2600 words, short story, REPRINT
Othermother (Annex Excerpt)
The sky was a thick nuclear gray over the parkade where Bo and Violet were scanning the streets for Bo’s othermother. Violet sat on the hood of a battered white Nissan, while Bo watched from the edge with his elbows hooked over the railing.
The othermothers were easy enough to spot, stalking the streets on their long skinny legs, calling in high grating voices. At least half a dozen had passed under the parkade, but Bo shook his head after each, until Violet began to suspect he was lying and that he didn’t have the guts to join Wyatt’s crew of Lost Boys.
And that made her think about Wyatt. She pictured him waiting in the old theater they’d been using as a hideout, splayed across the plush chairs, shirt tugged up off his abdomen and the salmon-pink scar rippling between his hipbones. She hoped he was starting to worry, just a little.
Distracted, she nearly didn’t hear Bo’s whisper:
Violet slid down off the hood, going to the edge and gripping the barrier as she peered over.
From the waist up, Bo’s othermother looked mostly human. Her hair was glistening wet, like she’d stepped out of the shower, and it was the same black as Bo’s but less tightly curled. It clung to her over-long neck, not quite hiding the bony nodes of her vertebrae, and plastered over a bulging forehead. She had slim shoulders, a trim waist; the cornflower blue summer dress looked nice on her even if it wasn’t appropriate to the season. They hadn’t done her fingers quite right, though. The digits looked more like the tines of a fork.
And below the waist, under the hemline of her dress, she looked nowhere near human. Her legs were long insect-jointed stilts, mostly metal but with swathes of raw-pink flesh and a hard, shiny sort of keratin.
The othermother picked her way daintily through the street, looming over parked cars as she started to trill. “Boniface honey Boniface honey Boniface honey!”
Violet looked over. “Boniface, huh.”
Bo shook his head. “Bo.”
Violet saw the numb kind of terror sneaking into Bo’s eyes and felt the strange hot impulse to wrap herself around him, bury her face in his hair and tell him it wasn’t real, it wasn’t real, none of this was real. She’d done that for a few of the younger ones and sworn them not to tell.
“Time to see what you’re made of, Bo,” she said instead. Violet peeled apart a pair of pantyhose and handed one over. “This goes over your head. And stays there. It helps keep her guessing. If she gets a clean lock on your face, she’ll lunge. Like I said, they’re quicker than you think. And if she starts wafting pheromones . . . ”
“If a mother drops ’mones, don’t breathe through your nose,” Bo chanted back to her, pulling the fabric over his head. It made his face warped and shiny. She could see the pulsating outline of the Parasite in his stomach, fed by his nervousness.
“Yeah,” Violet said. “Or else you’ll be following her right back to the warehouse.”
“Never going back there.” Bo’s face was hard under the nylon.
Violet couldn’t say good luck, because Wyatt said luck didn’t exist. “It’s a nice dress,” she said instead. “She must have been really pretty.”
Bo’s throat bobbed. “Yeah.”
“But that’s not her,” Violet enunciated. She nodded her chin towards the exit. “So get going.”
Bo went, scampering down the double flight of chipped concrete steps. The pantyhose over his head caught his hot breath and held it. His Parasite quivered. Violet had told him, while they waited, that the Parasites ate chemicals. She’d told him adrenaline was their favorite. Bo knew he was full up of it, his limbs all jangling how they’d be before a race. He told himself this was a race, or maybe more like tag, or Marco Polo. He pushed the door open and walked out into the street.
The othermother was turned away. He would have to see her face sooner or later, but even just the blue dress put an ache behind his nose and mouth. His mom had worn it last summer, when she packed them into a friend’s borrowed car and drove them, barefooted, windows down, to the pale gray beach outside the city. Him and his sister Lia had stuck their arms out the windows, trying to make them ribbon in the wind.
“Hey!” he tried to shout, but it came out choked and quiet. He sucked in a breath. “Hey!”
Violet had briefed him on getting their attention, on dangling them, on ins and outs. The othermother’s waist split and rotated with an awful grinding noise and suddenly she was staring down at him, smiling curiously.
“Boniface, is that you?” Her voice tumbled over the syllables like bad text-to-speech. “Shoes off at the door, honey. Put them on the shelf.”
Her legs realigned, stomping a neat circle, then folded down with a series of clicks as she crouched. Bo felt like his insides were thick black tar. Up close, her face was rubbery, like a porpoise he’d seen at the aquarium, and the proportions were wrong, her mouth too wide and gashed into her face. Her eyes looked like black pigment inked onto the skin.
