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Simon hadn’t eaten any food of his own choosing in two years.
The revelation came to him as he sat at his kitchen table and, by the light of the budding dawn, surveyed the meal arranged there: one cup of raw sugar; half a stick of butter; a dozen beetles skewered with toothpicks, each crowned with a perfect, plump blueberry; a lock of hair from a golden retriever; a roasted red bell pepper filled with grilled and seasoned mouse sweetmeats; an orange rind; and a plate of blanched mushrooms. The hair was going to be a problem for Simon. Long fibers always were, because he tended to gag as they went down. The trick was to eat the hair first and drink plenty of water while doing it. After that, it was all cake. Granted, this would be the kind of horrible, beetle-filled cake a psychopath would feed you, but easier nonetheless.
Simon’s inevitable coughing and retching noises woke his roommate, who made his own morning hacking and coughing sounds behind the door of the penthouse apartment’s second bedroom. The door eventually opened and Early leaned languidly against the jamb, cigarette dangling from his bottom lip and eyes blinking slowly in the light.
He was wearing nothing but a pair of piss-stained briefs, which showed off how thin he’d gotten in the last few months. Early had always been the long and lean type, but he was beginning to border on sickly, and his pale skin and bloodshot, bag-laden eyes did nothing to help. He still cleaned up pretty well, assuming he took the time to shower and put on some well-fitting clothes. Besides, Simon wasn’t one to throw stones here; his own swarthy skin was drawn tight, and at this hour his brown eyes peered out from dark wells deep enough to draw water.
“Doc, my brother from another mother, it is too fucking early for this Early-bird. I don’t need a worm that bad.” He looked at the items laid out before Simon. “Had some hair this morning, didn’tcha.”
“Yeah? Whaddya know, I’m having some hair of the dog myself.” Early moved one of his hands from behind the door and revealed a glass filled with some whiskey. He took a sip, moving and replacing his cigarette with the kind of dexterity that only comes from years of practice.
“Well, since I’m apparently up,” Early said with fake exasperation, “I guess I should take a look at today’s meal.”
He slid over to the kitchen table and hunkered down to examine a box, which Simon had moved there for him. Simon and Early each received a box every morning, carefully prepared and hand-delivered by the cooking staff at Merdeux, the specialty restaurant that employed them both. Inside the boxes were smaller, temperature-controlled containers filled with the meal orders for that evening’s patrons.
Early opened his box and sighed, pulling out one of the containers and dropping it on the table. “It’s a good thing they pay me a boatload of money every month, because that,” he said, pointing to the container, “is a goddamned jellyfish.” He rooted further inside the box. “Rest of this actually looks pretty normal…up, wait. Spoke too soon.” He pulled out another container and placed it on top of the first. “Pair of salamander heads in a pretty nice demi-glace.”
“You should take extra fiber pills with your supplements today, jellyfish will be hard to push through.” Simon tried to sound helpful and upbeat. “And you shouldn’t drink so much, it dehydrates you. Plus you know they don’t like the taste of hard liquor.”
“Screw it, I don’t ever hear the SEETs complain,” Early said with a dismissive wave of the whiskey glass. “Sometimes I can’t stand this job. You know what I miss? I mean, really miss?”
“A quiet meal, eaten without the sound of others complaining about work?”
“Mmmm, yeah, let’s just put a pin in that idea for now,” Early said with a fuck-you grin. “What I really miss is pizza. Good old-fashioned pizza, which is all the hell over the place here in New York, so of course the temptation is everywhere. But what I’m talking about is pizza in the morning. Right from out the fridge, cold. Leftover pizza is the greatest breakfast of all time.”
“Words can’t express how depressed you’ve just made me.”
Simon and Early met in the army during those long wars that ushered in the twenty-first century. They were stationed together at a combat outpost in some godforsaken mountain pass that hasn’t seen outsiders since Alexander marched in and promptly marched the fuck right out, as Early put it. Simon had two years of pre-med under his belt before leaving college for lack of tuition funds, and he enlisted as a combat medic. He had hoped that the medic experience would look attractive to hospitals once he got out of the military with his GI Bill money. Early joined so he could blow shit up before settling down and becoming cop in Vermont, like his dad and two older brothers.
Most of the guys at the outpost called Early “The Regular.” The nickname came about during the first few days of their deployment. The men of the small unit called themselves “The Regulators” after the posse led by Billy the Kid in the movie Young Guns. Several of the soldiers drew tiny six-shooters on their helmets. Before any patrol of the area, their CO, a young captain from Oklahoma who was actually named William, would shout, “Regulators, mount up!”
