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The three of them settled into a routine fairly quickly. After a few weeks, Simon asked how Early would feel if Jo moved in with them. Early joked for a while about how having a female in the apartment would cramp his style with the ladies he brought home. Finally, Early told him he thought it was a great idea, and he couldn’t be happier for the two of them.

Some days Simon and Jo played their foody lovemaking games; they actually went shopping and bought special stain-proof sheets, so they would stop wasting the good ones. But most days Simon and Jo would wake up Early, and the three of them would sit around the kitchen table, eating whatever strange concoctions Merdeux sent their way.

After work, Simon and Jo liked to curl up on the couch and watch old movies, sometimes indulging in a bit of wine. Early was increasingly in the bottle, sometimes going out and partying at clubs, sometimes just drinking in the living room, sitting with Simon and Jo, surfing the net while they watched TV.

One day after dinner, as they were cleaning up in the locker room, one of the Oorahs came over and talked to Simon. He wanted to ask out one of the other female servers, but he was hesitant.

“How did you get over it, Doc, knowing what your girl does for a living?” he asked.

“What do you mean? Jo does the same thing I do.”

“Yeah, but…like, in my family, if a girl, like, shows her ass in public…man, that wouldn’t fly. How am I supposed to take her home to see my mom? She finds out my girlfriend gets her money by having an alien stick its tongue up her poop shoot…I don’t know that I could look my folks in the eyes again, they’d say I was dating a whore. No offense man, it’s just, you know…”

“Look, here’s what I know. Sometimes in life, you have to make a choice. Stick with the family you were born into and do what they want you to, or realize that you’re your own person. Sometimes in life, you have to pick your own people, choose your own family. It’s not for everyone. But that’s what Jo did, and I love her for it.”

In bed later that night, thinking about the conversation while drifting off to sleep, it occurred to Simon that it was the first time he’d said he loved Jo, and that it felt completely natural.

When Simon awoke, Jo informed him that Early hadn’t come home that night. The door to his room was open, his bed still made. They tried his cell, but it went right to voicemail.

Simon and Jo ate their meal in silence, Early’s box placed next to his usual seat. The two were just about to get dressed and search Early’s normal haunts for sign of him, when something thudded wetly against the apartment’s door. It was Early, stinking of booze and drenched from the rain. When Simon opened the door, Early stood for a moment, slumped against the door frame, still fumbling with his keys.

“I couldn’t use my cane and find my keys at the same time,” he said, slurring his words and gesturing to the ground where his cane had fallen.

Early limped into the apartment and collapsed like a heavy sack on the couch.

“God, Early, get out of those wet clothes, you’ll get pneumonia,” Jo forced him to sit up and stripped off his soaked shirt. His undershirt was splattered with blood.

“I maybe got in a fight,” Early said, looking down at his own blood.

“Christ, man, what happened?”

Early explained that he had run into a group of guys at a bar and got to talking. He let slip that he worked with aliens, made good money doing it. “I didn’t tell them no specifics, thankfully,” he said. Apparently the group had convinced Early to come out behind the bar and had proceeded to beat him nearly unconscious. “They called me a traitor, Doc. Cuz I work with the SEETs, they said it was against scripture and against the Constitution, if that’s not the craziest thing you ever heard. They said the Constitution says, ‘All MEN are created equal,’ and that doesn’t include aliens.”

“That’s from the Declaration of Independence,” Simon corrected.

Early looked at him with a goofy grin. “Holy shit, you’re right. That negates their whole argument. I should go back and find them, let them know that they got it wrong. I’m sure they’ll apologize straight away, they’re really very rational guys. Dumbass.”

“Go, take a shower,” Jo said. “We’ll get your food ready, make some coffee. You’ll feel better after you eat something.”

Early looked at the floor. “I highly doubt it.” But he got up and did what she told him.

He came out of his room half an hour later, wearing only a towel around his waist. He was painfully thin now, all boney protrusions. There were bruises all over, and Simon could tell he’d been punched and kicked repeatedly. Simon did a quick physical and thought maybe one of Early’s ribs was cracked, too.

“Maybe we should call you in sick tonight, whaddya say man?”

