Aphelion Issue 237, Volume 23
March 2019
 
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Squatters

by Ken Kraus


It's Skip sets me up for my first sell. Says to meet the man Marks in front of the building where 126 comes to 129th like a triangle, with the green sign hawkin' that chimney cleaning stuff.

I got the powder in my school pack, in one of them plastic baggies, next to my science book, so I'm looking like a school boy on the way home. Which I am, being in the eleventh grade.

And there Marks is, like Skip described, tall and black, wearin' shades. He's standing like some soldier sentry, wearin' fatigues and the like, and even the dark jacket and gloves that's all way too heavy on this particular day. It's early October, but almost up to 80.

Marks turns his head to see me comin',like it's on some swivel attached to his tall body. "You would be JC?" The voice like a quick jab thrown in a fight. None of that "hey, how you doin" pal stuff.

"I'm JC, that's me." Then, from behind those shades comes this yellow flash, and for a second I think I see hollow eye sockets, then it goes dark. "Whoa! Did your eyes just do something?"

He ignores that. "Follow me, then."

Yes, sir, captain, I wanna say. He leads me into one of them empty lots that was once a tenement and now got a plaque saying the neighborhood is honored off its ass to make a garden here. The weeds from the summer are still bushy and tall, and we take cover from the street standing behind some.

Still, I'm nervous, I admit it. Don't want to do this regular, but my mom's welfare check goes about as far as you can spit. Selling coke, you risking your ass, but Skips says that in a few minutes you make what would take hours otherwise.

Mark's face starts this weird shake and again, his shades light up. "Let me see it, now." As soon as I take out the powder packet, he snatches it, then shoves a white envelope into my hand. "Go on, go!" He waves me outa there.

I move off, then stand at the edge of the lot, watch him take off his gloves and damn if his fingers aren't shaped like twisted string beans and colored blue. He doesn't snort the powder, but puts a lump right into his mouth and then the gloves go back on. As he starts to turn, I run.

And I keep goin' all the way to Skip's place, three blocks away. His apartment house has this once-fancy lobby with the marble tiles now all brown encrusted, probably with roach shit, and smells of the usual old groceries and pee. I run up the two flights, faster than waitin' on the crawlin' elevator that smells even worse.

The door's open, like Skip trusts the world, and he's there in the back room, loungin' on the bed between two chicks in this haze of pot smoke that burns my eyes. Goes with the Reggae music. The whole world's hoppin' to street rap and Skip worships Marley thirty years in the past, sayin' the man and music will make a comeback. He's singing something about "One Love".

Skip's in a tie-dye tee shirt and sandals like he's dressed for the Rasta Nation to rise in holiness and ganja smoke. "Look, ladies, JC's all hot to trot, wavin' his prize like he's won the Pick-Six lottery."

I hold the envelope out to him and he tears it open. "And the winner is...

He counts the money and shakes his head. "Not enough, man. I told you to get six hundred and there's only five here."

I feel my face flush hot. "Now wait a minute, Skip. I don't remember you saying any figure other than you had it agreed there would be a hundred in it for me."

But he's just tskin' away like I'm some hopeless case. "You'll get your hundred when you get it out of Marks."

Marley's voice is singing "let's get together and feel all right." I feel like shit.

"C'mon Skip, that dude is weird. You don't wanna see his hands and he's got a strobe light behind his shades. Hell with this, I'm gone." I'm not gonna threaten Skip but can't let him walk on me either. Even if he is my third cousin on my mother's side. In his late 20's and told mom he'd see over me like an older brother. And I guess older brothers stick it to their youngers.

But at the door of his place, Skip runs up behind me. "Hey man, where you huffin'? I still owe you something for making the trade." And he shoves fifty into my hand and tells me he'd first met Marks out at some charity mission place, and he's an important connection. "Leave Marks be for now, we split the loss. We'll do better next time."

