
That’s when it hit me: I’d done it. Accomplished the impossible.
I’d killed a slugface.
Inside Old Sam’s place, I washed Eleanor’s blood and guts off and changed into a clean jumpsuit. I rested up, ate a little. Hydrated.
Considered my next move.
I noticed the green gadget Old Sam would use on his buzzer zone. It was large in my hands, with an on-off switch and two dials on one side, and conical cavities, like old-fashioned speakers, on the other. When I flipped the switch, it emitted low, slow pulses. Turning one dial changed the pulse speed from slow bass rumbles to a high whine, while the other dial regulated volume.
Curiosity prickled across my brain.
If shaking one buzzer with my hands gave me enough higher-dimension access to kill a slugface, I thought, could rapidly shaking two at the same time give me even more power? Could they put me in higher dimensions than even slugfaces can reach?
I hung the sack with the two buzzers around my neck and tucked the green pulser in between.
Braced myself for whatever might follow.
And flipped the switch.
The room turned inside-out.
I found myself high above Old Sam. The walls had peeled aside, and the surrounding landscape, dead Eleanor, the grid of slugface homes, all of it tumbled off in every direction as the sky roiled in a massive torus.
The world as seen from the fifth dimension, I thought. Or sixth, or seventh. There was no telling how far behind I’d left the four dimensions of human experience.
When I focused on Old Sam, the rest of the world twirled away in a kind of fractal unfolding, and he became a wrinkled, worm-like form, every section of which I could focus farther in on to see his final, pain-wracked moments play out, one by one.
This is what it’s like to see around time, I realized, to see all the moments of living, moving beings laid out in flow, past, present, and future together at once.
I turned my focus to Eleanor. She also became a worm-like, greenish form writhing across the dirt, and I could replay each moment of her death as a smaller form, gray in color, entwined with hers.
That gray form was me, and I was able to replay each murderous moment I shared with the one slugface I hated above all others.
No wonder they can dodge every human weapon, I thought. They can see threats before they even arise.
And now, so can I.
In one brief morning, my entire life changed.
I now had a mission. A single, focused, undeniable, irresistible purpose in life: to slaughter slugfaces.
Millions of them lay before me across the Earth, waiting for death at my hands.
I was a lapdog no longer.
I’d become the pet gone rogue, reverted to its savage instincts, its mind infested with indomitable rage.
I had become the rabid wolf in the house.
With both buzzers humming in the sack around my neck, survival knife in hand, I focused on a nearby slugface prefab, chosen at random. Its walls peeled aside, twirling off into space. I deepened focus until I saw two slugfaces standing together before a cooking pit.
As my concentration sharpened, the interior of the place twisted and inverted around me fractally until, to my astonishment, I stood in the room before them.
I struggled to stay focused as phantom battle-arms extended from their backs, wielding heavy mallet-, fork-, and axe-shaped ends.
When I fought Eleanor, those limbs simply appeared and moved. Now, with two buzzers working at once, their movements traced paths through the air, and simply observing them seemed to slow them down. I stepped out of range easily as their vicious ends smashed through the floor. Then I calmly sliced them off, one by one, like a chef cutting dead eels.
The room filled with slugface shrieks, flailing arms and legs, and splattering purple streams as I hacked everything that moved. One of the two slugfaces beat tracks down a passageway as the other began leaping through the wall. I casually jabbed the knife deep into the leaper’s buzzer zone while it remained in view, carving out a circle. He slumped, half his body in the next room, as the dripping sphere pulsed in my hand.
I tossed it aside, and I went for the other, slipping through the curving latticework walls until I realized he’d left the house.
I shifted focus, the walls peeled away, and I saw him sprinting for a nearby building. I dropped on top of him from the sky, spiking my knife into the back of his neck and paralyzing him into a twitching mound.
I carved the buzzer from his guts to the music of his dying screams.
I returned to Old Sam’s to rest, wash up, and prepare for the next round of slaughter.
Digging out a handful of kibble, looking at those bland nuggets, I remembered Alberto’s description of the fallow gardens.
“Screw this crap,” I said.
I returned the buzzer sack around my neck, flicked its green gadget on, and cruised the fractal planes, soaring above the old suburbs and the grids of slugface prefabs, until I found the endless grassy strips beneath the rusting electrical towers with their vines of fallen cables.
I unbuzzed into tall overgrowth and quickly uncovered an abandoned garden, just as Alberto described it. Sprawling melon and bean plants had tangled with blackberry brambles, wild sumac, and tomato vines, gorgeous, crazy tomato vines all ramshackle and out-of-control, dripping with massive red fruit. I plunged my hands in, oblivious of thorns and wasps. I ravaged those tomatoes. I gorged until my belly was drum-tight and streams of juice ran down the front of me.