“Fuck that. I’ve gotten worse than this,” Early pointed to his knee. “You know it better than anybody.” Early proceeded to chomp through his meal, chewing and swallowing without even looking at what he was shoveling in his mouth. He swallowed the supplement pills and aspirin Simon handed him with the same dispassionate expression, moving mechanically.

“I have to show you guys something,” Early said finally. He got up stiffly, groaning, and found his laptop. He took them to a website that required several passwords to get in. The site contained dozens of video links, and Early clicked on the newest one.

The video showed grainy footage of what looked to be a hospital ward at night. The camera zoomed in on one bed, showing a series of tubes and IVs, shaky close-ups of charts and medical labels.

“Some people took this footage outside of Albany,” Early explained. All trace of the drunkenness was gone, replaced by a hollow-eyed look of exhaustion. “All the patients here are in persistent comas. The SEETs bought this place, and they’re pumping the patients full of IV foods and laxatives. Then they’re…fuck, Doc, they’re harvesting the shit. Like these are goddamned animals, man.”

“Oh my God, is this real?” Jo said, staring at the screen.

“At least when we were in the army and the brass sent us into a hot mess, they gave us some fucking guns so we could fight back. These people are helpless man.” Early looked at Simon miserably. “Is this what we’ve been supporting this whole time? Did we help create this?”

Simon didn’t have an answer.

Simon knocked on Early’s door when he and Jo were ready to leave for work. They had all considered not going in, calling in sick or just quitting. But they’d agreed to give it one more night, look at things again in the morning. It was right before their payday, and there was some minor concern that they might not get their money for the preceding month if they quit now. Nobody really argued the point, it just came out, and then lingered in the room. Simon quietly hated the idea that money was their primary motivation, but had to admit that without money, he never would have been here at all. “Hey, sure, what’s one more night, right?” Early had said, finally. Now Early was behind his door, and Simon wasn’t sure if he was coming after all.

When he opened the door, Early was sniffling, his eyes wide and bloodshot. His nostrils were rimmed with white powder.

“Fuck, man,” Simon reached up and brushed away the cocaine before Jo could see. He shook his head. “I dunno. I just dunno, I don’t think you should go now. When did you start with that shit? What are you thinking?”

“Shhh,” Early said, mock conspiratorially, “don’t rat me out to the cops dude.” He flashed his teeth in a cheery grin. “It’s under control Doc, don’t you worry your pretty little head. Just a little something to help push through this last night.” Jo came over then, and Early stood between them, wrapping his arms around both their shoulders.

“I fucking love you guys, you know that?” he said, too cheerily for Simon’s liking. “I mean it. You’re like my little brother and sister. Only, like, you two fuck like rabbits, which is awesome. Mom and Dad are such prudes about that incest thing, but don’t worry, I’m the cool brother.” He winked at them. “Let’s go to work, kiddos.”

The meal was almost over when all hell broke loose.

Simon had gone about his routine on autopilot, barely thinking or talking. He kept seeing the video in his mind, rows and rows of humans being treated like cattle, nothing more than food stock. Even as he pulled down his disposable pants and felt the first groping moves of the SEET spreading him wide, he knew he wasn’t ever coming back to Merdeux.

As dinner started to wind down, Simon heard some grunting from his left. Cave diver, he thought. But the grunting quickly escalated, and he realized it was Early making the noise.

“Gah! Woah, daddy, take ‘er easy!” Early said, and this was met a harsh “shhhh” from one of the sitters above the table, and a mild foot stomp to emphasize the point.

The whole table lurched, its heavy metal frame creaking. “Oh, fuck, get this out of me!” Early yelled. “Doc, Jesus, help! Get it out, get it…” Terror clearly overtook him, and his noises devolved into wordless screams.

Simon and the other servers scrabbled at their belts, falling unceremoniously to the floor and sliding out from under the table. Meanwhile, Simon could hear Agent Stache-man from the back room, “What in God’s name?!”

Two Marines extricated Early and flipped the huge table over on its back, sending SEETs scattering to the far wall. Simon saw that one of the SEETs was still holding a fork, and its arm was covered half way up with blood so dark it was almost black. Two DHS agents were holding the alien back, but its eyes were rolling wildly and it thrashed its tail, smashing the wall hard enough to send plaster dropping to the floor.

