4700 words, short story
Things With Beards
2016 Nominee: Nebula Award for Best Short Story
2016 Nominee: Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story
MacReady has made it back to McDonald’s. He holds his coffee with both hands, breathing in the heat of it, still not 100% sure he isn’t actually asleep and dreaming in the snowdrifted rubble of McMurdo. The summer of 1983 is a mild one, but to MacReady it feels tropical, with 125th Street a bright beautiful sunlit oasis. He loosens the cord that ties his cowboy hat to his head. Here, he has no need of a disguise. People press past the glass, a surging crowd going into and out of the subway, rushing to catch the bus, doing deals, making out, cursing each other, and the suspicion he might be dreaming gets deeper. Spend enough time in the ice hell of Antarctica and your body starts to believe that frigid lifelessness is the true natural state of the universe. Which, when you think of the cold vastness of space, is probably correct.
“Heard you died, man,” comes a sweet rough voice, and MacReady stands up to submit to the fierce hug that never fails to make him almost cry from how safe it makes him feel. But when he steps back to look Hugh in the eye, something is different. Something has changed. While he was away, Hugh became someone else.
“You don’t look so hot yourself,” he says, and they sit, and Hugh takes the coffee that has been waiting for him.
“Past few weeks I haven’t felt well,” Hugh says, which seems an understatement. Even after MacReady’s many months in Antarctica, how could so many lines have sprung up in his friend’s black skin? When had his hair and beard become so heavily peppered with salt? “It’s nothing. It’s going around.”
Their hands clasp under the table.
“You’re still fine as hell,” MacReady whispers.
“You stop,” Hugh said. “I know you had a piece down there.”
MacReady remembers Childs, the mechanic’s strong hands still greasy from the Ski-dozer, leaving prints on his back and hips. His teeth on the back of MacReady’s neck.
“Course I did,” MacReady says. “But that’s over now.”
“You still wearing that damn fool cowboy hat,” Hugh says, scoldingly. “Had those stupid centerfolds hung up all over your room I bet.”
MacReady releases his hands. “So? We all pretend to be what we need to be.”
“Not true. Not everybody has the luxury of passing.” One finger traces a circle on the black skin of his forearm.
They sip coffee. McDonald’s coffee is not good but it is real. Honest.
Childs and him; him and Childs. He remembers almost nothing about the final days at McMurdo. He remembers taking the helicopter up, with a storm coming, something about a dog . . . and then nothing. Waking up on board a U.S. supply and survey ship, staring at two baffled crewmen. Shredded clothing all around them. A metal desk bent almost in half and pushed halfway across the room. Broken glass and burned paper and none of them had even the faintest memory of what had just happened. Later, reviewing case files, he learned how the supply run that came in springtime found the whole camp burned down, mostly everyone dead and blown to bizarre bits, except for two handsome corpses frozen untouched at the edge of camp; how the corpses were brought back, identified, the condolence letters sent home, the bodies, probably by accident, thawed . . . but that couldn’t be real. That frozen corpse couldn’t have been him.
“Your people still need me?” MacReady asks.
“More than ever. Cops been wilding out on folks left and right. Past six months, eight people got killed by police. Not a single officer indicted. You still up for it?”
“Course I am.”
“Meeting in two weeks. Not afraid to mess with the Man? Because what we’ve got planned . . . they ain’t gonna like it. And they’re gonna hit back, hard.”
MacReady nods. He smiles. He is home; he is needed. He is a rebel. “Let’s go back to your place.”
When MacReady is not MacReady, or when MacReady is simply not, he never remembers it after. The gaps in his memory are not mistakes, not accidents. The thing that wears his clothes, his body, his cowboy hat, it doesn’t want him to know it is there. So the moment when the supply ship crewman walked in and found formerly-frozen MacReady sitting up—and watched MacReady’s face split down the middle, saw a writhing nest of spaghetti tentacles explode in his direction, screamed as they enveloped him and swiftly started digesting—all of that is gone from MacReady’s mind.
But when it is being MacReady, it is MacReady. Every opinion and memory and passion is intact.
