by Robert Laughlin

Paula Nemec thought she could get away from her annoying relatives. After a strange meteorite came down, she was stuck with them for a very long time.

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Up to her elbows in grimy, smelly dishwater and unable to escape little Darlene's voice: Paula Nemec had three of her five senses thus, unpleasantly, engaged.

"How far away ith Uranith?" Darlene's permanent teeth were coming in quickly, but she lacked her front uppers at the moment.

"What makes you think I know?" Paula was trying to scrub the sticking bits of pasta from a spaetzle maker's corrugated surface. "Look it up somewhere."


"I don't know."

"Well, I've got a thience tetht Monday. How do I find out far it ith to Uranith?"

"Get lost before I close the distance between Uranus and my foot"—that reply, just occurring to Paula, was never spoken.

"Helllp your sisterrr!" said an angry voice all the way from the living room, a voice that was mannish but not male.

"Yes, Mother!" Paula called back without looking up from the sink. "I'll ask Christine when I get to work," Paula said to Darlene. "She knows things like that."

A smile of nasty triumph appeared on Darlene's fat little face, and she walked away without saying another word. Paula was resigned to this situation; the responsibilities of an older sibling were drubbed into her constantly, and any amount of Darlene's brattiness was excused. If Darlene were to bring the neighbor's dachshund into the house, impaled on a stake, Mother would say, "What a swell idea! It has been too long since we had a weenie roast!"

Ten minutes later, Paula had the dishes washed and put away. The sun was lowering outside the kitchen window and it was time to dress for her waitressing job. She walked through the dining room to the living room—every other member of the immediate family was there. Darlene was belly-down on the shag rug, watching Leave It to Beaver on a TV smaller than the old Magnavox radio nearby. Mother Roxy and Father Leos were in facing easy chairs; their bulky bodies left little space around them, and Roxy's calico dress so closely matched the upholstery pattern that it was hard to determine where woman ended and chair began. Roxy and Leos were watching the latest addition, Ty, as he moved his corpulent little form on all fours and made experimental sounds that defy transcription. Paula entered the adjacent den and closed the door.

The hollow-core door did nothing to dampen sounds from the living room. Ty's arrival had ousted Paula from the large, quiet bedroom in back that Ty and Darlene now shared. Paula moved into the converted den that had been Darlene's bedroom; it had no windows, and its meager square footage was further reduced by bed, dresser and armoire. The eagerness of Paula's street clothes to be free of her and the snugness of her yellow uniform dress both distressed her. She had stayed the right weight for her height all the years she was growing up, and it seemed she had escaped the genetic curse of the Nemeces. But in her last year of high school, finished two months ago, she had been forced to buy larger wardrobe twice. Her family loved the hearty, heavy table fare of mittel-Europa: red meat, potatoes, egg noodles, butter and thick sauces. Paula had tried eating sparingly, just enough to stave off hunger, and it hadn't helped. Soon she would molt the tightening clothes that were almost loose a few months earlier.

Roxy and Ty were gone when Paula came out, and Leos was looking directly at the den door. "You tink Chollie comes to de drife-in tonight?" Leos's chin hung so far below his jawbone that his sparse little beard was in the exact center of his face.

"Thut!" said Darlene. The Chatty Kathy commercial was even more engrossing to her than the just-interrupted machinations of Eddie Haskell.

"Don't gif me your shut, little girl," he told Darlene. "Vell?"

"Charlie is always there on Friday night," Paula said.

"Goot. Esk him to come here soon as he ken. De cabana gets built soon. I vant he should look ofer de plens and figure de cost, fair price. Dose union carpenters, dey'll gouch us if ve're not careful."

Leos and his sister Magda were second-generation Americans who never knew their grandparents, yet they expressed themselves in a grotesque parody of Bohunk English. Paula found it especially irritating at the moment, and she turned to the front door, hoping to leave without any further conversation.