“Boniface, is that you? Shoes off at the door, honey. Boniface, is that you?” The othermother cocked her head to one side, peering at him.
Bo turned away, sucked in air again. “It’s me,” he said. “Come on, then.”
He was mustering up a curse, something Violet would hear and know he wasn’t fooled by the othermother, that he was tough and ready and had the guts to be a Lost Boy. But he’d never sworn in front of his mom, not even when he tore his toenail off at the swimming pool.
Bo started to walk, and the othermother stalked a hesitant step after him.
“Come home for dinner. Dinner’s at six. Boniface, is that you?”
Bo felt saline pricking his eyes, but he knew as long as he didn’t wipe them Violet wouldn’t be able to tell he was crying.
Baiting an othermother was stop-and-go stuff, laborious, but it looked like Bo was getting the hang of it. Violet watched him lure her in close, sometimes too close, and then dart nimbly away each time she reached with her tine fingers, leading her ever closer to the parkade ramp. If she was getting frustrated she made no sign of it. Still cooing and chirping. Othermothers were patient.
Violet remembered her first. Standing with Wyatt in the middle of the abandoned plaza, a stiff wind whipping their hair and clothes. She watched and waited while he unzipped his black duffel and set to sharpening the Cutco butcher knife. When the othermother came wailing for Ivan, Violet knew Wyatt knew, but there was no distaste, no embarrassment, no confusion on his face. Not even curiosity. That was when Violet started loving him, or at least lusting him.
Down below, there was a problem. At the mouth of the parkade ramp, the othermother had come to a dead halt, planted stubborn despite Bo’s coaxing. Violet had never seen that before. The mother rotated her waist, spinning and scanning, and Violet ducked instinctively, bellying out on the tarmac. Othermothers were not supposed to get suspicious.
She craned over the edge again and saw the mother swaying, indecisive. Bo was shouting. Pleading. Then, incredibly, the othermother turned and began stalking away. Bo looked as stunned as Violet felt, his small shoulders imploded, his hands dangling slack. He looked up. Violet waved, motioning him to come back up, but Bo shook his head.
She realized what he was going to do a moment before he ripped the pantyhose off his face.
Bo let the stifling nylon flutter down to the street as he jogged after the othermother, heart jackhammering his ribs. “Hey!” he shouted. “Hey! Look at me!”
The othermother swiveled her waist without breaking stride, then froze all at once. She lurched into the clacking crouch. “Boniface, is that you? I missed you! Honey. I missed you!” Her head cocked one way and then the other, twisting on the long veiny neck, and Bo looked her right in the eye. She smiled with teeth that were two long white chunks in her gums and—
Bo dove right, then scrambled to his feet as the othermother gathered herself again, leaning back on her haunches like an accordion. She sprang, shrieking through the air, grasping for him with hands that looked more like hooks now, like metal claws. Bo took off. This was not Marco Polo.
He pelted for the parkade and the othermother came after him, head bobbing, brushing a waster aside with one swinging arm. She gained, and gained, and Bo’s muscles were searing, he’d spent too many months in the warehouse getting fatted up like a cow, maybe he wasn’t the fastest in his grade anymore, maybe he wasn’t fast enough to—
One last push onto the ramp, and a breath behind him the othermother slammed into the dangling bar that said Low Clearance, 2.8 Meters. Bo scrambled back, watching her thrash and tangle in the chain. His Parasite was pulsing in his stomach how it had the night he escaped the warehouse, the night he somehow vanished, a hole in the fence.
“It’s your sister’s birthday,” the othermother said. “Come home for dinner. Honey. I missed you!”
She pulled free, but Bo was already off and running.
Bo shot up the top of the ramp with the othermother millimeters behind; Violet stepped from the corner and blindsided her spindly leg as it came down. The aluminum baseball bat made a bone-deep crack and the othermother went sprawling, skidding across the tarmac and leaving a wet smear under herself. The cornflower blue dress was the same rubbery flesh as the rest of her. Violet felt a slight urge to vomit.
Instead, she set to work on the other leg, smashing the joint to pulp, working with methodical blows while the othermother writhed and chirped. One of her shoulders had come dislocated in the fall and she waggled the boneless arm in Bo’s direction. Bo was getting to his feet, breathing hard and fast, tears tracking down his face in a torrent. Violet spared him a glance, but didn’t stop with the bat until she was sure the othermother wouldn’t be able to stand. A black fluid like engine grease was leaking from the shattered limbs.