“The fuck just happened?” Hugh asks, after, holding up a shredded sheet.
“That good, I guess,” MacReady says, laughing, naked.
“I honestly have no memory of us tearing this place up like that.”
There is no blood, no tissue of any kind. Not-MacReady sucks all that up. Absorbs it, transforms it. As it transformed the meat that used to be Hugh, as soon as they were alone in his room and it perceived no threat, knew it was safe to come out. The struggle was short. In nineteen minutes the transformation was complete, and MacReady and Hugh were themselves again, as far as they knew, and they fell into each other’s arms, onto the ravaged bed, out of their clothes.
“What’s that,” MacReady says, two worried fingers tracing down Hugh’s side. Purple blotches mar his lovely torso.
“Comes with this weird new pneumonia thing that’s going around,” he says. “This year’s junky flu.”
“But you’re not a junky.”
“I’ve fucked a couple, lately.”
MacReady laughs. “You have a thing for lost causes.”
“The cause I’m fighting for isn’t lost,” Hugh says, frowning.
“Course not. I didn’t mean that—”
But Hugh has gone silent, vanishing into the ancient trauma MacReady has always known was there, and tried to ignore, ever since Hugh took him under his wing at the age of nineteen. Impossible to deny it, now, with their bare legs twined together, his skin corpse-pale beside Hugh’s rich dark brown. How different their lives had been, by virtue of the bodies they wore. How wide the gulf that lay between them, that love was powerless to bridge.
So many of the men at McMurdo wore beards. Winter, he thought, at first—for keeping our faces warm in Antarctica’s forever winter. But warmth at McMurdo was rarely an issue. Their warren of rectangular huts was kept at a balmy seventy-eight degrees. Massive stockpiles of gasoline specifically for that purpose. Aside from the occasional trip outside for research—and MacReady never had more than a hazy understanding of what, exactly, those scientists were sciencing down there, but they seemed to do precious little of it—the men of McMurdo stayed the hell inside.
So. Not warmth.
Beards were camouflage. A costume. Only Blair and Garry lacked one, both being too old to need to appear as anything other than what they were, and Childs, who never wanted to.
He shivered. Remembering. The tough-guy act, the cowboy he became in uncertain situations. Same way in juvie; in lock-up. Same way in Vietnam. Hard, mean, masculine. Hard drinking; woman hating. Queer? Psssh. He hid so many things, buried them deep, because if men knew what he really was, he’d be in danger. When they learned he wasn’t one of them, they would want to destroy him.
They all had their reasons, for choosing McMurdo. For choosing a life where there were no women. Supper time MacReady would look from face to bearded face and wonder how many were like him, under the all-man exterior they projected, but too afraid, like him, to let their true self show.
Childs hadn’t been afraid. And Childs had seen what he was.
MacReady shut his eyes against the McMurdo memories, bit his lip. Anything to keep from thinking about what went down, down there. Because how was it possible that he had absolutely no memory of any of it? Soviet attack, was the best theory he could come up with. Psychoactive gas leaked into the ventilation system by a double agent (Nauls, definitely), which caused catastrophic freak outs and homicidal arson rage, leaving only he and Childs unscathed, whereupon they promptly sat down in the snow to die . . . and this, of course, only made him more afraid, because if this insanity was the only narrative he could construct that made any sense at all, he whose imagination had never been his strong suit, then the real narrative was probably equally, differently, insane.
Not-MacReady has an exceptional knack for assessing external threats. It stays hidden when MacReady is alone, and when he is in a crowd, and even when he is alone but still potentially vulnerable. Once, past four in the morning, when a drunken MacReady had the 145th Street bus all to himself, alone with the small woman behind the wheel, Not-MacReady could easily have emerged. Claimed her. But it knew, somehow, gauging who-knew-what quirk of pheromones or optic nerve signals, the risk of exposure, the chance someone might see through the tinted windows, or the driver’s foot, in the spasms of dying, slam down hard on the brake and bring the bus crashing into something.