"Answerrrr your fatherrr when he speaks to youuu!" Roxy was back in the living room, hands on hips. She had the only contralto voice in the world that somehow qualified for the adjective 'shrill'.

"Father told me what he wanted," Paula said. "It didn't sound like he was expecting me to say anything."

Leos didn't react in any way, and Roxy said, "Alright, then, off to work. You'll be back late?"

"I'm afraid so. Friday nights have been crazy since they opened the Starlite Theater. Aunt Magda said she wants to stay open till at least midnight."

"Okay, if Aunt Magda says. It's good you should get out, but remember you're part of the family."

As if on cue, the bloated faces of Leos and Roxy firmed into warm, parental smiles. "Good night, all," Paula said, and she exited the front door, grateful that she didn't have to hug her parents first. Especially her father. Leos worked at the meat packing plant that was the town's largest employer. He showered before leaving work and changed his clothes as soon as he was home, and still he always smelled like the inside of a triangular can.

Paula lived on the outskirts of a town that never seemed to gain population. Her house was surrounded by mainly undeveloped lots, and there were no sidewalks or street lights along the fifteen-minute walk to the drive-in. Paula was glad to be wearing a light-colored dress—less chance that a careless motorist would make her a road statistic during her walk home.

Not that I've got such an appealing future, Paula thought. She lived with her family, worked for them, couldn't get away from them. Last month she'd lost an opportunity for a high-paying job as an administrative assistant. After sitting up all night with colicky Ty, she had reported for her interview looking and acting like a zombie. Paula's paychecks went to the Nemec family collective; she wasn't allowed to keep any of her earnings until she got out on her own, however long that took.

"You're part of this family"—Roxy and Leos said that to her every day. Paula wasn't in a strong enough position to reply to them honestly, and her belly was full of accumulated, swallowed venom.

* * *

"Four kraut dogs with mustard and tomatoes, and a large vanilla malted," Paula sang as she clamped the food tray onto the edge of the '57 Chevy's window. "Double bacon cheeseburger with sweet and dill pickles, double fries, and a root beer float. Did I leave out anything?"

"No, dollface, you did great. Keep the change... No, that's not enough."

Still smiling, Charlie added two quarters to the four one-dollar bills already on the tray. He had plenty of money to spread around, considering what his off-hours carpentry added to his salary from the meat packing plant. Paula stood back a little from him—her cousin had the same stale fat odor as her father.

"Father wants you to come by the house, tonight if you can. The cabana goes up this weekend and he wants an honest estimate."

"Sure, that's what family is for. Dig in, hon," he said to his fiancé as he handed her the second half of the order. This was the first time Paula had seen Francie. They were marrying under duress; a brand new medical test had determined that she could expect a girl. Francie had Charlie's tireless grin and his girth as well, and Paula couldn't tell how long she had left until term. Charlie was wearing a T-shirt with a broad horizontal stripe that evening; Paula thought it made him look amazingly like a child's top. Wrap a string around his narrow head and pull hard, Paula thought, and how many times would he spin before tipping over?

"Pleased to meetcha," said Francie, her double bacon cheeseburger halfway to her waiting mouth. Paula put the cash in her apron pocket and pressed a button behind the illuminated stall-side menu; the white plastic prism atop the menu went dim. She picked up trays and late payments from two other cars in her station, and that was it: no new orders were waiting to be taken because no one had driven in during the last few minutes. A pleasant surprise, in Paula's estimation. Her shoes felt tight and her feet hurt; apparently, they were getting fatter too.

Paula spilled the paper and Styrofoam waste into the dumpster near the cookshack, then brought the stacked-up trays to the cookshack window. "No orders?" asked Ruby, the cashier.

"Nope." While Ruby totaled the receipts and figured how much of the cash was Paula's tips, Paula said, "I'd like to see Aunt Magda for a minute."

"Sure. I'll get her."