Every evening, just after sunset, Early would stand up from whatever he was doing and say, “Well, gentleman, this war thing is fun, but I have some important business to attend to,” and head over to the porta-johns near the quarters. It didn’t matter what was going on, what they had done during the day, or what they had eaten. Other men complained that the MRE cheese constipated them, that the scrambled eggs gave them the squirts, and any other manner of bowel disruption. But Early suffered none of it, his movements unperturbed. One night a sergeant, seeing Early get up, said, “Jesus Early, I ain’t dumped in a week, but you go the same time every night. I could set my watch by your asshole.” A young private yelled out, “Yeah, Sarge, he’s not a Regulator, he’s The Regular.” The whole post was calling him The Regular by the next morning.
The nickname might have been forgotten over time, as those types of things come and go in a war, if not for one night when the post came under attack. It was nothing out of the ordinary, just harassing small arms fire from the surrounding hilltops. But it just so happened to occur right at sunset. Early was part of a crew manning a mortar, and they were ordered to send out illumination and suppressing fire. After the brief fighting was done, one of the other crewman went back into the ammo tent and discovered an empty artillery crate with a fresh pile of feces in it. He called out for the rest of the guys to come see. Early, unashamed, grinned and said, “Hey, they interrupted my evening constitutional. Neither rain nor sleet nor Haji attack will keep my ass from its appointed rounds.” After that, there was no stopping the nickname.
Simon, like hundreds of medics before him, was known as “Doc,” which suited him just fine. It was certainly better than some other handles, which included “Stinky Pete,” two buddies called “Dickless” and “Dickless-er,” and an unfortunate fellow everyone called “Vagosaurus Rex.” Simon and Early bunked next to each other and struck up an easy friendship.
Two months into their tour, Simon and his patrol were involved in a heavy firefight after leaving a meeting with the elders of a remote village. Simon, who couldn’t engage in the fighting unless actively protecting a patient, grabbed cover under the shadow of a large boulder and bitterly wished he could help his brothers-in-arms. He knew the leaders with whom they had just met — all smiles and promises of cooperation over dirty cups of tea and plates of seasoned rice and meat — had probably contacted the fighters now shooting at him. Some of them might even be participating. He clenched his teeth and fought a very real urge to run back to the village and open fire on the first people he met.
“Medic! Doc, get over here!” The cry came from a few yards further north along the ragged strip of rocks that passed for a road in these parts. Simon grabbed his medical duffle bag and, hunched over to provide the smallest profile possible, ran towards the waving arms of his comrades. He recognized the injured man as a staff sergeant named Knowles, another New Englander like himself. Simon skidded to a stop on his kneepads, kicking up a shower of dust and pebbles.
“Ricochet, Doc, right in his neck. They already called in for the medivac, it’s fucking bad,” one of the soldiers said, his eyes wide, a few droplets of the wounded man’s blood flecked across his face like freckles.
“Shut up, shut your fucking mouth,” said another man, who was holding Knowles’ hand. He used his free hand to roughly shove the bloody faced young soldier hard enough to put him on his ass. “Staff Sergeant Knowles is fine, he’s the fucking man. Get your rifle back on the goddamn line!” The man turned back to his injured friend. “Don’t you worry about nothing, Doc is here and he’s gonna patch you up. You’ll be on a freedom bird outta here in no time.”
Simon spent the better part of an hour working on Knowles. The tumbling AK-47 round had torn its way through the soldier’s throat, compromising his airway and nicking one of the carotid arteries. Simon tubed him and did what he could to stem the flow of blood. At one point Knowles regained consciousness for a brief moment, scrabbling wildly at his ruined neck and blindly lashing out at everyone around him. Simon yelled at the others to hold Knowles down and administered enough morphine to send the man back into unconsciousness.
Eventually they put Knowles on a litter and Simon and the young soldier with the blood on his face carried him to the waiting medical evacuation helicopter. By that time, A-10s had blasted the nearby mountains with their cannons and rocket pods, and those insurgents who hadn’t been blown to shreds fled the area. Captain Billy the Kid radioed his superiors that the terrain was too steep for anyone to climb in order to look for the dead fighters or any intelligence that might be on their corpses. That probably wasn’t true, but everyone was tired and the CO wasn’t looking to push things with his men. This wasn’t their first casualty by any means, but Knowles had been a well-liked NCO, and seeing him bleeding and thrashing like a fish yanked out of a stream had the men on ragged edge.