I hit the street and the early sunset air, telling myself that was the last of it, but I was far wrong. And like she showed up to lift my spirits, there's Cheryl, walkin' on the avenue holdin' her music case.

"Hey, Cheryl, back from your violin lesson?"

She whips around, like scared, but then sees it's me. "Oh, hey JC. I'm in the fall concert at school, just had rehearsal."

"Oh yeah. I saw it on the bulletin board thing."

Her mouth does that smirky twist. "Sure you did. What day and time?"

I catch up, walk next to her. "I don't remember, but I'll be there. When is it and what you playin?"

"Oh some Busta Rhymes and vintage Snoop Dog."

"C'mon, I'm not that dumb. Something like Mozart, right?"

She tells me the date, its like I'm walking her home, which I am. And I was right; they'll even have a Mozart piece in there.

And just when it's all out of my head, a half block before her building, there's Marks walking our way. Now he's got this weird step, like he's practicing a soft footed march, with his head occasionally snapping from side to side. I just cut my eyes at him as he passes and for a second I swear his shades fix on me, then we're at her door.

"Thanks for walkin' me, JC." She's facing me like she'd talk some more, but there just went my hundred dollars.

"Hey, no prob. Gotta go. Tomorrow." I run up on Marks. Out here in the street's the least chance of him pulling a piece on me. "Hey, Marks. Mr. Marks."

He turns, stands stock still. Waitin'.

"It's me, JC. Did the sale with you before?"

"Yes, what of it?" Again the words clipped off. Now his shades stay dark.

I'm thinking to salute and say some shit like "reporting for duty," and get a laugh out of him. "Well, don't mean to bother but Skip, my contact, says it was six but I only got five."

"You're referring to the financial figure?"

"Yes, sir, that would be the technical term, I believe." Right back atcha, man.

Marks does this little head shake. "Your cousin was mistaken. It was five hundred, that is all." He turns and goes, just like that.

I watch him, wondering how'd he know I was related to Skip. Now what? He turns the corner and I follow.

Now it gets stranger. Marks stops and I think it's to spin and spot me, but no. He's looking at a scab sitting on the steps of a row house tenement. The scab has a few plastic bags around him, mostly recycle stuff, and a ratty blanket. Now what would Marks want with a boozed up beggar type who depends on turnin' in plastic bottles for his next dime?

From the light tan coat and old style round hat, I recognize him as Jake. He's a dark skin Chicano type, somewhere around 40's, won't hurt a flea, just panhandles, lives the street until the cops move him along. I hang back, watchin' and listenin' as Marks offers Jake a place to sleep, a meal.

And like Jake is some old lady, there's Marks taking his elbow, easing him up. They start walkin', Marks helpin' to carry the bags. They turn in to the alley of the shell of an apartment building, one of them smaller ones about seven floors and maybe four windows wide What I'd call non-occupado with boarded up windows, half of ‘em. It sure ain't no soup kitchen.

The front door's boarded and the only way in is the side alley and round the back. I come to the edge of the alley and just before they shuffle out of sight, Marks has Jake leave the bags.

I know Skip would kick my ass for this, but this mystery's got me now. I pull my little pen flashlight outa my backpack. I have it cause there's no lights on the stairway in my own building half the time. I follow up, hearing them about two flights above me, Jake complainin' and Marks saying "Take your time, almost there."

Like I thought, it is the fifth floor, and I follow through the hall door and the whole entire floor space is open, like most of the walls was taken down. I cut my light cause off at the far end is at least three more dudes huddled around some kind of greenish glow, waitin' on Marks. It's like someone once started doing demo in this place, cause a few shreds of walls remain, or at least the wood two-by-four wall posts are still up, with snaky wires hanging around them, and piles of debris. I snuggle up low on one of these, hoping I'm not on some rat's hole, and watch Marks lead Jake to the others.

"Here's our new friend, come to join us for dinner." And he brings Jake into the green glow circle and I'm wondering, what kind of new appliance gives off that kinda light and with no electricity up here? Battery powered?

