Best of the Net 2014  

The Thing

The women who survived the horror movies you’ve seen are approached about a sequel. “That was my life,” they say. “That happened to me.” People recognize them at the grocery store. “Why did you go back for the cat?” they ask.

The women, the shy and unsociable ones, adjust their grip on the shopping basket. The boxes of aspirin shuffle like unsettled stones. The women who don’t care as much, the ones who are more resigned, lie. That cat was my best friend. That cat saved my life when I was a kid. That cat was a gift from the man I loved.

None of them know why they went back when fleeing the ship, the truck, the house, the basement, the woods, or the bone yard. They nest their legs together at night and pet the cat, remembering. It had a face, the Thing that wanted them dead, but there is no way to recall it’s face through the hair in the eyes, the running backwards, the raised shiv. Some of them have forced themselves to anyway.

They were coaxed and paid. They have been dragged back—many times, some of them. They were drugged and literally dragged. They played consulting, advisory roles. They told them so. People always want to capitalize on the Thing. The women know this is a kinship they and the Thing share. They are exploited. They are cornered and alienated by the fanged and opportunistic and resourceful powers that be. But this is not to say the women are sympathetic, that they understand the Thing or want to. They understand insofar as they can kill it next time.

The women who survived more than once wonder what for. Contrary to what others might think, you don’t become any less terrified of death when you face it several times; which is to say, death never stops being death, and you don’t change either. Your modes of defense improve. You do, in fact, stick together, come prepared, trust no one, know where the back doors are, resist falling asleep; doubt and stay away from anything moist, kick scientific curiosity to the curb, doubt the desire to have sex, doubt anything that involves the mouth, doubt anyone who seems to know what they’re doing, and check again that the door is locked.

The women who survived used to find their lot lonely. Some of them badly hated the word “lonely,” wanted a more sufficient, even-handed word. Being alive, it seems a lot to ask not to be lonely. It seems, on a certain level, they should be more grateful.

Whatever part of them might have turned to faith has gone the way of whatever part of them might have gotten domestic and raised a family. Some of them have, to be fair. They lean on spouses who know, in some feature or part, what they’ve been through. They probably need the distraction of people who need them. Whether this is a strength or a weakness is irrelevant, of course. Survival, they’ve learned, is indifferent. Survival’s operations remain mysterious and unkind. The domestic dreams that kept the women going when they were high school cheerleaders, unusually attractive graduate students, second-in-command officers, careless socialites, and corporate drones seem unbelievably naive now. They really shouldn’t have survived at all.

Being beset by demons so many times, the demons rubbed off. In their new life, the women imagine demons where there aren’t any. Innocent night sounds become the braille of sinister approach, and the women scamper out third-story windows and unload entire clips into the shadows of closets. They nail shut bedroom doors—because, yes, they sleep with hammer and nails close at hand.

The women who survived love with a light hand. They expect the worst. Irreparable pains linger where the Thing’s breath touched their neck. Where it snatched away someone they loved—that’s worse. The women used to think they would gladly be dead if it meant these people could be alive still. Survival and selfishness overlap in weird ways, and they know for the most part the two are very different. Love and survival are different too, but not as much as they used to think.

They buy cabins on Lake Michigan. They travel. They do residencies in obscure rural areas where they can write their memoirs; they have learned to take advantage of the market. They’re not above anything. They take jobs, simple jobs that aren’t outside their education-level but are less than what they’re capable of. They clean hotel rooms, shelve at grocery stores, perform clerical tasks in small offices. What the women are capable of isn’t exactly the standard by which they decide anything anymore.

They go back and forth about their sexuality and what to show in public. They’re still mostly human.

They send their children on vacation with relatives. If the Thing has killed their relatives, they send their kids to stay with friends who have kids too. This is for the kids’ own good as much as their mothers’. Some of them have had the conversation with their kids: I loved your father but he had a Thing inside him and I had to. When they ask what it was, the women use the usual euphemisms. The women never tell the kids exactly what they had to do to Daddy. They never mention the ax, the flamethrower, the chainsaw, the vice grip, or the vacuum of space.

Yet they have heard of women who, once their children reach a certain age, tell them exactly what happened. At what age is a topic of controversy; whether to tell them at all is controversial. It’s a question of what will alienate and confuse and hurt them. It goes back to the contagion of the memory of demons, and for some women the choice is to carry it as a family. Some children flee and misunderstand (or perhaps understand completely) and, in outrage, find demons of their own. And the women who go this route have to live with this outcome. Other children flee and misunderstand only to return and make amends and acceptances. There are also some who can understand their mothers’ histories with no difficulty at all. They go on to enjoy mutually supportive relationships. Good communication. No glitches. But the women who survived keep a close eye.

