“Sinshine” by TJ Berry
“Order a diet soda,” demands Phil, my alien brain parasite. He likes the chemical miasma that is diet soda. He thrives on it.
“And one large diet soda,” I repeat into the drive-thru speaker.
“Okay, so that’s two triple-bacon cheeseburgers, two orders of fries, a medium chocolate shake, and a diet. That’ll be twenty-nine seventy-one at the first window.”
Phil is hungry.
I pull up a few feet. The cars in line block my path.
“Advance through the vehicles and obtain my food immediately!” says Phil.
“Cut it out,” I reply. “You know we have to wait.”
“I am going to open a rapid driving-through food dispenser and enslave your race.”
“McDonald’s beat you to it, buddy. We should have gone there. It’s faster.”
“They don’t have triple bacon.”
“Right. So you have to wait.”
Phil pouts, I feel his tail twitch on my amygdala and my right hand begins to shake.
“Hey,” I say, trying to retain control of myself by distracting him. “Hey, should we add a chocolate-dipped cone?”
The tremor stops.
“Or maybe,” I continue, “we should pull over at the grocery store and pick up a box of snack cakes.”
Phil pauses for a moment. I hold my breath.
“No. Your fatty layer is expanding rapidly.”
And there it is. The reason I named my alien brain parasite after my ex-husband.
“You must repeatedly utilize your muscles this afternoon. After we eat. You must keep this vessel in efficient working order.”
“You already made me run six miles this morning,” I whine. “I don’t want to run again.” Phil’s presence in my emotional core gives me a hair trigger; I sound like a preschooler winding up for a meltdown. I suddenly smell burning paper, but nothing in the car is on fire. The odor reminds me to light up a cigarette.
“Your caloric intake exceeds your metabolic rate and activity level. You must utilize your muscles until you produce lactic acid.”
“I should really go back to work,” I say, taking a long drag and trying to steer the subject away from running. I haven’t been to the office in weeks, but it’s one of the only things I can remember about my life before Phil. I can picture the building in my mind and I can drive there on autopilot if I need to. I’m sure that if I found just one person who I knew before, they would see the change and help. Phil is reticent to return me to any part of my old life and risk losing me.
“If I don’t have money, we don’t have money for triple bacon cheeseburgers and… other things,” I cajole.
“We will remove currency from other humans.”
“Like this morning? Yeah, that worked out well. He had about forty-nine cents on him. That won’t cover the ketchup.”
“Humans without proper hygiene do not contain large amounts of currency. We will seek out hygienic humans for currency transfer.”
“I’m proud of you, Phil.” I say. “You travel a million light years to learn that homeless guys are poor.”
“I did not travel here. This was our planet before the first glaciation. It will be ours again. And do not call me Phil.”
“If you don’t like it, get out.” I cup my hand under my nose, as if to catch him when he shoots out of my nostril. We both know I’m being ridiculous, but it does remind him that of the three host humans he’s inhabited so far, my brain is the first true match.
“Right, Phil? Are you gonna go back to Janet?” I ask, taking another drag on the unfiltered cigarette. I wasn’t a smoker until Phil got into my head. I gagged and coughed through our first month together, but now the smoking has become just another habit. Like strangling people for cash.
“No, I do not prefer Janet,” he says, subdued.
Janet is my trump card. I feel the residual echoes of her shrill screams emanating in waves from Phil’s memories. He’d lived in Janet’s brain for ten days; every one of those days she screamed incessantly about the demon in her brain. Phil had control of her about half of the time, but during the other half, she clawed at the sides of her head, pulling out chunks of hair and butting against anything hard until Phil could no longer see through the blood in her eyes. She was not a good match.
Janet did ultimately succeed in dislodging Phil. She jumped off a third-floor roof and landed, face first, in a dry winter fountain at the base of an apartment building. Phil nearly died trying to get out of her before her brain, and he, were starved of oxygen. Janet’s alive, but she’s a little worse for wear these days.
“What was Janet doing at that building anyway, Phil?” I ask, stubbing out the first cigarette and lighting a second. I suck so hard that nearly a third of the cigarette is gone in one drag. If I can keep him quiet for a few more minutes, maybe I can clear my head and think. Come up with a plan to get him out of me. Or get a message to someone for help.