When they got back to the outpost, the men made their way to their huts and did their best to clean up. Some of them picked dully at cold MREs, and others just lay on their cots staring at the ceiling. But not Early. Early went around to each of the men, talking with them briefly. He patted them on the shoulder or the knee, making physical contact with them all: the good, psychological techniques they teach you for helping people deal with grief. Early cracked a few jokes, self- deprecating ones that made the men smile. And mainly he extolled the virtues of SSG Knowles: a good man, a hard man, a man the Hajis couldn’t kill. “He’ll be drinking mai-tai’s waiting for us at the airport when we get sent back home. And you know he’ll get much ass, ‘cuz chicks dig scars.”
Early finally made it to his own rack, next to Simon’s, and he sat down heavily.
“Look at this,” Simon said, holding up the sleeves of his ACU blouse, which were soaked up to the elbows with blood. “This never gets out. I’ll have his blood on me for the rest of the tour.” Simon stared at the wall, red-rimmed eyes unblinking. “Tomorrow we should go back to that village, find those elders, and blow their brains out all over those stupid man-jammies they wear. Then we should burn down their fucking mosque. We should do it at sunset, so you can take a fat dump on the ashes.”
Early nodded. “Yeah, they’re full of some righteous bullshit, that’s for sure.” He paused and put his hand on Simon’s arm. “Look, Doc. You’re a smart dude, so let me fill you in on the real skinny about what’s going on here. The politicians all talk a big game, about terrorists hating our freedom and junk. And sure, some of the people in this valley are the hardcore types, real ideology-driven motherfuckers. But most of these folks? They don’t give two shits about all that. They just want us away. They don’t care where we go, or what we do when we get there. They just don’t want us here. And they’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know, I don’t really mean it.” Simon pulled his gaze from the wall and looked at Early solemnly. He spoke slowly, as if coming back to himself from a long way off. “Xenophobia. That’s what it’s called. No army can indefinitely hold ground on foreign soil where the population hates them. That’s history, you’re right. They either breed in — like the Mongols — or they get the fuck out, like the Brits and Commies.”
“Well, I’d be all about the breeding-in solution,” said Early, flashing his teeth impishly, “but there is a serious lack of tasty in these parts. Everything is covered up, and if you were lucky enough to find a she-Haji, you know she’d be sporting mad Seventies bush. You’d need a machete just to find the pink in all that swamp.”
Simon laughed, “If it’s pussy you want, Dickless-er here would probably put out for a few bucks.” He kicked out at the bunk of the man across the way, who casually flipped him the bird in reply.
“Hell, yeah,” Early said. He held out his hand, making a sort of inverted OK sign: thumb and forefinger in a circle, other three fingers facing down. “The ol’ brown star express, baby. Straight up the poop shoot.”
Dickless-er lifted his legs and put up the same upside-down OK sign, only over his own ass. “You want this bung-bung soldier boy?” he said in a fake Asian accent. “Fifty dollars, me love you long time.” The hut degenerated into increasingly obscene and homoerotic banter, the cloud hanging over it blown away for the time being.
Three-quarters of the way through their deployment, Early almost died. A single, lucky shot into the post by an insurgent sent shrapnel tearing through Early’s left knee and thigh, severing the femoral artery. Simon was at his side instantly, applying tourniquet, quick-clot, and pressure wrappings. He managed to keep some secondary blood flow into the limb, and doctors later credited him with saving Early’s life and leg.
Simon earned a citation for his quick action, but it was of little consequence. The COP lost a big chunk of its soul as the chopper flew off with The Regular on board, and the last few months of the tour were dirty and mean. Headquarters actually called a stand-down on all the unit’s patrols with more than three weeks left on their last rotation: there were too many firefights, they said, too many calls for air support, too many reports of civilian casualties. Headquarters constantly reminded them about winning the propaganda war, about “hearts and minds” and a strong IO campaign being key to countering insurgencies. Simon didn’t hear a word of it.
The aliens arrived about eighteen months after Simon left the military.
When he first got back, Simon talked a big game about returning to school and finishing his MD. But as he filled out the applications, he realized that he’d had his fill of blood and guts. So when the news broke, he was kicking aimlessly around his parents’ house, trying to figure out what to do with his life.
At first, there was talk about a full military recall. Like most soldiers, Simon registered with the Ready Reserve when he completed his enlistment, and the internet was abuzz with rumors of a military contingency plan. Of course, in those first days after contact, the internet was full of all kinds of nonsense, from talk of invasion, to theories about the gods of old returned to earth to bring man to the next spiritual level. It was fair to say that as the mothership hung serenely over the East Coast, the world lost its collective mind for a good little bit.
It was amazing how quickly those same minds could absorb a new paradigm, however, and in less than a year most people accepted that aliens were among us and that was just fine. The aliens were apparently not invaders or gods or anything of the sort. They were more like merchants, traveling salesman looking for a nice waypoint in the galaxy.