Magda took longer than expected, and Paula had ample time to contemplate the strange shape of the cookshack. It was one of those loopy postmodern buildings, made from poured concrete, that were so common lately. Seen from above, Paula imagined that it looked something like a painter's palette and something like an amputated kidney. The old cookshack was bulldozed when Magda bought the property; the galley kitchen it had wouldn't allow anyone to pass Magda when she was standing at the stove.

"Auntie, I want to go on break," Paula said the instant Magda's canary-colored bulk filled the window.

"Kent. Christine's on break. Chet vith her on your own time."

"We're having a lull; I won't be missed. Please, Auntie, I'd like to go now."

"I don't vant chust vun girl vaiting on..." Magda stopped. She seemed uncharacteristically thoughtful, as though she knew something Paula didn't. "Oh, alright. Anyting to eat?"

"Onion rings and a lemonade," Paula said, hating herself before the words were out of her mouth. She had hoped to get through her shift without eating anything, but now she felt too hungry to resist ordering from Magda's kitchen. The drive-in served up American cousins of the heavy mittel-Europa food Paula ate at home, and Magda used it to murder her husband Saul, the only member of Paula's extended family to win her affection. The poor man had died at thirty-nine, from a congestive heart attack.

Paula carried her order to the cedar picnic table used by workers on break. There, sipping ice water in a half-reclining posture, was Paula's best friend in the world, Christine Levereaux.

"How long have you got?" asked Paula.

"Another five minutes," said Christine, straightening up.

Christine Levereaux was a study in linearity: slender arms and legs; straight, delicately shaped nose; straight chestnut hair that flared gently in its descent to her rib cage. Christine's presence on the staff, Paula knew, had contributed to the summer business boom. The male customers didn't look at Paula or the other lumpy, shapeless waitresses that way. Even Paula's hair was shapeless, she decided, dingy brownette hair that wouldn't take orders from brush, gel or curlers.

Paula and Christine talked for four of their five precious minutes about things that wouldn't have engaged anyone else on Earth. Christine leaned forward while she listened, and Paula secretly thanked God that Christine was so good a friend that she showed no offense to Paula's onion ring breath. There was no reason they should be so close, Paula knew, or that Christine should even be working here. Christine's father was an efficiency expert from a firm in Southern California. He had been hired by the meat packing plant to help modernize their operation, and brought his family with him. Christine's senior year was passed at the local high school, where she was the prettiest girl in her class, one of the most well-off, and probably the smartest. She had led the cheerleading squad and could have chosen any girl to be her best friend.

Improbably, she chose Paula. It was a friendship of equals, not the master-and-mascot relationship successful persons often have with someone of lower status. They had shared secrets and spent after-class hours at Christine's house (Paula was ashamed to bring Christine into hers). Christine had talked her parents into taking the pew right behind the Nemeces at Sunday services. When their shifts coincided exactly, Paula rode to and from work in Christine's TR3. Paula had even driven it twice: once on the highway with the top down; once in town cruising the streets, just to be seen by people she knew.

Christine never ate anything from Magda's cookshack while on break. She drank ice water instead, or ate a salad she composed from separate little bags carried in her lunch pail. Paula knew that was how she ate at home too: not much meat, starch or dairy, mostly fresh fruits and vegetables. The kitchen shelf at Christine's house had several cookbooks written in French, and Christine had no trouble reading them. A few weeks earlier, their priest was taken sick, and the vicar who filled in delivered a thundering sermon about the damned, one that Paula would have expected only in some Protestant church.

"Do you think that's what Hell is really like?" Paula asked Christine under her breath.

"No. Hell is other people." After the service, Christine said she had read that in one of her French books, written by a man named... Zart, it sounded like.

Christine grew tense as the end of her break neared. She looked once more at her gold wristwatch and said, "Paula, this is our last shift together."

"I thought your dad was going to stay here the rest of the summer."

"He is; I'm not. USC called and said they want me to report in, pronto. Cheerleading practice is about to start. That's it for me—in the morning I make the cross-country drive back to LA."