I hear Jake ask for the food and it's shit-hit-the-walls after that. Marks closes in behind the poor beggar and takes out something that looks like a big two prong fork and jabs it in his neck. I feel a shock in my own gut just as Jake twitches and falls limp. They all close around him while his legs are kickin' and its mostly shadows. Part of me wants to run in and save him and the other part is sayin' sure asshole, charge on in and get killed yourself.

A murder, I've just seen a murder.

And they don't stop there, either. They stay in on him, blockin' my view of his upper body and I hear clothes rippin'. They back off and Marks is pullin' some other equipment or weird shaped tool from somewhere and pointin' it down at the must-be-dead man's chest. And then wham, a bolt of one of them electron streams shoots out the end and jumps the three or so feet into Jake's body.

I'm in full sweat and think shit I've seen enough. But Marks gives this bark and they all shut up, go still. I see the shadows of heads raise up and turn, like wild dogs sniffin' the air. It must be me they smell, but how?

Marks points in my direction and I know my ass is cooked if I can't escape. They leave poor Jake like a rag doll where he is, and start shuffling my way. Gotta be four of them, and one, shorter than Marks is movin' ahead of the others. His body is too wide at the middle, and his arms are long like an ape's. The legs are short and waddle fast like they got no bend at the knees. They're talkin' to each other in a language like little kids making pretend electronic and vroom noises, only this is no game.

My hand feels on the pile I'm crouched on and closes in a big chunk of some old plaster. I heave it toward a far corner, where it goes pop as it hits the wall. Three of them turn and move to the sound, but the lead one just cocks his shadowed head and reaches toward me, still comin.

For a last resort, I take my pen light to blind him full in his face. He's not ten feet from me when I flick it on and spotlight him. And all I can do is stare cause his face isn't human, not even close to a monkey's. I pick up another clod off my pile and pitch it hard at his head. It hits off where his brow should be and his arms fly up and a wild growl comes out of him and I'm flying down those stairs. I hear the clump of feet behind me about two flights up, and keep my legs pumping like mad, but not jumping cause if I fall, I've had it.

And their sounds to each other are growing louder as they all must be only a flight or two above me. But I'm out the door, running up the side alley, and there's the street. I don't look back as I hit the pavement and sprint up and around the corner. Only when I'm out on the main avenue do I stop by an open grocery store, make a quick glance, and go inside. I'm leanin' over the fruit bins with my chest heavin' wondering should I have the Korean lady behind the counter call the cops.

####

I go straight home and can't call the cops, of course. They'd ask about why I was there and I'd get me and Skip drawn into who knows what. They'd think I was nuts, too.

My mother is in the living room, on the couch with the TV on. I have to wake her so I can help open the couch and make up the bed. She reminds me again what a great mom she is, letting me and my sister Sheena have the bedrooms and her taking the livin' room.

But all I can think when I'm trying to study on my bed is shit, I've seen a murder. I can't sleep well either, just see those four zappin' Jake, over and over. And that face that wasn't a face, no way. And did that face see me?

So next day, there I am, back up in Skip's, after school, stickin' my head in his room. One of the usual chicks is readin' a mag on the bed. He's sitting at his desk, rollin' a "ganja" joint and turns to sing with Marley playing on the speakers. "I'm jammin',jammin' till the break of day."

I do something I'm not allowed; I go to the hi-fi and lower the volume. "I think I seen a murder, you gotta hear this." And I tell him.

He runs his thumb and first finger in a squeeze down one of his long dreadlocks. "Question is, JC, is it worth the fifty you lost to play with your life followin' Marks? Told you to leave him be."

"Easy to say when you got your money and I lost half of mine. I didn't know his crowd was that bad."

He lights up his joint, offers me a toke. "Poor ol' Jake, but scabs like him bite it from bad shit every day."