Nor did they look much like invaders: short, squat bodies in various shades of blue and purple, most no taller than four feet. Instead of legs, their bodies ended in a kind of flat tail, which they undulated, snail-like, to propel themselves. Otherwise, they had amazingly humanoid features: arms ending in hands with fingers (two opposing but otherwise similar), a head with mouth, nose, eyes and ears. The head was flatish and rectangular, like a long shoebox, fronted by a wide-lipped mouth and eyes set to the far end. But you could look into the face and recognize something of yourself there, clear and curious eyes staring back earnestly.
Communication was not a problem, either. Ours was not the first civilization they had visited, and they had developed an adaptable translation device which they wore around their thick necks. It turned their vaguely slobbery language — it involved a lot of rolling their long tongues around — into a passable, if robotic-sounding, English. Earbuds accomplished the same in reverse on their behalf.
Simon, like the rest of the nation, was initially fascinated by any and all news on the aliens. It was pretty surprising, however, how fast the world grew weary of the constant reports. Flooded by 24/7 footage of the aliens meeting with heads of state, people began tuning out. Sitcoms and evening talk shows resumed their schedules, and soon even the press began thinking, Aliens, we’ve got it, what else do you have?
The army encouraged its soldiers to maintain contact with each other even after completing all service commitments. The camaraderie and shared experiences helped many men through brief periods of depression and PTSD. Many units set up messaging boards and chat rooms for their current and former personnel, and Simon browsed these with increasing frequency. He felt detached from reality, the double hammer blows of the war and the alien visitors had knocked him down and sapped his joie de vivre. One day he logged into his computer and found a private message waiting for him:
I want you to come to NYC and stay with me for a while. I’ve got a job proposal for you. Big-time cash money hos. I’ll pick you up at the airport. Don’t pass this up bro. I still owe you one.
At the bottom of the message was a link, which sent Simon to an airline website to retrieve an e-ticket in his name: first-class all the way, leaving in three days. Early must be doing pretty well, Simon thought. Good for him, all the guys deserve a break. And then, Fuck it, maybe so do I. He hit the Reply button and quickly typed: “I’m in. See you there,” before he could lose his nerve.
As promised, Early met him at the airport. The place was a mess. New York was rapidly becoming a hub of alien activity, and the airports were considered prime targets. Even though most people were adapting to the idea of aliens on Earth, some fringe elements insisted the governments of the world were surrendering themselves in some bloodless coup. Drawing from the same crowd of extremists who had formerly espoused conspiracies involving black stealth helicopters and mind control broadcasts, these lunatics were joined by a few shadowy religious organizations, which saw the aliens as godless abominations that had to be destroyed. The nut jobs had vowed to resist their new alien overlords by violence if necessary. Security was everywhere.
Simon and Early shook hands and shared an awkward shoulder-bump-turned-hug that made them both laugh. “You look great, man,” Simon said.
“Thanks to you, Doc. I still gotta walk with a cane when it rains, but if it wasn’t for you bro — ”
Simon waved off the complement. “It’s nothing. You don’t owe me…seriously, anytime, you know?”
“Look, let’s grab your luggage. The folks I work for rented us a limo for the ride into the city.”
“Hey, hey, big time indeed. Let me guess…high priced prostitution? The ol’ brown star express to wealth and happiness?” Simon made the inverted OK sign, which Early returned.
“Man, you don’t know how right you are. Come-on, I’ll take you to the place and fill you in on the 411.”
Merdeux didn’t serve a lunch crowd, and the place was empty when Simon and Early tipped the limo driver and stepped into the restaurant’s interior. Venetian blinds covered all the windows, and the darkness was instant and shocking. It reminded Simon of nighttime on the COP, so far removed from civilization’s comforting electric glow. He felt his hand tighten on the handle of his suitcase reflexively before Early found the light switch and flicked it on. The lighting was dim, mood lighting, but Simon relaxed visibly.
“You alright Doc?” Early asked.
“Yeah. Saw a ghost is all. I’m good to go.”
Early nodded knowingly. “I see my share of ghosts, but they pop up less and less often these days. Being in the big city helps.”
Simon breathed deeply. There was something strange about the smell; not like a restaurant, it was more like a hospital. Antiseptic tang, and under that…something. Simon inhaled again, but it was gone, the cleaning fluids drowning out the other scents.
“So this must be some high priced restaurant to afford all the first-class treatment to recruit me. And since when do restaurants recruit, anyway? We serving mobsters and movie stars, or what?”