They sat speechless for fifteen seconds, then Christine said, "Time's up," and took her Styrofoam cup to the dumpster.

Paula finished eating in depressive semi-oblivion, not noticing the taste of her food or the activity in the lot around her. She didn't spot the arrival of late-night manager Marty Weinshank, moonlighting from the local deli; anyone could tell from his splintery figure that he wasn't family. She didn't realize Magda was going home until Charlie and Francie got out to greet her. The three of them stood around Charlie's car, hugged one another repeatedly, and finally wedged themselves in for the drive to Paula's house. Not for the first time, Paula wondered how her family could feel so close and lovey-dovey, when all she felt for them was revulsion.

Paula carried her trash to the dumpster and hoped her feet would hold up for the rest of the shift. Just as she was reaching for her pen and order book, the sky was brightened by a shooting star—large, quickly descending, very close by.

It's going to land in town, Paula thought. I wonder if my folks'll see it?

* * *

It didn't make a sound. Leos and Roxy were in the living room. Darlene, still awake when the flash brightened her window, jumped out of bed just in time to see the meteorite come down in the back yard.

Darlene wanted to see it up close before anyone else. She knew she couldn't leave by the window: the screen could not be reattached from inside, and her parents would find out the next morning. It had to be the kitchen door, and that was in plain sight from the living room. The strains of Count Basie filtered through her partially open door, solving her problem—M Squad was on. Her folks were addicted to that show.

Darlene got out of bed quietly, passing by Ty's crib, and tiptoed to the kitchen. Sure enough, the living room, dining room and kitchen lights were all out, and Leos and Roxy were intent on the TV screen. Darlene opened the kitchen door without a sound—it was something she'd practiced doing—stepped outside and closed the door.

If anything, the summer night was a little too warm for Darlene's pink flannel jammies. She could see a pale glow coming from the excavation for the new swimming pool; the meteorite was there. She walked across the poorly tended back lawn and stepped onto the concrete slab that surrounded the unfinished pool.

The pool's kidney-shaped interior was fitted with metal lathwork, the last step before the concrete lining would be poured; Darlene could just make it out in the sallow light. She started for the semicircular steps at the shallow end. Suddenly there was a sound like a nutshell cracking, magnified, from inside the pool. Darlene stopped where she was, a few feet from the cabana footing. There was another sound, like an exhalation, and the light turned reddish. Then she saw a ripple of red, visible for a second over the tile surrounding the deep end. It looked like the red vinyl fabric her father used for wrapping up the old furniture in the garage, but the pool installers hadn't brought along anything like that.

For a moment, Darlene wanted to run to her parents and tell them. They would forgive her for being out of the house, or at least her mother would. But Darlene wanted to see more first—this would be a really boss story to tell her friends. A little timidly, she walked over the warm concrete, to the layer of cross-hatched wire that surfaced the pool steps.

Inside the house, the phone rang just as the first commercial was starting. The ringing woke Ty; his caterwauling carried into every room of the house. Leos answered the living room phone while Roxy left to fulfill her maternal duties.

"Det Chew det vorks for Magda," Leos said when Roxy returned. "He said Chollie's on his... vot's vith you?"

Roxy's facial muscles were standing out like six-pack abs. "That kiddd isn't in her roooom!" Roxy never yelled at Darlene, but yelling about her misdeeds, in her absence, was different.

"Prob'ly out by the pool. Chollie'll be here any minute, and Magda and Frencie are coming vith him. Go make some defiled hem sendviches. I'll greb Darlene's ear and haul in vot belongs to it."

That was acceptable to Roxy; M Squad was in reruns and there was never any wrong occasion to prepare food and eat it. Leos went into the back yard, and Roxy set to work with cutting board and mixing bowl.

While Roxy was drizzling oil with one hand and beating furiously with the other, the kitchen door behind her clicked open, rather slowly.

"Took you long enough... that you, Leos?"

Roxy did not look around. She wouldn't let anything distract her when she was whipping her famous homemade mayonnaise—the entire family knew that.

* * *

"Wait!" Ruby shouted. Paula turned back to the cookshack window, assuming that another order of food had just come up. "Marty wants you inside."

Paula walked around to the door and opened it. There was a wall phone beside the door frame, and the headset was off the hook, dangling almost to the floor. Marty Weinshank was on the other side of the cookshack interior, standing so that he could watch the door and a frying batch of chicken pieces at the same time.

"It's Charlie. He's hot about something."

Paula picked up the headset and let the spring-loaded door close behind her.

"What's doin', Charlie?"

"Nothin's doin', dollface. I went to your place and nobody's around."

"What do you mean?"

"What I said. Even the kids are gone; we looked in the bedrooms. Did your folks say they might be at a neighbor's place?"

In the space of two seconds, Paula saw the cookshack walls brighten from a yellow-white flare and heard a muffled thump, followed by two men's shouts and the simultaneous collision of crockery and iron cookware on tile.

"Calamity in the kitchen, Charlie. Call you back," Paula said, hanging up too fast to be sure she'd heard Magda yell, "Chollie!" before the headset was back in the cradle.

The problem wasn't entirely unexpected. Most of the fittings were newly bought, but the gas stoves were hand-me-downs from an old diner. They had been working fitfully all week, and Magda had installation of new stoves on her agenda—not soon enough. While the assistant cook got burn ointment for his arms and the dishwasher started cleaning the floor, Ruby asked Marty, "Are we gonna close?"

"No. We'll stay open awhile with a reduced staff. I'll do all the cooking. You'll double as dishwasher—I won't ask Magda to cut your pay grade." Marty looked at Paula, who was still standing near the door, expectantly. "Last to work, last to leave. Tell the other girls to get the word to their customers: no hot food except fried stuff. Then send 'em home. You'll wait all the stations till closing time. In a few minutes, there won't be many customers."

Paula went and told Iris, the third waitress. Time seemed to slow down when she crossed the lot to tell Christine.

"That's it," said Paula, trying to sound brave. "Get a good night's sleep. Call me when you get to LA; I don't think my parents are too cheap to accept a collect call."

Christine didn't go to her car. She stood under the neon exterior lighting, very still, an elegant department store mannequin in yellow livery transferred to an Edward Hopper landscape.

"Paula... this town... You don't want to stay here, do you?"

"No," Paula said in a diffident little-girl voice. A car horn startled the girls; Paula stepped aside to let the driver of a Thunderbird pull out of his stall. "No! No, not another day!"

"Then don't. The motels I've reserved—I know they've all got two beds in every room. It won't cost me a cent to take you to California."

It was the one thing Paula desired most in the world. She wanted to jump up into the air.

"Oh, will you, Chrissy? I... Will your father—"

"He likes you. He'll give you a job doing secretarial work or something. We can talk about where you're going to live later; we can talk about everything later. Are you free to leave?"

For a moment, Paula hesitated. She thought, I can't up and quit my job, move out of town, I'll catch Hell for it. Then she felt like laughing: there would be no consequences. She was about to be free of the people who heaped discomfort and humiliation on her, in the name of family duty and togetherness, every insufferable day.

"Sure, Chrissy, I'm ready whenever you are. Can I stay the last night at your place?"

"I hadn't... Well, I guess there's no reason why not."

Christine turned in a stack of empty trays, settled money matters with Ruby, and went to her car. A minute later, Paula jogged to the cookshack window with her own stack of trays; she had dumped her trash in the parking lot rather than incur the minor delay of a trip to the dumpster.

As Ruby was handing Paula her tip money, Marty walked up beside Ruby and shouted, "Good news!" through the window. That hailed the dishwasher and assistant cook, who were still on the property, discussing baseball near the cookshack. "The service company can get the new stoves in by noon. See you tomorrow at the usual time, guys."