I take a hit, needing it. "Bad shit? I'm talkin' other world shit, didn't you hear me?"

He laughs, taking back the joint. "That face you mean?" He nudges the chick next to him on his bed, where he's flopped down. "Shadows playin' tricks on JC."

"Nuh-uh! This thing just had two eyes, on either side of a big round mouth, and somethin' waggin' under the mouth."

"Maybe a mask, JC? Folks that wanna conceal wear Halloween stuff all the time. Let it go, man. I'll check Marks out more before I set you up again."

####

Maybe I was seeing things.

But then on that same stoop as last night is good ol' Jake, alive and lazin. I come near and Jake gives his usual missin' tooth smile. "Hey, bro. Got a spare bill or bottle?"

"Jake, where'd you hole up last night? With a tall dude with glasses?"

His eyes get narrow. "What's it to you?"

That tells me he's playin' it zip lipped. I back way off and he stands up, looks around and moves off down the street, and not too drunken like either.

Jake pulls out a cell phone. Where does a scab who can't afford a pay toilet come up with a cell?

As I watch him chatter, I see Marks comin' up the street, callin' to me. "We need to have word, son."

My legs answer by runnin'. They'll be lookin' for me now, sure enough.

Up ahead I see the red-white pole, and duck into Manny's barbershop, below street level. Manny lets me use his phone in the back and I call Skip. I sound like a damn idiot tellin' him what's just happened and Skip says "OK, man, just calm down, calm down.

"Hang there, then come meet me at my place in about an hour."

Now I'm pacin' so much I make Manny and his customer jumpy. Manny snarls something about his shop not bein' my public telephone.

I get across the street and push myself into the shadows next to a stoop. Now I'm a damn street person like ol Jake is, or was. Just as I'm tellin' myself to chill, maybe Skip will fix it so Marks lets me alone- there's the big man himself, standin' in front of the shop, like he smelled me in there. When he goes down in Manny's, I run again.

Where to now? A crowd, maybe if I get into a crowd. The high school's two blocks off and when I get there, a few dozen students are coming out. I get in among them and I almost bump into her.

"JC!" Cheryl looks shocked. "What now?"

"Came to walk you home from practice, my lady." I affect some stupid bow and she breaks up laughing.

I ask how rehearsal went and she's tellin' me what pieces she's featured in. I'm hopin' I'll be alive so I can come, too. There's a strange man across the street, but could be anyone. A black car slows down near us as we're walking, and then speeds up. Another girl calls my name from behind. I turn, and see my sister quick-steppin' up to catch up with us.

"Sheena! What you doin' here?"

Cheryl answers. "She's in the chorus, or don't you know that?"

"I just thought she'd take the bus home," I cover. Lame as usual.

Cheryl pulls away but she's still smiling. "Go on. Walk your sister home and I'll see you tomorrow, OK?"

It's a long four blocks for me, but no one stops us. As we climb the steps to our apartment I'm prepped for the two ape-men to be waitin' on us, and I'll have to grab Sheena's arm, pull her back down. But only Mom herself is at the door .

I fake some story about having lent my science book to someone and say I'll be back soon and run down the stairs to Skip's.

"My man, we've got a situation." Skip's sitting at his dining room table, half loaded with old newspapers and beer bottles. "Take a seat, JC." No music playing now.

"You reach him, Skip?"

"We spoke, and it isn't good. Marks is someone you wanna take real serious, especially since he's picked up your girl Cheryl just now."

I'm outa the seat. "Cheryl? What's she -- "

"JC, you think you're the only one snoopin' on folks? Looks like they been watchin' you. They'll let Cheryl go if you and I come talk to them."

I tell Skip to make sure and take his gun, and he says don't worry ‘bout that. "What about your spare piece for me?"

"No way," he says.

I have another plan, when we're half a block from the building. "Maybe it is time for the cops."

"Here's the other part of the message, JC. If you and I don't show, no one sees Marks or Cheryl again, and then it's all on your ass."