Early clapped one hand on Simon’s shoulder and gestured around the main room with his other. “If you can imagine it, my man, every evening this place is filled to the gills with the highest paying clientele out there. Rich as sin and looking to spend: fucking aliens, baby.”
Simon’s eyebrows rose sharply. “The Aliens? Holy hell…I’d never even thought of a restaurant for the aliens. What the heck do they even eat?”
Early smiled broadly. “Ah, that’s the big question, isn’t it? Well, I’ll tell you. The food they like is mainly water, good bit of fiber in it, some protein, and a bit of fatty foods and other stuff thrown in for flavor.”
“Sounds like what they served us on the plane.”
“Hah, I doubt it Doc. See, their stuff is…highly processed. Look, I’m not going to beat around the bush. Their food is shit.”
Simon nodded slowly, waiting for Early to elaborate. But he soon realized no further explanation was coming, and eventually understanding blossomed on his face. “Wait. You mean actual shit? Like feces? These sick fucking aliens eat our shit?”
“Well, not exclusively. It’s like a delicacy to them. But yeah. That’s what they serve here. Human feces. You know how they called me The Regular? Who woulda thought I’d parlay that particular talent into a high-paying career, right?”
“I…I don’t even know what to say. I mean, they really…?” Simon cast his gaze about the room as his mind raced, and something about the tables caught his eye. Early watched silently as Simon walked over to one. The tables were arranged banquet style, three long rows, but with seats on only one side. Every few feet, there was a neat oval hole in the tables, and the table cloths were cut and fitted snuggly to allow the holes to be unobstructed.
“What the…?” Simon started, leaning over and lifting the edge of the abnormally long cloth to look under the table. Beneath it was a series of straps, stirrups, and handlebars — one directly under each hole. The things looked like upturned gyno exam setups. “Oh, you’re fucking kidding me.” Simon looked up at Early. “Is this some candid camera bullshit? Please tell me you’re fucking putting me on here.”
Early laugh and clapped his hands together. “Frosty as always Doc, nothing gets by you. Yep, these guys like their meals hot. They eat it right out of the bunghole, brother.” Early made the upside-down OK sign. “Like you said, brown star express. Next stop: dinner.”
“Why…why would you bring me here, man? You do this? For a living? And you thought I would be interested?”
“Now wait, before you lock up on this idea, I’ve got three words for you: Twenty-five. Thousand. Dollars.”
“Twenty-five grand a year? I can make that at McDonalds, man! And at least nobody’s asking to eat the fries straight out my asshole! What kind of — ”
Simon caught his words from tumbling out. Early pulled out one of the chairs and motioned for him to sit, and then sat down next to him. Early leaned in close. “Look, Doc, it’s fucked up. Most people don’t know about this. But twenty-five grand a month — and that’s take home and doesn’t even include tips — that’s a ton of scratch, man. This thing, it’s a good deal. It’s not forever, you do it for a while, build up a nest egg. Then you can do whatever you want with the rest of your life. You still want to be a doctor? Bam, school’s covered. How many doctors you heard of that didn’t have med school bills weighing them down? Or hell, you want to be a beach bum, drinking mai-tai’s with SSG Knowles’ ghost? Done.”
Simon winced at the mention of Knowles.
“Look, hey, sorry about that,” Early continued hastily. “That wasn’t your fault. He died of an infection months later man, you saved his life, let him say goodbye to his wife and kids in person.” He paused and looked away for a moment. “But that’s part of it, you know? Think of all the shit we went through. And for what? Two grand a month? Is that gonna pay for medical school? And my disability…you think that shit pays my bills, lets me live in the Big Apple? If I tried living off that, I couldn’t afford to rent a cardboard box in this city.”
Simon leaned back in his chair and looked thoughtfully at Early. “Why me?” he said finally.
“The restaurant likes former military. They know we’re disciplined and can stick to a routine. We know our bodies, and we’re in okay shape. Plus those of us with field time have eaten our fair share of questionable food. The SEETs, they like us to…process…some odd stuff. Takes a strong stomach, but it’s what they want. A lot of it, I don’t know, it’s not really what I’d call food. We take a lot of supplements, because we can’t eat anything on our own. Ruins the SEETs’ meal requests.”
Early let out a sharp bark of a laugh. “Ha! Yeah, that’s what we call them in the biz. Shit-eating extra-terrestrials. Gotta love acronyms, just like the army, right?”
Simon grinned. “I’ve got an acronym for you: FUBAR. That’s what this is, FUBAR.”
The two veterans laughed together, and any tension between them broke.
Two years later, Simon and Early sat together in their apartment’s kitchen, fantasizing about pizza.
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