My head fizzing with the organics that coursed through my veins, I flopped on my back in the overgrowth and watched starlings dart back and forth across the steamy August sky, until dreams of murderous slugface mayhem carried me away.
I awoke hours later, craving purple blood.
I slashed and stabbed and sliced my way from house to house, apartment block to apartment block, prefab to prefab.
I learned to jab them in the buzzer first, disabling their fifth-dimensional battle-limbs and their escape through walls. After that, it was a matter of mood whether to kill quickly with a single slash to the throat, or to slowly pick them apart, hacking off one arm at a time, slicing off a ciliated foot and continuing up the leg, popping eye clusters out and squeezing them like twitching black grapes onto the slugface’s mouth, or tearing the fetuses from the neck sacks of the pregnant ones and cramming them down their own throats.
Every knobsuit I found, I set free. Some hadn’t felt grass on their feet in a decade. The young ones, mostly the product of breeder farms, either stared dully through dead eyes, or cried hysterically over their dead slugfaces. They needed more care than I could provide, so I popped them outside, made sure they had a lot of kibble, and moved on, hoping that the other adult pets I freed would take up the job.
Along the way I gained two more green buzzers and a gift from a grateful knobsuit who’d also been trading with strays: a machete.
In a block of four spacious apartments, I saw a familiar bulb-headed slugface swatting stick arms at a knobsuited woman crouching against a wall.
Seeing her there threw me off-kilter. I fumbled with the machete, hacking Grover’s arms off first, rather than his buzzer. He wailed and sprouted phantom limbs, but I quickly sliced them away, sending fifth-dimensional geysers of blood shimmering through the air. When I jabbed for his buzzer zone, he streaked away through a wall. I stayed on him, demolishing a slugface family’s mealtime in the next apartment. Before Grover could run through another wall, I slashed into his buzzer as the screaming family of five dropped out of sight through the floor.
Bleeding from every part of his body, Grover slumped against the wall, arm stumps waving pathetically. His oversize mouth burbled a high, almost lyrical sound.
It took me a few moments to grasp that he was pleading for his life.
Something about it infuriated me. How many billions of humans had died at their hands, like so many cockroaches? What right did Grover, or any slugface, have to plead for anything?
I sent the machete down deep into his head, again and again, splitting it in five different directions. Then watched as clusters of slugface brain spilled across the floor.
Dania was washing the blood off her face when I unbuzzed in Grover’s apartment.
“Can you get me out of here?” she said. “He’ll be back any minute.”
“No, he won’t,” I said, raising my blood-smeared machete. “He begged for his life. I killed him anyway.”
“How is that even possible?” she said.
I explained everything. Demonstrated the buzzers, along with the green gadget that kept them humming. Showed her how that setup puts me into a higher dimension than the slugfaces live in, allowing me to see around time even better than they can since they only have one buzzer, but I have two.
“I have another buzzer sack ready to use,” I said, holding it up, along with the survival knife.
Dania was a fast learner.
We stabbed and slashed our way through the remaining apartments in that building. The walls of every room became purple with slugface blood. We’d burst in, stab their buzzer zones so they couldn’t escape, then slaughter them, one after the other.
They never stood a chance.
Our different killing styles quickly became clear. Dania preferred stabbing the buzzer zone, then a quick, deep slash across the throat, getting it over with. I took a more creative approach, once I immobilized them.
She caught me cutting around one of their giant burbling mouths.
“Why are you doing that?”
“I want to see if I can strangle him with his own lips.”
Maybe the screams were getting on her nerves. She said, “Holy God, that’s demented. Cut it out.”
“It won’t take long, I’m almost—”
“No, seriously, that’s serial-killer-level shit,” she said, as he gurgled in agony. “Get it over with.”
I slashed his throat. He went limp.
I moved in on Dania. Began kissing her bloody forehead, working my way down her nose to her lips.
She shoved me away. “What are you doing?”
“Come on, Dania, look at us,” I said. “We finally made it! We’re living the dream of every surviving human on Earth for the past seventeen years. We’re killing slugfaces at will! I feel more alive than I’ve felt since the invasion. Don’t you?”
She ignored me. Picked up a slugface gimcrack, some kind of toy. Held it up to her eyes, shook it. Tiny bursts of orange and green light fizzed within, and it made a sound like metallic birdsong.
“Oh, come on,” I said, thoroughly jacked. “This is the best news humanity has had in forever. Yesterday we were lapdogs. Today we’re rabid wolves in the house. Doesn’t it make you horny as hell?”
“It’s disgusting,” she said, finally. “We’re killing invaders. It’s a job. It needs to be done, but that’s all it is. A job.”
“It’s so much more than that,” I said, moving in on her again. But she stepped away, her face heavy with the weight of some concern I couldn’t quite fathom.
“No, it isn’t,” she said. Her eyes roamed the room warily. “I feel like we’re missing something.”