If confronted, if threatened, it might risk emerging. But no one is there to confront it. No one suspects it is there. Not even MacReady, who has nothing but the barest, most irrational anxieties. Protean fragments; nightmare glitch glimpses and snatches of horrific sound. Feedback, bleedthrough from the thing that hides inside him.
“Fifth building burned down this week,” said the Black man with the Spanish accent. MacReady sees his hands, sees how hard he’s working to keep them from shaking. His anger is intoxicating. “Twenty families, out on the street. Cops don’t care. They know it was the landlord. It’s always the landlord. Insurance company might kick up a stink, but worst thing that happens is dude catches a civil suit. Pays a fine. That shit is terrorism, and they oughta give those motherfuckers the chair.”
Everyone agrees. Eleven people in the circle; all of them Black except for MacReady and an older white lady. All of them men except for her, and a stout Black woman with an Afro of astonishing proportions.
“It’s not terrorism when they do it to us,” she said. “It’s just the way things are supposed to be.”
The meeting is over. Coffee is sipped; cigarettes are lit. No one is in a hurry to go back outside. An affinity group, mostly Black Panthers who somehow survived a couple decades of attempts by the FBI to exterminate every last one of them, but older folks too, trade unionists, commies, a minister who came up from the South back when it looked like the Movement was going to spread everywhere, change everything.
MacReady wonders how many of them are cops. Three, he guesses, though not because any of them make him suspicious. Just because he knows what they’re up against, what staggering resources the government has invested in destroying this work over the past forty years. Infiltrators tended to be isolated, immersed in the lie they were living, reporting only to one person, whom they might never meet.
Hugh comes over, hands him two cookies.
“You sure this is such a good idea?” MacReady says. “They’ll hit back hard, for this. Things will get a whole lot worse.”
“Help us or don’t,” Hugh said, frowning. “That’s your decision. But you don’t set the agenda here. We know what we’re up against, way better than you do. We know the consequences.”
MacReady ate one cookie, and held the other up for inspection. Oreo knock-offs, though he’d never have guessed from the taste. The pattern was different, the seal on the chocolate exterior distinctly stamped.
“I understand if you’re scared,” Hugh says, gentler now.
“Shit yes I’m scared,” MacReady says, and laughs. “Anybody who’s not scared of what we’re about to do is probably . . . well, I don’t know, crazy or stupid or a fucking pod person.”
Hugh laughs. His laugh becomes a cough. His cough goes on for a long time.
Would he or she know it, if one of the undercovers made eye contact with another? Would they look across the circle and see something, recognize some deeply-hidden kinship? And if they were all cops, all deep undercover, each one simply impersonating an activist so as to target actual activists, what would happen then? Would they be able to see that, and set the ruse aside, step into the light, reveal what they really were? Or would they persist in the imitation game, awaiting instructions from above? Undercovers didn’t make decisions, MacReady knew; they didn’t even do things. They fed information upstairs, and upstairs did with it what they would. So if a whole bunch of undercovers were operating on their own, how would they ever know when to stop?
MacReady knows that something is wrong. He keeps seeing it out of the corner of his mind’s eye, hearing its echoes in the distance. Lost time, random wreckage.
MacReady suspects he is criminally, monstrously insane. That during his black-outs he carries out horrific crimes, and then hides all the evidence. This would explain what went down at McMurdo. In a terrifying way, the explanation is appealing. He could deal with knowing that he murdered all his friends and then blew up the building. It would frighten him less than the yawning gulf of empty time, the barely-remembered slither and scuttle of something inhuman, the flashes of blood and screaming that leak into his daylight hours now.
MacReady rents a cabin. Upstate: uninsulated and inexpensive. Ten miles from the nearest neighbor. The hard-faced old woman who he rents from picks him up at the train station. Her truck is full of grocery bags, all the things he requested.
“No car out here,” she says, driving through town. “Not even a bicycle. No phone, either. You get yourself into trouble and there’ll be no way of getting out of here in a hurry.”
He wonders what they use it for, the people she normally rents to, and decides he doesn’t want to know.