Phil does not answer. Not from shame, (no, never that); he’s lost in a memory. I feel the dribble of chemicals coming out of his hind aperture and straight into my brain. I know exactly why Janet was at that building. Phil’s brutal desires overlay my own and I can no longer remember if I liked the feeling of bones crunching and snapping before I met him or if that only came after.
“If I don’t get back to work at some point, we won’t have money to visit Pat,” I say, triggering another rush of chemicals as Phil thinks of Pat and his unique menu of services.
My world with Phil revolves around obtaining sex and food. Which is not entirely different from my life with old Phil.
“Janet did not have employment,” reproaches Phil. He’s not wrong; Janet had rampaged through the city all night and day, screaming, stealing, and killing until she face-planted in the fountain.
“How did that work out in the end?” I ask, drawing in deep breaths of calming carcinogens. Phil allows himself to sink back into the images of the day of Janet’s death. The details are foggy and indistinct, but I can feel everything that Janet feels as if it’s happening to me right now in the drive-thru line.
Janet’s brain had constantly prickled Phil with little jolts of electricity that didn’t exactly hurt, but made him irritable and edgy. He knew, from experience, that incompatible hosts would gnaw away at your edges until you were as raw and uncontrollable as the human you inhabited. He searched for a new host from the moment he settled into her.
Janet also felt the tingling. For her, it was an itch, deep in the center of her brain, back behind her eyes where she couldn’t get at it. It buzzed like a horsefly trapped in the center of her skull and it told her to eat things, to fuck things, and to kill people.
She’d shriek and thrash each time Phil loosened his grip on her systems, which meant he had to pilot her body every waking moment until she was ready to collapse out of sheer exhaustion. He’d sneak a few hours of pinpricked sleep before she regained consciousness and the infernal shrieking would begin again.
On the morning of her death, Janet awakened first and worked hard to maintain her calm. Breathing slowly, like she’d learned in yoga class, she crawled up to the third floor rooftop. Phil awoke to find her standing on the wall around the edge.
“Fuck you, Satan!” she’d screamed, sensing him watching. He seized control of her limbs and tried to jerk her away from the drop, but her forward momentum carried them both off the edge.
When Janet hit the fountain, a shard of facial bone jabbed through her brain and nearly skewered Phil. He squirmed out of the way, but lost control of her right side. Pushing upward with her other arm, he looked around for a new host. He had just a few minutes before her oxygen-starved brain would begin to die and take him with it.
A woman ran toward them, parking her toddler’s stroller on the far side of the courtyard, and facing the child away from Janet’s broken body, which was filling the dry fountain with blood. She leaned in close and felt Janet’s extremities, checking for a pulse.
“Ma’am, can you hear me?” she asked. Janet still breathed, but she was beyond hearing. The woman lifted one of Janet’s eyelids, checking her pupils, but found nothing but a gooey mess.
Phil waited until the woman was close enough, and then pushed off with his powerful tail. He went through Janet’s brain, past shards of her skull, and out of the spot where her eye had once been. He landed near a warm, wet orifice and rolled blindly toward the scent of the glands.
I remember Phil burrowing into my brain. He’s faster than you’d think, for a sightless thing with no arms or legs. It felt like a bug had flown into my nose. High up. I dug my finger in, trying to get it out, but it buzzed farther along. It bit or stung me and I squealed in searing, unreachable pain. Then Phil was suddenly there. He smothered the pain and spread a warm fog over my thoughts. My next memory is driving, the smell of burning paper filling my nose.
Hosting Phil is like picture-in-picture for my consciousness. He flips between driving and watching but we are both always here. The chemical cocktail he excretes when he settles in comfortably reminds me of a warm bath. He is loath to lose me to a dry fountain.
The drive-thru line moves up and I hand the cashier my credit card. She swipes three times, then hands it back.
“Ma’am, do you have another form of payment?”
I fish in my purse for two twenties. I try to wipe off the blood, but the bills are still gummy when I hand them over. The cashier puts them into the register without noticing. What must your life be like not to notice a blood-soaked twenty? Other patrons must be paying for strawberry shakes with gold fillings pried out of molars.
I throw my change onto the passenger seat and pull the van up to the second window. The kid inside reads from a monitor on the wall.