She’s just not used to killing, I thought. She’ll get the hang of it, just as I did.
Outside the cleared apartment block, we discussed our next moves.
“We could head into Slugtown,” I said. “Buildings crammed full of easy targets.”
“We could also work our way through the outskirts, you know?” Dania said. “One house at a time. Just mellow through it. Think we’ll run into Alberto or Cody?”
“Have to eventually,” I said, reaching into my buzzer bag for the green hummer. “To the outskirts, then?”
“To the outskirts,” she said, doing the same. “And no more insane serial-killer stuff, okay? Let’s just take care of business and move on.”
We held hands and flipped our buzzers on.
The world unfolded around us in waves of fractals until we found ourselves standing in a grid of slugface prefabs glinting in the sun.
Strangely, clothing had been thrown out into the yards. The knobby jumpsuits of our kind lay everywhere. In the dirt. Across thickets. Out on the walks. I’d never seen anything like it.
“Laundry day?” I said, not making the connection.
Dania whispered, “Holy shit.”
She ran to the nearest jumpsuit. Covered her mouth as her eyes flew wide.
I joined her to see one of our fellow house pets, still wearing that jumpsuit. His body had been flattened as though hammered by a slugface’s phantom battle-arm, guts ejected out both ends.
A woman nearby had met the same fate. And another, next to her.
A nightmare of knobsuited kids crushed into the dirt, mouths hanging open.
I froze, staring at one of them, as Dania ran from corpse to corpse.
She was twenty yards away when I heard her say, “Alberto.”
His flattened face, haloed in brain tissue, had smeared into a permanent smile.
Dania’s fist spun my head.
“You asshole,” she said. “You complete fucking asshole.”
“Get control of yourself,” I said, spitting blood. “We don’t really know what happened here.”
“Think it through, dipshit,” she said. “If a certain kind of pet becomes dangerous, you don’t just euthanize one. You get rid of all of them. When I was a kid, they did it with turtles. They had some kind of disease. Chickens too. They carried a virus. They didn’t test them one by one. They just killed them all.”
She sank to a crouch.
“Oh my God,” she said, breathlessly now. “You didn’t think it through. Of course you didn’t, that’s how you are. But I didn’t either. I can’t believe I just went along with this.”
In the distance, we watched as slugfaces popped outside, knobsuits in their grip. With a flinch, the knobsuits plunged into the ground, sometimes an arm or leg flailing before going limp.
We watched it happen again and again and again, all around us.
“We can stop them,” I said.
Dania stood beside me now, eyes blank, face white.
“We can go on a rampage,” I said. “We’ll avenge Alberto. We’ll avenge them all.”
Her fists thundered on me, hammering me to the ground. When I tried scrambling away, she grabbed the throat of my knobsuit and pressed the knife point into my neck.
“You’re so goddamned stupid,” she yelled. “You and me alone aren’t anywhere near fast enough. Maybe we could have gotten help from Alberto, Cody, Julia, Dave, and the rest, but look around. They’re dead now! The slugfaces are killing humans faster than we’ll ever kill slugfaces.”
“Come on, we can do this,” I said. “We’ll get the strays to help.”
She backhanded me with her knife-hand.
“Wake up! Our only hope is if the slugfaces think this was a regional threat. If we keep killing them, they’ll decide humans are a threat everywhere, and they’ll kill every last one on Earth, pets and strays.”
“Well, that can’t, I mean, couldn’t we—”
She began kicking me.
“Hundreds, maybe thousands of people are dying right now who didn’t have to, and you know what makes it even worse?” she said. “You turned me into a goddamn stray. And I don’t want to be a goddamn stray.”
She tore her buzzer bag off, beat me with it a few times, and winged it into the weeds.
“You might need that,” I said.
“I don’t want to see it again,” she said. “I don’t want to see you again. I want to forget you ever existed.”
She stalked off into the overgrowth behind the prefabs, toward the woods beyond.
I mixed Dania’s buzzer bag with mine.
Two green hummer gadgets.
I still had the machete.
On the strength of just two buzzers and a knife, I’d become a slugface-killing machine, operating in at least one higher dimension than they could.
How much more powerful would I be with four buzzers humming at once?
Would I be able to see the entire slugface species as a splotch before me? An easy-to-manage form that I could step on, like a cockroach, or hack into tiny bits and blow away like dust? Or would they become a pill-sized chunk that I could swallow, putting an end to them for all time?
My mind reeled at the possibilities.
What I was sure of was that, with every second that passed, knobsuits were being slaughtered. Dania was right. The slugfaces would kill every last human pet until they felt safe again. It made perfect sense. I couldn’t understand how I’d missed it.
Now I had to make up for it, any way I could.
Grimly, I hung the sack around my neck and positioned the two green gadgets so they both touched all four buzzers.
I braced myself.
And I turned them on.
Copyright © 2023 Bill Gusky