“Boniface, give your mom a hug,” the othermother trilled. “It’s your sister’s birthday. I know you love her deep down. Deep deep down. Come home for dinner. Dinner’s at six.”
Tears were still rolling thick down Bo’s face, but he picked a jagged rock off the concrete all the same. His mouth was set. Violet watched intently. Bo stared at the rock in his hand, but didn’t move. A beat passed. Another. The othermother writhed.
“We can cover her face,” Violet offered.
Bo looked up. “They never really hurt us,” he said thickly. “In the warehouse.”
“They care about what they put inside you,” Violet said, dropping the bat with a tinny clang. “Not you. Never think they care about you, Bo.”
“But they know about her,” Bo said. His face worked. “My sister. She’s still in the warehouse.” He stared at the rock again. “It’s not her birthday. Her birthday’s in summer.”
“Boniface, honey, Boniface, honey, Boniface. Honey!”
“They won’t hurt her,” Violet said, trying to sound certain. “They don’t think how we do.” She wanted to take the rock out of Bo’s hand and send him away, tell him that she would finish it. But every Lost Boy had to kill their othermother. Wyatt would know if she did it for him.
She watched Bo’s face. He looked like an animal had its teeth in him. She knew that something broke and slid once you killed your first othermother, something shifted inside you. It slipped a little more for the next one, and a little more for the next one after that, until there was just a hollow left. Some days, Violet wished she hadn’t let Wyatt hand her the butcher knife.
Bo cocked his arm.
Violet plucked the rock from his hand. “You said you used the Parasite to escape,” she said. “To get through the fence.” She nodded at the othermother. “Show me.”
“Can’t,” Bo said. “Can’t decide when it happens.”
“You’re pumped full of fight-or-flight chemicals right now,” Violet said. “Try.” She tossed the rock aside. “Focus on it hard. Focus on how much you want it to, you know, to shift. You have to really want it.”
Bo shook himself, then took a breath. Through his thin shirt, Violet could see his Parasite pulsate. He screwed up his eyes, staring at the broken othermother, and suddenly Violet’s hair was standing on end, wreathed in static. She took a step backward.
The othermother started to shimmer, to ripple, and then all at once she was gone. Vanished, leaving only the stains on the tarmac.
“Holy shit.” Violet walked forward, gingerly prodded her foot in the space the othermother had been. “Holy shit.” She paused. “I can’t do that,” she said. “Nobody can. I can shift things for a bit, but I can’t flat-out disappear stuff.”
“Didn’t know I could, either,” Bo said. His voice was still numb.
Violet tried to inject some enthusiasm into hers.
“She’s gone. That means you’re in, Bo. You’re a Lost Boy.”
“What will they do?” Bo asked.
“Usually one of the flying pods comes and picks up the dead one,” Violet said, looking at the empty space again. “Then maybe a week later, they send another. And another after that. They don’t get it. They don’t think how we do.” Violet stuck the aluminum bat back into her bag and slung it over her shoulders. “Eventually it’ll get so you don’t even recognize her.”
Bo said nothing, staring out at the ruined city. Violet could guess he was thinking of the docks where the warehouses squatted like black coffins. He turned back and his face crumpled all at once.
“I shouldn’t have left without her,” he choked. “Mom said to stay together. But I left. It’s because we made a deal, me and Lia both agreed on it, but I didn’t think . . . ” His voice broke then pitched up, thin and desperate. “We have to get her out. We have to get her out now.”
Violet tried to assess. Bo was nearly hyperventilating, his scrawny chest heaving. There was usually some panic on the mother hunt, but this was different. Guilt and fear were written all over his screwed-up face. Scared for his sister, even more scared to be without her. Ashamed he’d left her behind.
Violet was an only child, but she knew all about guilt and fear. She felt the first one now as she leaned in close, putting her hand on Bo’s shoulder. “Wyatt will have a plan,” she whispered. “He’s always got one.” She turned him toward the exit ramp. “We’ll get your sister out by summer. Before her birthday.”
Aside from Wyatt, Violet could lie to anyone. Bo wasn’t the only Lost Boy with siblings still in the warehouse, but for all Wyatt’s talk, Violet knew the Lost Boys weren’t saviors. Just survivors.
Adapted from the novel Annex by Rich Larson. Copyright 2018 by Rich Larson. Reprinted by permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Rich Larson (Ymir, Tomorrow Factory) was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Spain and Czech Republic, and is currently based in Grande Prairie, Canada. His fiction has been translated into over a dozen languages, among them Polish, French, Romanian and Japanese, and his Clarkesworld story “Ice” was adapted into an Emmy-winning episode of LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS.