“I have something to tell you.”
Nervous chittering rose from deep within her. She glanced at the closed door. Would he panic? Would the nurses come running? Hopefully not. That would be unfortunate.
His eyelids fluttered open, and her mind was flooded with thousands of images from thousands of days together. But the soft rhythm of the machinery lining the room reminded her of home, and she knew she had to tell him while she could.
She took her husband’s hand in her and rubbed the tip of her thumb across his skin the way she always did when he was anxious or she had something unpleasant to tell him.
“This … this isn’t going to be easy to hear.”
His pupils dilated, and she knew he was confused, maybe somewhat afraid. This would be difficult, but needed to be done. She couldn’t let her go with secrets between them. After so many years, she owed him that much.
“You’ve always been a loving, supportive husband. I’ve been less so as your wife. I know how I am. I can be … distant, I think is your right word. Distant? Inaccessible? I want to tell you why.”
Anxiety began to creep across his face. After so many years, she had grown astute at reading his emotions. She tried to calm him.
“No, no. It’s not that. I’ve never been unfaithful. I wouldn’t … I’ve never even desired another man. Not before I meant you. Never after. You’ve been the only one. It’s because of you I …”
She felt her husband’s pulse quicken. Not drastically, but enough for her to notice. Age had made his heart weak; she hoped it could endure this.
“You’ve never said anything, but I know you’ve noticed my appearance. I’ve tried to mask it, but it’s hard to live with someone for so long and not notice changes. Or lack of changes, I suppose. I think the glasses help. I don’t need them, you know. But they help sell the illusion that I’m much older than I …”
She paused to consider her words before continuing.
“I mean, the age I’m supposed to be,” she said, patting the top of his hand reassuringly. It was clear he was becoming more and more confused. “You found the hair coloring, so I know you know about that. Probably noticed that I’ve been using makeup to splotch my skin … add shadows beneath the eyes. But those are simple disguises. They may help fool casual friends. Acquaintances. Even the people I work with.
“But they didn’t fool you, did they?” She smiled affectionately and traced her thumb across the top of his hand, gently caressing his thinning skin, gliding over the bump of his veins just beneath it. The wavering in his eyes told her she had hit upon a truth.
“Of course they didn’t. I supposed these kinds of illusions don’t hold up under close scrutiny. It’s hard to hide not ever getting sick from someone who sees you every day. Never developing a cough … getting the flu … vomiting from too much drinking. That kind of thing. And faking the general fleshy sag of age is tricky. Which is why most choose a more solitary life.”
She furrowed his brow to show sincerity.
“But I just … I just couldn’t … When we met all those years ago …”
The words weren’t coming. She clicked from deep in her throat, a bad habit from years ago. One she thought she had broken, but kept popping up from time to time.
Slowly, he slid his free hand over hers. The rough feel of his calloused palms instantly made her feel braver. She could do this. Had to do this, now.
“I am not like you,” she said. Once again, she read the confusion in her husband’s eyes.
“No, not Catholic. Although … well, not important.
“I mean, I’m not like you. Human.”
He started to pull his hands from hers, but she kept a firm grip on them.
“I am actually part of an ancient race of creatures who have been slowly and steadily assimilating into your species since long before your ancestors ancestors. There are more of us than you can imagine … people you’ve seen on television, or read about in school, or know personally. Mrs. Farner next door; that really oddball librarian; the little shithead kid who rolls our yard every year … We’re everywhere. And I’m one of them.”
She looked him straight in the eye, leaned forward slightly to convey sincerity.
“I’m so sorry.”
She could feel her husband’s pulse rate increasing. His eyes began to widen, fill with deep confusion, anger. But she couldn’t stop now.
“I guess, if I were to have to describe us in relatable terms, I’d probably compare us … at least as far as physical appearance goes … to locusts, maybe. Really, really big locusts. Although, that’s only because I love you and I’m trying to make you understand. That comparison is pretty insulting to my people, truth be told.”
She smiled at him, hoping he would find humor in the comment … and maybe the situation as a whole. He didn’t return the smile.
“OK. And here’s … let me preface this by telling you this is going to seem really strange … but when I’m referring to ‘Me’ or ‘I’ or ‘Myself,’ I’m actually talking about several dozen individual beings all linked by a single hive mind sharing a common host. In this case, Janet McKinnley of Montgomery, Alabama. You remember when we met, right dear?”
She squeezed her husband’s hand again. He didn’t squeeze back. Her insides began skittering with concern.
“Uh … you see … when you found me out there on that hike, we had actually just completed finished … and there’s really not a pleasant-sounding word for this. Infecting isn’t right. But … I’ve got to be honest with you … ‘infecting’ probably sounds better than ‘devouring her innards, metabolizing her various muscles and organs and taking control of her squishy flesh,’ which is more accurate. There’s just not a pleasant way of describing our process.”
She snapped the fingers of his free hand.
“Co-opting. That’s pretty close.”
She smiled again.
“When we saw you … I saw you, because that’s what we are when we co-opt someone. An ‘I,’ not a ‘we.’ When I saw you, I just knew I had to be with you. You were so kind. So sweet. So concerned when you saw me lying there, adjusting to the new host. I had to see you again, and again after that. My feelings for you have always been real, and I’ve always wanted to tell you the truth. But there was just never a good way to breach the subject. To say, ‘Honey, I’m a small cadre of insect-like creatures wearing a costume of flesh.’”
Tears were streaming down his face. She felt his hand trembling in hers.
“But really, that’s not what I am,” she said. “I am Janet McKinnley. Jan. Janey-O. J. On the inside, I mean. The woman whom you love and who loves you. The rest is all details. You and I have loved each other for decades. Took care of one another. None of that has changed. We are your wife, and we love you. We just … I just … wanted you to know that before …”
And she just let the words peter off because finishing them was too difficult. Besides, it was all out there now. Nothing else to say.
Silence fell between them and seemed to last forever. His eyes, red with crying and pain, both emotional and physical, said he was uncertain. Confused. Angry. The things his wife said … horrible things … couldn’t possibly be true. She read all of that on her husband’s face, and knew she hadn’t done enough to convince him.
But she had to make him understand. To let him know she was telling the truth. It was important for him see her for what she really was, at least once.
“Let me show you,” she said, and she opened her mouth. Then wider. Then wider. Wide enough that he could see …
His eyes filled with terror.
He wrenched his hand from hers.
Her many hearts broke.