So, with my guts in a twist, I let him lead. Past the back door now unlocked and up those gloomy stairs. Maybe I can bluff that it was all a misunderstanding, that I was high off my ass when I spied on them and Jake, and just let me walk Cheryl home.

Skip leads me into the scooped out space, same rubble piles, same corner with the four dudes around a green glow, including the two ape ones. No Jake, though. As we walk towards them, I see a fifth shape, hunched over on the ground and makin' whimperin' noises. Cheryl.

Marks, with no sunglasses, walks to us. "Glad you could come. It was the smart decision."

My mouth opens on its own. "OK, man, we're here. So let the girl go now, OK?"

Cheryl stops cryin' and looks up. "JC?"

"It's me. You gonna be OK, it's all a misunderstandin', right Marks?" I see her music case on the ground next to her. "Go on, pick up your violin -- and I'll walk you home, girl."

Marks puts out a gloved hand. "She stays until we get some things understood."

I pull on Skip's arm. "That's not fair. We came, tell'm our position."

Skip nods. "Marks, I think that was the deal, no?"

"I've decided it might be time for a young candidate with her kind of scope. Let her hear our story -- "

Cheryl pipes up. "No, no, I gotta go home. I promise I won't -- "

Marks turns and backhands her across the face. Something snaps inside me. I push Skip forward and pull the piece outa his back belt band. He falls and two of 'em come towards me, both short and squat and got the other-world creep faces.

"Hold your ass right there!" I aim at one, then swing to the other, to show I could pick'm both off.. Least I hope so the way I'm shakin.

Marks raises his arm again, and everyone freezes. "Skip, tell the young man to return the weapon to you. Tell him why."

Skip gets up, brushes off his pants. "JC, listen. These folks are not here to hurt nobody. Not what you think."

Crazy, but I point the gun at Skip a second. "Oh yeah? Zappin' Jake, makin' threats, kidnappin' a helpless girl then slappin' her?"

"Skip has become our friend," Marks says. I swing the gun back to him. "And though you act tough, JC, I don't think you have it in you to pull that trigger."

In answer, I flick off the safety. "Please, give me a reason."

Skip raises his hands, like prayin'. "Sorry I bullshitted you yesterday, cousin. I was lookin' to introduce you to these people slow, take my time. Didn't know they were doin' things of the like to Jake. But y'see, these folks are hurtin', just like you and me."

"These folks," I say, "are fuckin' alien zombies. Only I don't know where their space ship is. But maybe that's what they had Jake doin', scoutin' a landing strip. Although he's not here, so maybe they wasted him."

Amazing enough, Skip fields it. "That's not far off, JC. Only they didn't come over space. But through to us."

"Through what?"

"They say a kind of rent."

I shake my head. "They not paying rent for this flop house they in."

Marks actually laughs. "Not rent in the sense of payment for occupation, JC. A rent in the space-time fabric, created by our special machinery. We currently have the resources to get very few of us through. With your help, and the use of some of your more advanced technology, we might enable the passage way to enlarge, allow more of us to pass before it's too late."

"If you're from this other rent, then what you want with buying our drugs?"

Marks takes a step nearer. "A coincidence of chemistry, JC. The molecular structure of what gets your species high is close enough to necessary food for our kind."

Skip steps in. "Think about it, JC. The Rasta religion calls ganja holy and look how they feed on it."

I got my answer to that one. "What I sold this dude was cocaine, but I guess that's a small point. But Marks, if you one of them, then what about your face and body lookin' like ours?"

Marks spreads his hands." It takes special candidates to channel with one of us, so we can blend with and speak through you. I am, in a sense, two beings, one from your planet and the other from ours, in a kind of symbiosis. Let me tell you the process -- "

"You can symbiote by yourself. Come here, Cheryl, right next to me." She stands and stumbles over next to me; they don't stop her. But she's left her music case.