“Let me out up here,” he says, when they approach the edge of town.
“You crazy?” she asks. “It’d take you two hours to walk the rest of the way. Maybe more.”
“I said pull over,” he says, hardening his voice, because if she goes much further, out of sight of prying protective eyes, around the next bend, maybe, or even before that, the insane thing inside him may emerge. It knows these things, somehow.
“Have fun carrying those two big bags of groceries all that way,” she says, when he gets out. “Asshole.”
“Meet me here in a week,” he says. “Same time.”
“You must be a Jehovah’s Witness or something,” she says, and he is relieved when she is gone.
The first two days pass in a pleasant enough blur. He reads books, engages in desultory masturbation to a cheaply-printed paperback of gay erotic stories Hugh had lent him. Only one symptom: hunger. Low and rumbling, and not sated no matter how much he eats.
And then: lost time. He comes to on his knees, in the cool midnight dirt behind a bar.
“Thanks, man,” says the sturdy bearded trucker type standing over him, pulling back on a shirt. Puzzled by how it suddenly sports a spray of holes, each fringed with what look like chemical burns. “I needed that.”
He strides off. MacReady settles back into a squat. Leans against the building.
What did I do to him? He seems unharmed. But I’ve done something. Something terrible.
He wonders how he got into town. Walked? Hitchhiked? And how the hell he’ll get back.
The phone rings, his first night back. He’d been sitting on his fire escape, looking down at the city, debating jumping, though not particularly seriously. Hugh’s words echoing in his head. Help us or don’t. He is still not sure which one he’ll choose.
He picks up the phone.
“Mac,” says the voice, rich and deep and unmistakeable.
“Been trying to call you.” Cars honk, through the wire. Childs is from Detroit, he dimly remembers, or maybe Minneapolis.
“I was away. Had to get out of town, clear my head.”
“You too, huh?”
MacReady lets out his breath, once he realizes he’s been holding it. “You?”
“What the hell, man? What the fuck is going on?”
Childs chuckles. “Was hoping you’d have all the answers. Don’t know why. I already knew what a dumbass you are.”
A lump of longing forms in MacReady’s throat. But his body fits him wrong, suddenly. Whatever crazy mental illness he was imagining he had, Childs sharing it was inconceivable. Something else is wrong, something his mind rejects but his body already knows. “Have you been to a doctor?”
“Tried,” Childs says. “I remember driving halfway there, and the next thing I knew I was home again.” A siren rises then slowly fades, in Detroit or Minneapolis.
MacReady inspects his own reflection in the window, where the lights of his bedroom bounce back against the darkness. “What are we?” he whispers.
“Hellbound,” Childs says, “but we knew that already.”
The duffel bag says Astoria Little League. Two crossed baseball bats emblazoned on the outside. Dirty bright-blue blazer sleeves reaching out. A flawless facsimile of something harmless, wholesome. No one would see it and suspect. The explosives are well-hidden, small, sewn into a pair of sweat pants, the timer already ticking down to some unknown hour, some unforeseeable fallout.
“Jimmy,” his father says, hugging him, hard. His beard brushes MacReady’s neck, abrasive and unyielding as his love.
The man is immense, dwarfing the cluttered kitchen table. Uncles lurk in the background. Cigars and scotch sour the air. Where are the aunts and wives? MacReady has always wondered, these manly Sundays.
“They told me this fucker died,” his father says to someone.
“Can’t kill one of ours that easy,” someone says. Eleven men in the little house, which has never failed to feel massive.
Here his father pauses. Frowns. No one but MacReady sees. No one here but MacReady knows the man well enough to suspect that the frown means he knows something new on the subject of MacReady mortality. Something that frightens him. Something he feels he has to shelter his family from.
“Fucking madness, going down there,” his father says, snapping back with the unstoppable positivity MacReady lacks, and envies. “I’d lose my mind inside of five minutes out in Alaska.”
“Antarctica,” he chuckles.