“Three kids’ meals and a chicken deluxe,” he recites, handing a bag out of the window without looking at me.
“No. Two triple bacon cheeseburgers, two fries, a chocolate shake, and a diet.”
The kid in the headset turns and rolls his eyes.
“I gave that to the guy in front of you. He said it was his. I have to remake thirty-four. I know. The guy took off already, I can’t get it back. Just redo it, then come up here and fix the register.” It takes me a few confusing seconds to realize he is no longer talking to me.
Phil starts to vibrate to the percussive beat of his poor impulse control.
“I want my food, I want my food, I want my food…” he chants.
“Settle down,” I whisper. “I’ll get it.”
My hands involuntarily grip the steering wheel hard enough that the ends of two fingernails snap off on the plastic. It hurts.
“Stop it,” I say, rubbing my fingertips. The fast food guy watches me talk to myself. I lean out of the car window.
“Please, can you just give me whatever you have ready? I’ll take anything. The fries, the soda, whatever. I’m having a blood sugar issue here.” I try to smile charmingly as I had before Phil. Either Phil.
The guy puts a hand over his headset microphone and speaks slowly, deliberately.
“Ma’am. We have to fix the order in the system and cook everything again. Can you please pull around to the stall marked Drive Thru?”
My hand, now completely numb, reaches out of the car window and over to the kid. It grabs for him with fingers frozen in claw-like bends. I yank my body toward the passenger seat so that it grasps a handful of air.
“Stop it,” I hiss to Phil. “You won’t get your food if you do that.”
My arm goes limp and drops, hanging down outside of the car. I wait for the tingling sensation to pass before I pull it back in. The kid’s eyes are wide.
“Sorry,” I say. “I get these little seizures.”
I hit the gas and pull into a spot before Phil can take control again. The order will only be a few minutes, but he’s teetering on the edge of a tantrum. I climb into the rear seat of the minivan, searching for any leftover food to stave off a frenzied killing spree.
There are small seats in the back of the car–the kind for tiny humans. I don’t know why I have those. When I look at the seats for longer than a second, Phil twists purposefully in his spot, I smell burning paper, and the wondering vanishes.
I find a few aging Cheerios between the seats and suck on them. The cereal bits taste like dust and floor grit. I nibble a blue crayon, but it’s waxy and unsatisfying. I unbuckle the child seat and find a spot of dried liquid. It smells chocolately and sour.
Phil, ravenous, pushes my head down toward the seat.
“No,” I say, trying to be firm. “Not this.”
“Phil, no,” I beg, trying to lift my head against his pushing. “It’ll taste bad, you won’t like it. The food will be here in two minutes.”
My face touches upholstery. My tongue scrapes against stiff fabric and I gag.
Phil sends a shock down my legs and they buckle. I fall face-first onto the back seat. He makes me lick it again and again; sucking the sugary remains off the fabric. I retch and fight as Phil pushes my head deep into the cushion, forcing me to stop struggling as I try to breathe through six inches of foam.
He feels remorse, or some approximation of it, when the chemicals that compose my humiliation and disgust soak through his permeable membranes. He soothes me with memories of his life before hibernation. He knows that I am mesmerized by the colorful plumage and brutal battles of dinosaur mating rituals. We could be the world’s leading paleontologist if Phil could restrain himself from killing people on an hourly basis.
“Humans,” he muses. “More difficult to control than every other animal species, but vastly more satisfying to manipulate. Your pleasure centers are legion. Your buffet of illicit delights is endless.”
There is a knock on the van’s side door. Phil refuses to return control. He pulls open the slider with my hand. A different employee stands there with our order; a guy in his twenties with anime hair and those stretched-out earlobe things.
“Sorry for the wait,” he says, holding out a bag and a tray of drinks.
Phil takes the food carefully, reverently. My arms have the floppy, jerky quality of a marionette. It’s hard to coordinate all of my millions of muscles at once, but Phil improves daily. He places the food on the passenger seat, reaching between the chairs to set the drinks into cup holders. Phil turns back to the boy. He’s so excited that his hold slips for a fraction of a second.
