October 13, 2023
North Hawk, Nebraska
A small clump of gravy oozed its way down the stubble of Stephen’s chin, hanging precariously suspended as the man spooned large Swedish meatballs and gravy into his mouth.
Reetha watched the spectacle from across the table while sipping on a glass of water. Stephen had always been an eater. At 6’5” and lean-muscled from decades in the field, he ate huge portions of lunch and dinner after burning thousands of calories working on the dust and heat. For more than 30 years she had been putting plates in front of Stephen at the dinner table, and he had rarely left much for the dishwasher to do.
But this was something different. The voracity of his movement, the precise way his hand guided the spoon to the plate, filling it with food, and then back up to Stephen’s mouth was more like a machine than a man eating dinner. Stephen’s face was mere inches away from the plate to increase efficiency and he stared wide-eyed at some spot on the opposite wall. Reetha realized the man hadn’t blinked in minutes.
The spoon clinked loudly on his plate and Stephen’s motion stopped. His plate was clean.
Stephen finally blinked once, twice, and then his eyes quickly focused on Reetha’s.
“More?” he asked gruffly. When Reetha met his gaze steadily, he said ”please?” almost as if confused by Reetha’s insistence on politeness at the dinner table.
“Of course, honey,” Reetha said as she walked to pick up his plate and headed to the kitchen. It was a small, old home. Stephen’s father had owned it and given it to them before he died, but they never outgrew the place since they decided not to have children. They had both said that North Hawk wasn’t a place to bring up a family. Also, they never found the energy to move. This was the place they knew, and that was that.
Reetha came back to the table with the cooking pot and scooped more food to Stephen’s plate, making sure to add even more of the brown mushroom gravy than before. Stephen didn’t say thank you and instead started pulling in spoonfuls of food to his mouth with the same ferocity as he had earlier.
She sat down again and watched him, eating a few bites of dinner while another grey chunk of gravy squirmed its way down to his chin, meeting the previous chunk and finally creating enough weight for gravity to pull the glob down to the white tablecloth.
Reetha was disgusted. She had enough and clenched her fist.
She said, loudly, ”Who are you?”
Stephen stopped, his plate already half empty, and put his utensil on the unused napkin in front of him.
“What?” His voice was rough as always, but it was somewhat different than it had been for decades. It was a little more… robotic.
“Who are you,” Reetha said, her voice trembling slightly. ”Who are you really? You are not my husband.”
Stephen sat back slowly against the chair. It creaked under the strain.
The couple regarded each other in the silence.
“I don’t understand,” Stephen finally said. His eyes were shifting around, almost as if he were looking for an escape. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his flannel shirt, smearing gravy to the side of his face.
“There, that,” Reetha said and pointed at the man-who-was-not-her-husband.
“Hmm?” He asked, mid-wipe.
“You just wiped your mouth with your sleeve. You wouldn’t do that,” Reetha said. She corrected herself. ”Stephen wouldn’t do that.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Stephen said. He was leaning back, regarding her now with his head cocked to the side, as if evaluating her. Something about the way his head was tilted and his eyes were narrowed sent an icy chill down her spine.
Nothing seemed right, not for this past week since Stephen had gone out with their dog Felix on a late-night walk the day after North Hawk’s surprise meteor shower.
Stephen had been walking Felix, a short-haired mutt they had adopted from the pound five years ago, almost every night after dinner. Reetha would usually walk with him until she had hurt her knee a few months back and decided that nights were for relaxation until her knee felt fine again.
Usually these walks lasted maybe a half hour, but on this night, Stephen was gone for four. She had the phone in her hands, the 9 and the 1 dialed already when the door swung open and Stephen walked into the house. He had stood there in the doorway, framed in the darkness against the porch light behind him, and didn’t say a word. He had the leash in his hands, but Felix wasn’t there.
Reetha had grilled him about where he had gone for such a long time and asked him about Felix, but Stephen just stood there for a good while regarding her with the same look he’s giving her now. He had finally said, while looking down at his hand holding the leash, simply, ” the dog got loose. I was looking for him. There was… something in the sky.”
He then put down the leash on the counter, stumbled to the couch, and fell asleep for nearly twelve hours. For days after she had tried to ask him what had happened, but he kept answering the same response. ”The dog got loose. I went to look for him.” It was said simply and without emotion.
At one point Reetha put the leash away and noticed brownish/red spots on the collar that looked like blood.
“Stephen, did something happen out there?” She asked her husband as she showed him the stains. Stephen had looked down at the leash, his face a mask, and said, ”The dog got loose.”
Stephen had since kept to himself, sleeping for dozens of hours at a time, and locking himself in his room for hours at a time. He refused to see a doctor. He refused to say more than a few words to her.
Reetha had begun to think of that movie she had seen years ago. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and started reading up on aliens and such on the internet.
What she read terrified her, and soon enough she was sure that her husband had most likely, probably, been taken over by some kind of supernatural creature.
Now, here at the dinner table, it was time to confront her “husband.”
“You. Are not. My. Husband.”
Stephen slowly stood up. Reetha noticed his clenched fists. She stood too, revealing the butcher knife she had taken with her from the kitchen. Stephen looked cooly at the knife, then back at her.
