By Garrett Harriman
Dr. Anton parked the van outside a rippling Kansas cornfield. Fourteen people emerged: Gwen and Neil last, bundled in hoodies and mittens. Autumnal moonlight swamped the nameless dirt road. Salt-shaken starshine glimmered.
“This is it, gang!” said Anton. He moated their bodies, painting faces with a flashlight. “Marker’s maybe five minutes in.” He quickly consulted his GPS and safaried headlong into stalks.
His faithful followed, ensconced and jailstriped by acreage. Boots pulverized leaves--the only acoustics for miles.
“I don't like this, Gweny,” Neil grogged, head owling. “You sure this’ll help?”
Some eavesdropping groupies gave him the stink eye. Neil wasn’t a member. Wasn’t afflicted. Gwen’d probably begged the good doctor to let him hitch along. Some confidential concession that didn’t add up.
Gwen answered wide-awake. “Positive--it’s a breakthrough! None of us've beamed in weeks. Then Tuesday we all woke up marked.”
Neil caressed her handtop. Traced the engagement ring. “Meaning?”
“Meaning Roy thinks we can hail them now!”
The cowboy grunted. He’d refrained from detailing her his Jabba sex slave theories. To him the mark signified a pan-galactic peepshow branding. He’d shared her bed for seven months. Witnessed forced catatonia, dawn reconstitutions...that interspecies afterglow. Anything was possible.
Concerning Roy, however, skepticism was justified. Anton could prattle and charge without scruples. Implant false memories or precipitate guilt. His degree and outfit seemed...ulterior. You don’t lead maul victims to the cougar den.
Neil ducked, avoided leaf slaps. “Beard’s compensating. I don’t trust him.”
“You’re supposed to trust that I trust him, babe. Roy says fetishes are like phobias: everybody's got one.” Gwen raked her nutshell hair. “Just sometimes they’re one in the same.”
“You believe that? These maggots've violated you since you were fourteen, and here you are, silver platterin’!”
“It's our only chance, Neil. And it's consensual anymore.”
Disgusted, he flipped her around and ungloved her hand. “Was this consensual, Gwenneth?”
She reclaimed it, accosting him on tippy-toe: “It's not my fault I'm an addict!”
Neil clutched his belt. Heeled soil. “I know that, Gweny. I--I can't even imagine...”
She pleaded insomniacal eyes. “Allow me some hope then, Neil. We've tried everything, haven't we? Pills. Sutra. Vibrators and dildos.”
Neil checked his mirrors. “Gwen, please."
“They’re not ashamed, Neil,” she reassured, hugging him. “Neither am I. You’re sweet for trying so hard. But there’s no substitute. Everyone in the program accepts we have an unearthly itch. Xenonymphomania.” She kissed his cheek. “Now we can confront it together.”
Neil embraced her. Tight. “Don’t leave again, Gweny…”
They jogged, soon stepping from endless corn halls into a plank-flattened crop circle thirty feet wide. The design paralleled Gwen’s laceration. Anton waited off-center; abductees dotted the circumference.
Neil’s fiancée whooped. “Beautiful recreation, Roy!”
Anton bowed. “Much obliged. Kinda cockeyed, but its serves our purposes tonight.” Roy signaled his flashlight vertically, monkeyed his GPS too long. He heaved in heartland air. “We're a true encounter group now, aren't we?”
--before disembodied floodlights erupted overhead, sieving sea-deep foulness through corny partitions.
Prepared to fallback, Neil lunged for Gweneth’s hip.
Nothing reacted. A futile lash in the storm’s eye, he idled horribly, blood-choked.
Light belched and churned like summer heat wave snakes. Bass vibrato squalled. The hapless hopefuls paled and floated, ascending into formless incandescence.
Neil screamed impotently--Gwen levitated from his side. Her veteran face held serene, confident. “See you soon, baby! Our relationship’s on track!”
Gwen lofted into sky fire, itself fizzling into vegetable shadows. Neil’s tear ducts seized and stultified.
Anton saluted the departing vessel…rounded Neil’s immobile shoulders.
“So,” said the good doctor, maggoting up, “what's your phobia?”
- - -
Garrett Harriman was reared in southwest Colorado. He's determined to double-major in English and Psychology. He plays tenor sax, too. He's lived in Vermont. His stories have appeared in Collective Fallout and on 365 Tomorrows. He upholds that bios enumerating the author's domesticated animal friends are irrefutable wastes of the English language. He has two dogs and cats.