I can never read when I’m nervous.
I swing my legs back and forth, hooking and unhooking them from the metal legs of the chair. The book I’d brought with me, The Catcher in the Rye, was assigned reading for school. Usually that makes me want to read a book less, if it’s forced upon me, but this one I actually enjoyed. Something about the kid’s snarky attitude.
Anyway, it wasn’t going to help me now. It sits on my blue jeaned lap, bouncing erratically as I hit on a nerve in one of my legs. Nervous habit.
“You okay, honey?” says an older woman across sitting across from me in the little white office room. I’d seen her around before. She was black, maybe a little younger than my grandma, with shiny black dyed hair and a kind face. I think her name was Eleanor. Yeah, let’s call her Eleanor.
“Yeah,” I sigh, still fidgeting. “Just nervous, I guess. I’ve never really been in a club before, not since Girl Scouts.”
Eleanor smiles at me. We were the only two people in the room, and still the air felt close and crowded. It was the middle of winter and they had the heat blasting in the building.
“I’m sure this is just a formality,” she reassures me. “Probably some paperwork, ask a few more questions. Maybe set up a donation. After all the support they’ve given me after my Harry passed on, I figure it’s the least I can do to give back. I’m retired now, anyway, and this sure beats the Rotary Club.” Eleanor chuckles lightly.
I stare at the ground, smiling, and utterly confused.
There are two doors in the little room. One we came in, and another my guide Sarah had disappeared through twenty-one minutes before. I’d been checking my watch compulsively.
Sarah was blonde and bubbly, a little overweight with freckles. She reminded me of my friend DJ, all about the makeup and the Backstreet Boys. Normally I would only put up with that level of airheadedness with Deej, but for some reason Sarah hadn’t made me run screaming from The Sharing. She’d made me feel welcome, even though I was a total nerd and Sarah was one of those girls who probably would’ve teased me if we’d known each other in middle school. Besides, she was older, maybe college-aged. I was starting to get the impression people just didn’t care that much if you were a nerd once you reached college. I liked her, even though she was an airhead.
The second door opened, and Sarah stuck her exuberant face into the room.
“Hey, Tara!” she calls, louder than necessary. “You ready to go?”
I jump a bit, startled, feeling my heart hammering away.
“Sure,” I reply, grabbing my book and stuffing it in my big tan shoulder bag.
Eleanor winks at me. “Good luck, sugar. You’ll be fine.”
I don’t have time to nod back as I make my high tops cross the threshold without tripping over them.
“So, how was school?” Sarah asks, looking back at me as we head down a dim, cinderblock-lined hallway. It’s much cooler in here, and that’s nice.
“Uh, it was okay,” I mutter. “We got to eat pomegranate seeds in Latin. Woo-hoo.” I twirl my finger in the air, starting to feel a little more at ease. The door clicks shut behind us and I swallow, glancing back at it.
“Nice,” says Sarah. “What’s that have to do with, that myth with Hades and…what’s her name?”
“Persephone.” I find myself twisting the fabric at the bottom of my long black t-shirt.
“Yeah, we did the same unit in Bedford,” Sarah replies. “We never got to eat pomegranate seeds, though.” She laughs. “Lucky.”
“Sure,” I say, and I wince at how lame I sound.
Sarah stops us at a metal doorway, a big industrial thing. She looks over at me and smiles, bouncing on her toes.
“Okay, kiddo,” she says, pressing her hand against a flat black panel. Some kind of fingerprint reader? Weird. “Go on ahead through.” She claps a hand on my shoulder and gives it a squeeze.
The room we step into is much more brightly lit than the hallway, and much warmer. More humid.
Great, I think, this is all my hair needs. I idly start to pat down the mat of frizz in front of my pony tail.
The first thing I notice is a big metal tub, like a Jacuzzi only raised up on a sort of concrete pedestal. There’s a folding table ringed with metal chairs, at the end of which sits my guidance counselor—the old wrinkled creature that we all joked they had built the school around. She could never remember my name, and the lady was in charge of my damned future.
“Hey Mrs. McCabe,” I say with a little wave.
“Hello,” says Mrs. McCabe, glancing down over giant black glasses at a sheet of paper. “Tara. So glad you could join us. You understand this is an important commitment?”
I nodded. “Yeah, and like you said, it’ll be good to have…you know. Community outreach stuff. For when I apply to college.”
McCabe nods, beaming. “Good, good. This won’t take long, I promise.” She gestures to Sarah, who also smiles at me, leading me to the edge of the big metal tub.
“Sit here,” she says, and I’m surprised when she presses my shoulders down into a chair that’s bolted into the ground at the edge.
“What’s all this about?” I stammer, glancing back at McCabe. She nods encouragingly.