His eyes were slightly bloodshot. Gravy smeared the side of his face.
For a full minute, they stood there, looking at each other. Reetha could hear the man’s ragged breathing and the sound of the refrigerator.
He lunged at her.
The man-creature-alien moved quickly, but Reetha had excellent reflexes. Her years playing tennis at the community center with her friends had prepared her for this moment.
Holding the large, sharp knife like a tennis racket, she made a forehand motion to Stephen’s throat. It all happened so fast, Reetha thought she missed him completely, but the man stopped and put his hands to his neck. His eyes showed confusion, then shock.
Reetha watched as blood started to spread down not-Stephen’s arms and shirt. The man-who-was-not-her-husband fell to his knees and finally backward, sprawling messily on the wooden floor, his knees bound awkwardly bound under his body.
Reetha watched. This was the moment the creature would reveal itself, according to everything she read online.
But seconds turned into several minutes, and all that happened was the blood stopped spreading out beneath the man.
“Holy Lord,” Reetha whispered.
She stepped a little closer to the body to get a better look, careful not to step in the mass of pooled blood.
There was Stephen, his eyes open and staring at the ceiling.
She looked down for a minute or more and finally dropped the knife.
“Oh my,” she said. The world narrowed for her in this moment. The edges became dark, and while she wasn’t sure she had ever been in shock before, she vaguely realized this was what it was probably like.
The details in the world around her became distant, her vision was warped, almost like she was seeing the world through a fisheye camera lens. A loud piercing ringing sound rang in her head, almost from within the inner core of her body. Not knowing what else to do, she turned around to where the landline was placed on the wall and picked up the old blue receiver.
She dialed 9-1-1, knowing that someone in the nearby town of Fairbury would respond (North Hawk was too small to have their own law enforcement office).
“911, what’s your emergency?” Asked the person on the other line after several seconds.
“Oh goodness,” Reetha said. “Something bad happened here.”
Reetha glanced back at Stephen’s body.
Except Stephen’s body wasn’t there.
The puddle of blood, the dinner plates – everything was there except Stephen.
Two bloody footprints led to the back door, echoed by the bloody handprint on the door handle.
Reetha dropped the phone, ignoring the voice she heard on the line.
She began to pray.
“Our Father, who art in heaven.”
Reetha moved around the grisly puddle and toward the door, careful not to step in the slick red/black viscera. She put on her outside-slippers and moved to the porch.
“Hallowed be thy name.”
She followed the bloody footprints outside where she could see them lead to the storage shed.
It was dark out, the path illuminated only by the porch light, and the dim old light they had on the front of the shed itself. Reetha, although she usually hated the cold and would bundle-up under normal circumstances barely registered the temperature and moved toward the shed. From within the shed she could hear a loud, sharp “clicking” sound like a metal switch being flipped.
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. On Earth as it is in heaven.”
She reached the shed almost on autopilot. Reetha felt as if she were watching a movie about herself in this moment instead of participating in it. The ringing sound in her head was louder than ever, but there it was again: that sound of some metallic tool engaging.
“Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
She opened the shed’s door and walked inside. It was like it always was: messy and disorganized, full of shelves and a woodworking bench. Tools and cutting materials of all kinds were scattered throughout. Although Reetha had implored Stephen to buy a professional tool chest, he had always fought against it said they didn’t need something so expensive when he knew right where everything was as is.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
That metallic sound came from the other side of the work bench. She walked anround it until she could see.
“For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory.”
There was Stephen, bloodied and smaller, thinner, and paler looking than ever. His back was against the far wall, legs under him on the ground. The loud metal sound triggered again: Stephen had his staple gun against his neck, sealing up his horrendous wound. His eyes, wild and bulging, stared at Reetha from the ground.
“For ever and ever,” Reetha said, the last words this version of herself would ever speak.
“AMEN,” not-Stephen finished for her.
When the police officer arrived twenty minutes later, the cop was greeted from the front door by Stephen. He had a sweater pulled up almost to his chin and smiled.
The police officer was young and tired. Lots of strange calls around these parts in the last few weeks had worn him down, and this was probably just another lunatic claiming a Bigfoot or UFO sighting.
“Good evening, Sir, we received a call from your home,” Officer Dudley said.
Stephen just smiled and looked at the officer.
“Everything okay?” Officer Dudley asked.
Stephen didn’t say anything, but opened the door wider so the officer could see into the living room.
There was Reetha, on the couch in front of the television, voraciously shoveling in portions of food while Thursday Night Football blared loudly on the set.
Officer Dudley looked around the room.
The woman, who he assumed was the one to call dispatch, stared at him but didn’t stop eating.
It was a little disconcerting. Usually when the police show up, they at least stop eating to talk with the officer.
“Mind if I come in?” the officer asked Stephen, but it was the wife who answered. Flecks of brown chunks flew from her mouth as she spoke.
“Come on in, officer!” the woman said before continuing to pile food into her mouth.
Officer Dudley walked inside and the door closed behind him.
Hours later, Officer Not-Dudley sat in his police cruiser to call in to dispatch.
“False alarm here,” he told the woman on the other end of the call. “I’m coming back to the station. I’m really, really hungry.”