Here, home, safe, among friends, the immigrant in his father emerges. Born here to brand-new arrivals from Ireland, never saw the place but it’s branded on his speech, the slight Gaelic curling of his consonants he keeps hidden when he’s driving the subway car but lets rip on weekends. His father’s father is who MacReady hears now, the big glorious drunk they brought over as soon as they got themselves settled, the immense shadow over MacReady’s own early years, and who, when he died, took some crucial piece of his son away with him. MacReady wonders how his own father has marked him, how much of him he carries around, and what kind of new terrible creature he will be when his father dies.
An uncle is in another room, complaining about an impending Congressional hearing into police brutality against Blacks; the flood of reporters bothering his beat cops. The uncle uses ugly words to describe the people he polices out in Brooklyn; the whole room laughs. His father laughs. MacReady slips upstairs unnoticed. Laments, in silence, the horror of human hatred—how such marvelous people, whom he loves so dearly, contain such monstrosity inside of them.
In the bathroom, standing before the toilet where he first learned to pee, MacReady sees smooth purple lesions across his stomach.
Midnight, and MacReady stands at the center of the George Washington Bridge. The monstrous creature groans and whines with the wind, with the heavy traffic that never stops. New York City’s most popular suicide spot. He can’t remember where he heard that, but he’s grateful that he did. Astride the safety railing, looking down at deep black water, he stops to breathe.
Once, MacReady was angry. He is not angry anymore. This disturbs him. The things that angered him are still true, are still out there; are, in most cases, even worse.
His childhood best friend, shot by cops at fourteen for “matching a description” of someone Black. His mother’s hands, at the end of a fourteen hour laundry shift. Hugh, and Childs, and every other man he’s loved, and the burning glorious joy he had to smother and hide and keep secret. He presses against these memories, traces along his torso where they’ve marked him, much like the cutaneous lesions along Hugh’s sides. And yet, like those purple blotches, they cause no pain. Not anymore.
A train’s whistle blows, far beneath him. Wind stings his eyes when he tries to look. He can see the warm dim lights of the passenger cars; imagines the seats where late-night travelers doze or read or stare up in awe at the lights of the bridge. At him.
Something is missing, inside of MacReady. He can’t figure out what. He wonders when it started. McMurdo? Maybe. But probably not. Something drew him to McMurdo, after all. The money, but not just the money. He wanted to flee from the human world. He was tired of fighting it and wanted to take himself out. Whatever was in him, changing, already, McMurdo fed it.
He tries to put his finger on it, the thing that is gone, and the best he can do is a feeling he once felt, often, and feels no longer. Trying to recall the last time he felt it he fails, though he can remember plenty of times before that. Leaving his first concert; gulping down cold November night air and knowing every star overhead belonged to him. Bus rides back from away baseball games, back when the Majors still felt possible. The first time he followed a boy onto the West Side Piers. A feeling at once frenzied and calm, energetic yet restive. Like he had saddled himself, however briefly, onto something impossibly powerful, and primal, sacred, almost, connected to the flow of things, moving along the path meant only for him. They had always been rare, those moments—life worked so hard to come between him and his path—but lately they did not happen at all.
He is a monster. He knows this now. So is Childs. So are countless others, people like Hugh who he did something terrible to, however unintentionally it was. He doesn’t know the details, what he is or how it works, or why, but he knows it.
Maybe he’d have been strong enough, before. Maybe that other MacReady would have been brave enough to jump. But that MacReady had no reason to. This MacReady climbs back to the safe side of the guardrail, and walks back to solid ground.
MacReady strides up the precinct steps, trying not to cry. Smiling, wide-eyed, white, and harmless.
When Hugh handed off the duffel bag, something was clearly wrong. He’d lost fifty pounds, looked like. All his hair. Half of the light in his eyes. By then MacReady’d been hearing the rumors, seeing the stories. Gay cancer, said the Times. Dudes dropping like mayflies.
And that morning: the call. Hugh in Harlem Hospital. From Hugh’s mother, whose remembered Christmas ham had no equal on this earth. When she said everything was going to be fine, MacReady knew she was lying. Not to spare his feelings, but to protect her own. To keep from having a conversation she couldn’t have.