"JC," Skip tries. "These folks can give us the one world Marley sings about, man. Not like the rest of our dumb society with everyone all at each other's throats. They'll work with us, lookin' for harmony."

"JC," Marks says. "We were the darker skinned marginalized ones on our planet. Surely you can relate to that. But the ruling class, as you would call it, poisoned our world with their greed and mechanized filth."

I laugh now. "Oh, so you just hop a stellar subway to another planet doin' the same thing."

"Don't you see?" Skip says. "They have the learnin' to help us avoid that, before Earth is too far gone. The Rasta prophecy JC, the dark ones from beyond comin' to resurrect this world. That's what they embrace."

I give Skip the bad eye. "I'll tell you what they embrace, you asshole. Turnin' us into their slaves, that's what. Me and Cheryl are goin' now; you stay and get zapped if that gets you off, Skip."

We start to back off, but Marks gets the last word. "I think your way is blocked, JC."

I look over my shoulder and see that one of them is standin' by the exit door, havin' worked his way around behind me. And he's taken one of them instruments with a red glow out of his pocket. I turn back to Marks and he's got his green fork out. "I'd like this to be with your cooperation, JC. Skip here vouches so highly for you."

Cheryl starts crying and grabs my arm. I look to Skip and all he says is, "Please, JC."

"Please my ass." I raise the gun to point between Mark's eyes. "Think your zapper's faster than my bullet?"

Marks takes a step forward. "Any individual for the cause, including myself, is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice."

And it occurs to me that maybe that fork's got a limited range. He was less than five feet from Jake when he used it yesterday. I turn and the one behind me is steppin' closer to us. And then I see it, my chance.

The other big hulking one has gone to stand by the window, right in front of it, as if I'd try to jump for it. Now it's my move. I shift the gun to point at his chest.

"I'll bet you're not willin' to have me put a slug in his chest and send his ass out the window into the street below for all to see his ape body and pretty face, are you?"

Marks closes his eyes like I just sprayed mace at him. I let a minute of silence pass; it isn't gonna be me who speaks next.

"All right, JC. It's unfortunate this round goes to you." He calls back his thug from the exit while I hold the gun on the one at the window.

"Skip," I say. "Get Cheryl's violin case, now."

Skip shakes his head no, and I decide to let it go. Cheryl agrees, pullin' at my arm and we shuffle back to the stairs. I hold the gun on them, tellin' her to run down now. She goes and I just stare at Skip, shakin' his head and lookin' at the ground. Cheryl calls to me from the bottom that she's made it and I turn to follow.

About halfway down the second flight there's a flash above me followed by a boom that shakes the whole building. I scream and remember Skip's up there, run back up.

As soon as I open the hall door I see that half the space is crawlin' with green fire. Skip's lying on the floor just inside the door and I haul him to his feet. He's dazed but I get him and me down the stairs. He grabs his gun back, tucks it behind his belt.

From the street, we watch the flames leap out of the fifth floor window, yellow now, like a normal fire. Sirens start to sing in the distance; they'll be here soon. Cheryl's standing with us, huggin' herself. "What happened up there?"

"They gone," Skip says. "They were our chance and they gone. Oh why?"

But way up the street, I see a guy in a heavy coat and yellow hat trudgin' away. Jake. So more likely they just changed their hideout. But last thing I'll do is give Skip hope.

The firemen come and they hook up to a hydrant. One with a chief cap comes over to us. "Do you folks know who started the fire?"

Once again, the authorities would think us crazy if they knew. "All we seen livin' in there," I say, "were just squatters."

THE END


© 2008 Ken Kraus

Bio: Ken Kraus has published a number of articles in technical journals as well as a lead feature in the Newark Star Ledger's travel section. His story "Lovers Under the Green Sky" appears in Issue #11 of Planetary Stories. He is currently seeking representation for his first science fiction novel, Borgus and the Duke.

E-mail: Ken Kraus

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