“Run,” I say, mumbling through half of my mouth like a stroke patient. The kid stares, bewildered, trying to figure out why a chubby soccer mom kneeling on the floor of her minivan is telling him to run and wondering if that’s real blood all over her Hamilton hoodie.
Phil reaches out and grabs the boy’s ears, yanking him into the car on top of me. The kid flails, slapping the seats and slamming my body down onto the floor of the car. Phil shoves two of my fingers into his right eye. I hate this part.
Phil is obsessed with eyes because he does not have any. He forces me to spend hours each day staring at my own eyes in the makeup mirror, touching and testing them. I have a permanent blind spot on my left side due to his constant probing.
The kid gurgles, choking on my other hand, the fingers of which are forcing their way down his throat. We have done this so many times. Phil enjoys the feeling of throat muscles in spasm against my fist. Doing it with dead or unconscious people is not nearly as sensual for him. After the first couple of attempts, I made sure to stop wearing my rings.
The kid is suffocating. He claws at my face, reopening the scabbed-over scratches from a few days ago. Warm drool streaked with blood flows onto my face. His breath smells like salty fries.
I have never been able to stop Phil, but I can distract him from the more vile tortures he enjoys before this kid finally gives in. I sink into my own memory of Janet, which is difficult to separate from Phil’s. Her raggedy blonde hair drapes over the fountain. Her fingers open and close over the cement, remnants of pink nail polish grasping at nothing. I see a delicate charm bracelet that had somehow survived ten days of mayhem. A tiny pair of gold ballet shoes hangs from the chain. I now gently slide over into Phil’s memories of Janet and feel a leotard riding up in the back, hear classical music picked out on a piano, cringe at wood blocks digging into my big toes…
Phil lurches and fights against both me and the fast food kid. In my mind, he twists me away from Janet until I’m looking in the other direction; seeing a stroller parked on the sidewalk behind the fountain. Panic rises in my chest and I try to remember something I’ve forgotten. While I’m distracted, Phil slows my heartbeat and opens his aperture to emit a drop of something to scatter my thoughts. The image of the fountain dissolves and I’m back on the floor of my car, choking a fast food employee with my fist. The boy’s face above me is changing from red to bluish. I feel his chest sucking inward, unable to refill and I smell burning paper.
“Let it go, kid,” I think, dazed and shaking from whatever Phil just showed me. “Just let him take you.”
Someone walks past the open car door and giggles. They must think we’re making out, lying on the floor of the car, legs entwined, my hands on this guy’s face.
Phil gives my hand a final, brutal shove and the kid goes limp on top of me. Phil’s tiny body seeps a cocktail of chemicals straight into my brain. My back arches. It feels like warm, yellow sunshine coming from a spot deep inside of my head, spreading outward into my body. A sunshine of sin. Sinshine.
Phil releases me and I lie on the carpet for a minute, soaking in neurotransmitters. All of my limbs belong to me again and Phil is still. He’s also bathing in sinshine, but he’s still watching.
This is the worst part. Phil always leaves me the mess to deal with. I wipe saliva, blood, and eyeball gel off my face. I push the kid off me onto the floor, tucking his legs into the van. I slide the door shut and climb into the driver’s seat without bothering with the seat belt. I am high. Invincible. This is the best part.
I turn up the radio and speed out of the lot. I light another cigarette with both hands, navigating the parking lot with my knee under the steering wheel.
“Dammit, Phil. You broke my nails,” I say, biting a chipped spot and swerving onto the highway. “You’re getting way too risky, doing that right in front of the restaurant. What if someone saw?” Phil is silent. I whack the side of my head with my hand. “Did you hear me? Someone walked by while you were busy.”
“Inconsequential,” he murmurs.
“If you keep doing this, I’ll be arrested and put in jail. No more triple bacons, no more killing bums, and definitely no visits to Pat’s place.”
“Jail,” says Phil, curling up into the tight ball, similar to the size of the egg that contained him a very, very long time ago. “I have been in jail before. I like jail.”
He pushes my foot down on the accelerator.
|TJ Berry has been a political blogger, bakery owner, and spent a disastrous two weeks working in a razor blade factory. She now writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror from Seattle with considerably fewer on-the-job injuries. Her fiction has appeared in Pseudopod and PodCastle. She’s on Twitter @TJaneBerry.|