He pauses, one hand on the precinct door. Panic rises.
Blair built a spaceship.
The image comes back to him suddenly, complete with the smell of burning petrol. Something he saw, in real life? Or a photo he was shown, from the wreckage? A cavern dug into the snow and ice under McMurdo. Scavenged pieces of the helicopter and the snowmobiles and the Ski-dozer assembled into . . . a spaceship. How did he know that’s what it was? Because it was round, yes, and nothing any human knew how to make, but there’s more information here, something he’s missing, something he knew once but doesn’t know now. But where did it come from, this memory?
Panic. Being threatened, trapped. Having no way out. It triggers something inside of him. Like it did in Blair, which is how an assistant biologist could assemble a spacefaring vessel. Suddenly MacReady can tap into so much more. He sees things. Stars, streaking past him, somehow. Shapes he can take. Things he can be. Repulsive, fascinating. Beings without immune systems to attack; creatures whose core body temperatures are so low any virus or other invading organism would die.
A cuttlefish contains so many colors, even when it isn’t wearing them.
His hands and neck feel tight. Like they’re trying to break free from the rest of him. Had someone been able to see under his clothes, just then, they’d have seen mouths opening and closing all up and down his torso.
“Help you?” a policewoman asks, opening the door for him, and this is bad, super bad, because he—like all the other smiling white harmless allies who are at this exact moment sauntering into every one of the NYPD’s 150 precincts and command centers—is supposed to not be noticed.
“Thank you,” he says, smiling the Fearless Man Smile, powering through the panic. She smiles back, reassured by what she sees, but what she sees isn’t what he is. He doffs the cowboy hat and steps inside.
He can’t do anything about what he is. All he can do is try to minimize the harm, and do his best to counterbalance it.
What’s the endgame here, he wonders, waiting at the desk. What next? A brilliant assault, assuming all goes well—simultaneous attacks on every NYPD precinct, chaos without bloodshed, but what victory scenario are his handlers aiming for? What is the plan? Is there a plan? Does someone, upstairs, at Black Liberation Secret Headquarters, have it all mapped out? There will be a backlash, and it will be bloody, for all the effort they put into a casualty-free military strike. They will continue to make progress, person by person, heart by heart, and mind by mind, but what then? How will they know they have reached the end of their work? Changing minds means nothing if those changed minds don’t then change actual things. It’s not enough for everyone to carry justice inside their hearts like a secret. Justice must be spoken. Must be embodied.
“Sound permit for a block party?” he asks the clerk, who slides him a form without even looking up. All over the city, sound permits for block parties that will never come to pass are being slid across ancient well-worn soon-to-be-incinerated desks.
Walking out, he hears the precinct phone ring. Knows it’s The Call. The same one every other precinct is getting. Encouraging everyone to evacuate in the next five minutes if they’d rather not die screaming; flagging that the bomb is set to detonate immediately if tampered with, or moved (this is a bluff, but one the organizers felt fairly certain hardly anyone would feel like calling, and, in fact, no one does).
And that night, in a city at war, he stands on the subway platform. Drunk, exhilarated, frightened. A train pulls in. He stands too close to the door, steps forward as it swings open, walks right into a woman getting off. Her eyes go wide and she makes a terrified sound. “Sorry,” he mumbles, cupping his beard and feeling bad for looking like the kind of man who frightens women, but she is already sprinting away. He frowns, and then sits, and then smiles. A smile of shame, at frightening someone, but also of something else, of a hard-earned, impossible-to-communicate knowledge. MacReady knows, in that moment, that maturity means making peace with how we are monsters.
Sam J. Miller is a writer and a community organizer. His debut novel The Art of Starving (HarperTeen) was one of NPR's Best Books of 2017, and won the Andre Norton Award. His current novel, Blackfish City (Ecco Press; Orbit) is an Entertainment Weekly "Must Read" and was called "an action-packed science fiction thriller" and "surprisingly heartwarming" by the Washington Post. He's a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Workshop, and a winner of the Shirley Jackson Award. He lives in New York City.