“Don’t worry, my dear,” McCabe replies with a smile that couldn’t be faker if it was plastered on a mannequin. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
My gaze darts back to the metal tub. To the liquid sloshing around inside it. It looked like dirty gray swamp water, and it roiled with some kind of current.
“Put your hands in here,” Sarah says, directing my right hand to a clamp at the edge of the tub. Something inside the tub whirred and I felt my wrist become encircled with a soft metal.
“Why?” I whisper.
Sarah looks at me squarely. “Listen. Would I do anything crazy bananas? Anything to hurt you?”
Hesitantly, I shake my head.
“Of course I wouldn’t. You just need to do this one thing, just this one little ritual, and you can be a full member. Put your other hand in there.”
I try to swallow, but my mouth is dry. It makes me nervous again, and I realize my palms are sweating.
“Okay,” I say, clearing my throat. “Okay, and then I’m in?”
Sarah nods. “Then you’re in. That’s it. Think of it as a kind of experiment.”
Was I being tested? I couldn’t help but wonder if this was some kind of weird IQ test, or just a hazing like they talk about on the news. Why would a community club want to haze people?
I place my left hand into the restraint.
“Now your head,” says Sarah encouragingly.
I frown down at the big metal clamp in front of my head.
“It looks like it should go sideways,” I say, confused.
Sarah nods. “That’s right.”
With a second glance at Sarah, I lean forward and place my chin on a soft pad set into the metal frame.
Instantly the rest of the metal clamp slides down around my head, pinching my pony tail.
“Ow!” I cry, wincing.
“Sorry,” says Sarah hastily, maneuvering my hair out of the way. “Is that better?”
I try to nod, but it really isn’t much good. “Yeah,” I manage to say. “Yeah. Thanks.”
There’s another round of mechanical whirring, closer this time. Then my head lowers slowly down. Slanting down and down until my left ear is touching the warm gray liquid. It hurts my neck, but there’s a weird ringing sound and I realize my fingers are tingling. I think I’ve forgotten to breathe.
Then something warm and wet touches my ear. Writhes…oh, God, into my ear? I’m no stranger to earaches, and this was the worst I’d ever had. I don’t even realize I’m whimpering until Sarah slaps me on the back.
“It’s all right,” I hear her say from far away. “It won’t hurt for long.”
She’s right. The pain is still there, still horrible, but it’s like it’s been deadened.
Whatever it is…it’s still working its way deeper and deeper. I can feel it through the numbness, like…like a worm, inching along, drilling through my skull.
“What…what is it,” I gasp, on the verge of tears from the pain and the shock. “What…”
And then, an icy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I try to open my mouth to ask the question.
What’s happening to me? I demand. I try to struggle against the restraints, to maneuver away from the water’s surface.
I can’t move.
Then, my eyes blink rapidly. On their own. I definitely did not do the blinking.
I must be losing my mind.
And that’s when I start hearing voices in my head.
<Ah,> says the voice. It sounds like a woman. Or maybe a young man. Maybe neither. <I finally understand. Lie, lay, lain.>
<What?> I think.
<Hm,> says the voice. <Not a very articulate language.>
Then my mouth opens. I suck in a breath.
“She’s mine,” says my mouth.
From far away I feel the restraints being removed. I feel myself stretch my back, rub my neck. My eyes track to Sarah, and I nod.
Then I slide out of the chair, taking a couple of shaky steps before finding my balance.
As if my body were some kind of machine, and I wasn’t in control of it anymore.
I bow my head. “Sub-Visser,” my voice says to my guidance counselor. “Myitt One-Nine-Five of the Taiyon Yerralash pool.”
“This is your first human host,” McCabe replies. Not McCabe, not anymore. Sub-Visser Thirty-Nine.
A slave in her own head, just like I was now.
I feel myself nod. “Yes,” my voice replies. “I am honored to receive a post on Earth.”
“You had your choice of hosts, after your promotion,” McCabe…the Sub-Visser…replies testily.
I glance at Sarah. “You’ve chosen a good host, Fenreth. I think she will do just nicely.”
Sarah smiles coldly back at me. “I thought she would,” the thing I had known as Sarah replied. “I am glad that you approve.”
<Wait a minute,> I demand. <Wait just a damn minute. You’re telling me that…that…>
<Yes. There is an alien in your head,> replies the sluglike thing called Myitt, offhandedly. The thing that now controls my every movement. The thing that is peering into my memories, flashing them before my eyes. <You aren’t too bright, are you, human?>
<No,> I whisper. <No, no, this can’t be happening…>
“Myitt?” McCabe. The Sub-Visser. “Are you able to report?”
My attention focuses back outside of my head.
“Yes, Sub-Visser,” my voice says, constricting my throat with fear. I feel sweat prickle out on the back of my neck.
And I start to scream. Alone in the cage of my head, alone with nothing but this thing for company.
Aliens are real, and I can’t even tell anyone.