If their children really listened, if they really understood, they wouldn’t hesitate, would they? They’d know what they had to do.

The women keep a close eye.

They see cruelty in having survived. If they could sit down with the Thing, they’d ask if it reached the same conclusion. Is it better to be dead than alive and incurably lonely?

The problem is the Thing prefers not to talk. It uses the truth but never tells it. The problem is the Thing always comes back. The only conceivable closure is to convince the Thing to stop. “It’s over.” “We won.” “I got you, you son of a bitch.” “Let’s get out of here.” But this would require the Thing to change, to become less than a survivor. They are so like it, it hurts. The women hate this. It’s not life. Being alive is common. There’s nothing common about life.

The women who survived have fan followings. People dress like them, write and make animations and designs about them. People with PhDs in gender studies, sociology, and literature compose studies on them that people read and take seriously. The women have seen their own action figure replicas online. The replicas of the Thing outsell them, of course—people always want the Thing more. And they have seen the online profiles and accounts people have made, pretending to be them. According to these, they have many followers, many friends. The women have their doubts.

The women who survived assume the stage before a full audience of shrill applause. The overhead lights have dimmed the room, and spotlights from the back skim the expanse of raised hands and cameras and head-tops and strike the women full in the face. They squint. There are pointed, winking flashes from the crowd. They have been told to act natural—no affected enthusiasm required. The fans are here because they get it—the women represent hard realism, cynicism, resilience, sexuality. This is all news to the women.

Now, as in moments of otherwise infrequent honesty, the women wish they could just take the know-how and keenness and basic smarts their disastrous lives have given them, take these things and leave the rest. Live normally but with their wits and none the wiser of dying and how easy dying is. To be naive and safe and smart seems like the ideal. Except two of these things hardly ever go together, and another two are so opposed, they must be fools for using them together. What would the crowd do if they told them this?

The air ducts interweaving with the beams of the auditorium’s ceiling are ridged and glossy black. The ducts remind them of something. From the crowd’s edges, the applause has begun to dwindle. The women have been told that they only need to say a few words, that the important thing is just to be seen. Their hands are sweating in the grip of the mike. The black gaps and shadows of the crowd align for one instant, and the women swear they can see its face.

The women who survived recline in wicker furniture. Tonight, most of them happen to be in similar circumstances—on wrap-around porches in Ann Arbor, Tallahassee, Chappaqua, Lansing, Portland, Cleveland, Phoenix, and La Jolla. In the days immediately after the debacle of the conference and the disappointed crowd, they decided to change their travel plans. Any flight that had someone from the conference on it would be one double-take away from emergency landing. Best to lay low and let things cool off.

Some drink Coca-Colas, Tom Collinses, Coronas, and dark and stormies, but most of them drink ice water. They drink from heavily iced and thickly perspiring glasses. A man they haven’t seen in a long time sits on the other end of the porch. He taps insistently at a tablet or a small computer. There’s a video he wants to show his friends, and he knows if he could just find it, it would cheer them up. He used to cheer them up.

The women are enjoying the stillness of the chair and the cool of the glass in their hand. They sort of don’t want their friend to find the video. Crickets and a host of mysterious wrench-bodied bugs are crooning and shrieking in the night. The women listen closely. They secretly wish they had a human form of echolocation. They wish they had an ear for what was where in the dark and how many there were and how fast they were moving. They lean back a bit, the red-painted wicker creaking. He curses under his breath. They can’t exactly decide if their relationship could have counted as dating.

They examine themselves, adjusting the hems of their skirts. It’s been a while since they wore a skirt. They’d worried they weren’t suited for it anymore, worried about what that might mean. Their legs are crossed at the knee. When the glass drips, the drops explode on their foot. They wait. They weigh the glass in their hand. They gauge the density of the night beyond the porch screen and picture the insect faces in the dark, the faces watching back. They must look no different from other, normal women sitting on porches other places, women wrapped in lamplight, waiting for the late hour to come. But the women who survived know that if a clawed, fanged hulk emerged from the dark and ripped through the porch screen, they would know exactly what to do. They know how hard they could throw the glass. They know how exactly they’d escape the porch, unscratched, man or no man, skirt or no skirt. If he fell and disappeared under the claws and the bared mouth, they’d have one instant to decide to help or not. If the Thing got to them first, tore them to the ground, they know exactly what they’d do with their hands and teeth. They’d dim the lamp and walk away.

–James Flaherty (from Quarterly West)