Simon ran to Early. Early’s legs were drenched in gore, and the part of Simon’s brain the army had trained to be dispassionate saw the ropy remains of intestines, the sheer amount of blood, and immediately placed him in the worst category of injury.

Simon took Early’s hand, and the whole room was silent, watching. “I think I’m shit out of luck, Doc,” Early said. His brief laughter caused another cascade of blood to gush out of his crudely eviscerated body. It smelled like pennies and damp grave dirt. The color drained completely from Early’s face, and his eyes rolled back. “Sorry…” he said, weakly, and then he was gone.

From behind another table, Simon heard Jo scream, “You monsters!” She leapt over the table, grabbing a glass pitcher of water on her way. Before anyone could stop her, she brought the container down hard against the restrained SEET’s head, and the alien immediately stopped its struggles and fell back, unconscious and oozing blood of its own.

The two agents went for their firearms, but a pair of Oorahs rushed them and pinned their hands to their bodies. Another Oorah grabbed Jo and hustled her quickly into the locker room.

Stache-man had his own gun out and fired once into the ceiling. The sound was flat but deafening in the enclosed space. “Enough!” he yelled at the Marines, and they released the two other agents.

“Be cool, man,” one of the Oorahs said, holding his hands out in front of him. “Remember whose side you’re on, bro.”

“Get these…things…out of here,” Stache-man ordered his subordinates, pointing to the remaining SEETs. “The rest of you, clear the room. Now.”

Everyone obeyed except Simon, who continued to kneel over Early’s body, still holding his friend’s cold hand. Nobody said a word to him.

It was the cocaine, of course. It had driven the SEET into a frenzy, and the authorities didn’t even consider filing any kind of charges. The whole situation was kept quiet, never even mentioned in the press. Early’s death was ruled an accidental death due to complications from drug use. At first, Simon considered calling Early’s family, telling them what happened. But in the end, he decided there was no point. He and Jo were Early’s family, his real family, and they already knew the truth.

Merdeux closed for two weeks, a cooling off period with time to renovate after some of the damage. The day before the restaurant was set to reopen, Simon and Jo sat at their kitchen table, nursing coffee. The apartment was full of boxes. They both had plenty of savings, but without the extraordinary income from Merdeux, they wouldn’t have the money for long living in their current digs. They were both happy to be leaving. The door to Early’s room was closed, had remained that way since he’d died, because it felt like his ghost was haunting the place.

There was a beep from the intercom, and Simon answered it. Agent Stache-man was on the other end. After a brief hesitation, Simon buzzed him in and opened the apartment door.

Stache-man quietly entered, wordlessly moving to the kitchen table and sitting in Early’s normal spot. He had a heavy looking briefcase with him, which he placed on the table. Jo brought him a cup of coffee without asking if he wanted one, and all three of them sat, drinking and not saying anything.

Finally Stache-man broke the spell. “How are you guys holding up?”

“What do you want?” Simon said, deciding to do away with the facade of civility.

Stache-man nodded. “Fine, you’re right. It’s not a social call. Merdeux is opening up again. Are you guys coming back?”

“Are you fucking kidding us?” Jo glared at the agent. “Is that even an option, you think?”

“No,” the agent said. “Not in my opinion. But Merdeux and the SEETs…they’re saying all is forgiven. They want to keep this real hush-hush, want things back to the way they were before. And you guys are already used to this job, no transition…besides, they can’t tell one of you from another when you’re under the table. So they’re having me go around to all of you guys, to provide you with these,” he pulled a pair of envelopes out of his coat and slid them towards Simon and Jo. “Cashier’s checks this time. One-hundred-thousand dollars. Each.”

Simon stared at the envelopes, tears burning his eyes, squeezing Jo’s tiny, hot hand. “Stick those up your ass,” he said quietly, venom in his voice.

“Yep, I also figured you’d say that. But they’re made out to cash, and as far as I’m concerned they’re yours whether you come back or not. So do whatever you want with them, I don’t care. That’s not the real reason I came to see you two.”

Stache-man opened his briefcase a crack and pulled out a small tablet computer. “I want you to watch this.”