Paula smiled. "If you want to see me tomorrow, Marty, set up a TV camera on Route 66. Tell Auntie I'm quitting, effective now."

Paula tossed her order book through the window; it bounced off the top of Marty's shoulder and brought down a tower of soft-serve cones. She ran to Christine's car at full gallop, paying no more attention to her throbbing feet than someone in sexual climax pays to a muscle cramp brought on by foreplay.

* * *

Christine parked her Triumph right in front of the Nemec house. The lights were on, so Paula decided that her family had returned from wherever they'd gone. Behind the curtained living room window, she could make out a bulky silhouette moving slowly. Charlie and Father are finally moving out that old radio, she thought.

Paula got out quickly, closing the door before Christine shut off the ignition. "This'll take only a few minutes, Chrissy. You don't have to come into the house." Paula had already decided what she absolutely needed; it would all fit into her laundry hamper. Just pop that into the trunk and away to her new life in California. Surely she wouldn't need her current wardrobe much longer, now that she was free to emulate Christine's eating habits.

Walking up to the front door, Paula was reminded how much she disliked the sight of her family home. Anyone could tell, even at night, that it had no proportion or taste. A hip-roof house with an attached flat-roof garage, vertical board-and-batten siding, metal casement windows and a parquet-veneer front door—like the drive-in cookshack, it was a shapeless building for shapeless occupants. Paula wasn't going to be one of them.

Afterward she found out that the sound of Christine's car had alerted them. Paula turned the doorknob—unlocked doors were the norm in her town—and the gloppy red mass simply fell through the door frame. She couldn't scream, was engulfed before she could inhale. There was a momentary, excruciating sear, as though every square millimeter of her skin were touched by scalding wax. For a few seconds, she lost all sensory awareness... then she heard a chorus of voices emerge through a glutinous matrix:


She also heard a gurgle.

* * *

No matter how she tried, Paula could not entirely shut out those voices. They were like a raucous party in an adjacent apartment:

"Daddy, where do you thuppoth the red thing came from?"

"You vas dere first. You esk me?"

"I mean before Earth."

"Stop vith the stupid qvestions, little girl."

"Leooos! Don't yelll at your daughterrr!"


"I tink I ken sense her—ken you, Chollie?"

"Sure, Ma. You too, hon?"

"You betcha. I wonder... under the circumstances... you think her brain will, you know, grow up like ours?"

"Beats me. I guess we'll find out later."


Paula wished that Christine hadn't gotten away—her presence might be welcome. But Christine did get away, and the authorities saw to it that the red amoeboid thing wouldn't suck up any more people. The entire amorphous Nemec clan was now at the South Pole, there to remain until time stood still.

Being frozen solid didn't impair the amoeba's new collective consciousness. The initial shock had passed for the others before Paula was absorbed. They took it all reasonably well and quickly adapted to their new existence, though they missed eating (and Charlie missed his Chevy).

At first, Paula tried to move in the direction of individual voices, as if she still had an unassimilated body to move. Each voice became clearer, and then she saw an unclothed image of the gross, bulbous, sexless person at its source. They all seemed truly happy to see Paula, even her little nemesis Darlene. After the first day, Paula withdrew into herself as much as she could, not offering contact and hoping the rest of the Nemeces would, more or less, forget her.

Total withdrawal wasn't possible, and in any case, the warm and dusky redness, with no other sensation, would have been intolerable. Paula had to listen in on the others just to have something, anything to do. Listening to them—continually present with these annoying people who would never have any fresh stimuli from outside, would always think the same unrenewed thoughts, would pass all time to come with nothing but each other.

I knew I'd catch Hell, Paula thought.




Copyright © 2009 Robert Laughlin

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Robert Laughlin lives in Chico, California. He is the creator of the Micro Award, an annual competition for previously published flash fiction. Two of his short stories are Million Writers Award Notable Stories, and his first novel, Vow of Silence, is available from Trytium.

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