He pressed play on a video, which had the words TOP SECRET across the top and bottom of the frame. It looked like cellphone footage shot from a window overlooking an alley. A group of a half dozen people were standing with their backs to one wall. Simon could see one young woman was crying. There was a noise reminiscent of machine gun fire, but it was no weapon Simon had ever heard before. The people jerked backwards and fell over, executed.

Jo covered her mouth and leaned into Simon.

From the bottom of the frame, Simon saw shadowy movement, and he recognized the slobbery sounds of SEET talk. Three aliens emerged from the other side of the alley, skittering forward on their tails, holding some type of alien rifles in their hands. The SEETs eyes darted about, looking for anyone watching. Then they slithered up to the newly dead bodies, fumbling at the clothing and tearing it off.

“Shut it off,” Simon said, but Stache-man didn’t. Nor could Simon turn away. He watched the aliens gorge themselves, without apparent remorse or restraint, on the executed humans’ evacuated bowels.

When it was finally over, Stache-man shut off the tablet. “Those humans you saw were anti-alien activists, under low-level surveillance. Religious fanatics and über-nationalists. The very people I’ve been hunting down for the past few years…human beings. Somehow the aliens found them before we could intercede. I showed you that because I want you to reconsider returning to Merdeux.”

Jo started to stand, her face flush with anger. But Simon sensed something coming and pulled her back down, shaking his head softly.

“The aliens that frequent your restaurant aren’t your average shlubs. They’re leaders, high ranking in their society. Real heavy hitters, most nights.” Stache-man reached back into his briefcase and pulled out a small blue container covered in cellophane. It was filled with mushrooms. “I figure, maybe you add a little something special to the menu with the next order. Maybe…talk to some of your buddies, get them to do the same?”

Two years after the mass casualty incident at Merdeux, Simon was working in a small brownstone that had been converted into a makeshift hospital. On one of the building’s corners, in a place only a few people knew to look, there was a small etched mark, a circle with three lines shooting down. A simplified, upside-down OK sign. Brown star solidarity, one of the symbols of the resistance, used to mark buildings where medical aid and supplies could be obtained. Under that symbol was another, similar to a simplified heart. It was really an “M” whose sides had been elongated and connected at the bottom. “Mushrooms here,” the symbol said.

Simon moved from bed to bed, checking on his patients. None of them were critical tonight, for once. A quiet evening.

He heard the creak of the back door and approaching footsteps.

“Hey, sexy,” Jo said. “Save any lives today?”

Simon bent over and kissed her deeply. “Some, maybe. Others, I dunno, we might need to do an amputation or two…” He looked over at a teenaged boy, only fifteen, lying in a bed with a bullet wound in his leg. The boys eyes were wide, staring at Simon. Simon stared back, then winked. The boy let out a deep breath and weakly flipped Simon the bird. “We’re doing fine here,” he said, turning back to Jo. “How about you, you take any lives today?” He patted the M4 slung across Jo’s chest.

“You bet your ass. We had an insider, you know? A guy pretending to sell info with a line on pure feces. The SEETs sent one of their captains and a squad to meet him. Our man sent us a text message when the meeting ended and he was clear, and we hit fuckers hard. Got the captain myself.” She let loose with her cockeyed grin.

Then she leaned forward and whispered, “We’re not telling most folks, but one of our mortar teams got hit when the SEET reinforcement ships came in. I don’t think any of them made it. New guys, from the religious block. Those fundamentalist types skeeve me out, I wish we didn’t need them. Still, I didn’t even bother to learn their names, and I feel a little bad about that now. “

Jo leaned back. “All in all it was a good mission, and we’ve got another one planned a few days from now.”

“So long as you remember our deal,” Simon said. “You’ve got another month, then you’re on the backlines until the baby comes.” He put his hand on Jo’s belly. “Any nausea? Fatigue?”

“No, I’m fine and so is little Early. And I’ll keep my word, don’t worry, Doc.”

“Good,” said Simon, folding his arms around Jo. “Because we chose to make this family. Now you’re stuck with us.”

In 8th grade, JODY GIARDINA was sent to the guidance counselor after a graphic description he wrote made his English teacher vomit. He’s been seeking to replicate that visceral connection with his audience ever since. He came up with the idea for this story in Afghanistan, praying he wouldn’t be killed while taking a dump. Jody lives with his wife and dogs in Augusta, GA.

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