Who is there? I called when a spell of quiet passed, though I already had my guess, an automated sighting notice having gone out last week.
The harvestmen arrived during the dark weather season, just days after a series of soot storms blackened our yards and windows. This was an ugly time of year—the sun bled of its coppered gold, the sky scorched like a beaker left to flame. When the harvestmen knocked, I was pressing my face deep into the couch while a harmonica buzzed through the radio. I like the way old country songs can fill a room, and how a pillow can stifle breathing without stopping it completely.
You can stay, I said, the burn extending up and through my throat.
The harvestmen turned to me, tilting their heads. Now that I’d let them in, this invitation meant little, harvestmen only withdrawing on their own accord. Yes, they said, assembling into a triangle formation and bowing slightly. We know.
As long as you like, I added.
Their skulls were ribbed along the top, their ears and eyes and mouths just cavities dug into pallid flesh. As they looked to one another, passing around some question, I had the sudden fear they might leave, having felt my life and judged it uninhabitable. A whole grid of single-occupancy units was ahead. They did not need to stop walking yet.
When they did finally speak, the declaration brought a rush of relief, like breaking a bruised fingernail and watching the ache drain.
We’re hungry, they said.
Most people dismiss harvestmen as insatiable hounds, wandering the post-equinox in search of places to settle and gorge. Though they’d been in some regions forever, they only began to spread after the climate cracked, the new weather dispersing them like pollen on wind. Early in my life, my mother had refused one of the first pairs to come to our city, her back pressed against the front door, her eyes set. They will not strip this home, she had said.
Today, the six of us squeezed around the kitchen table, our legs entwined like netting beneath. I hope you like Italian, I said, and then they were off, grasping handfuls of pasta and shoveling them into their mouths. By the time I’d finished my first bite, their plates were bare.
Still hungry? I asked, standing and retrieving a loaf of white bread from the pantry. I have this, but the other loaf is still frozen.
One of the harvestmen took the bread and stretched the plastic until it tore. Thin slices fell on the table, snatched up immediately by the others. I opened the freezer and set the loaf out to thaw. A long arm stretched across the room and pulled that over, too.
Something began rising inside my throat. I waited for a cough or some other sickness, but a laugh came instead, the sound rattling between my teeth. The harvestmen looked at me and then started making their own noise, a hollow clicking that seemed to come from the bottom of their chests. It was wonderful, this blending, and though I could still hear the gusts of silt hitting against the door, the aluminum ping was made less awful behind our clamor.
Before leaving for the grocery store, I closed the blinds, shut off the lights, and gathered the harvestmen into my bedroom, which was the farthest room from the street.
No one can know you’re here, I said. Stay in my room until I get back. They tucked themselves deep into the corner and huddled up as if to prove understanding. I closed the door and waited a moment to hear them shuffle or speak, though nothing came.
The drive across my district is a dark one: Last year, they defunded every other street light and, this year, only intersections remain lit. Each stretch between feels enclosed by velvet, the fabric torn only occasionally by porch light. I hadn’t driven much in awhile, but still knew the road and its ruts, clenching my jaw for the ragged line between 4thand 5th, bracing my elbows for the corrugated patch spanning D Street. If I were going to Marcus’s house, there would be a final hole to fix myself for. The store was left, though, not right.
I pushed my cart to the carbohydrate aisle first, throwing in seven boxes of meat pasta, five loaves of white bread, and two full-size sacks of potatoes. Overhead, Elvis Presley sang “Blue Christmas.”
Is it almost Christmas? I asked a woman who stood nearby, squeezing a bag of rice.
She started, pulling her hand back and clutching it beneath her chin. How should I know? she asked.
I continued down the aisle and was almost to the end when she yelled after me. It’s rude, she said, talking to strangers.
As I veered to the dairy aisle to grab blocks of yellow cheese and a couple cartons of protein milk I remembered a different encounter from months earlier, when a woman’s hand collided against mine as we reached for the same cereal bar.
I’m sorry, she had said, offering the bar to me.
It’s okay, I replied, and there was something about her face, some kindness or give, that made my mouth keep moving, the words coming out as if they’d been waiting for a chance to escape.
A few months ago, I said, I was on 3rd and B and a man came up and told me to empty my pockets. But guess what happened when I turned and looked at him?
The woman’s eyelids were stretched and strained. What? she asked.
I recognized him from middle school. He realized at the same time I did and then said he was joking, that he’d just wanted to scare me.
Oh wow, the woman said. Did you believe him?
I shook my head.
I wouldn’t have either. She grabbed her own cereal bar and slapped it against her palm. Oh wow, she said again. That’s a good story.
And while I wanted to keep speaking, to tell her this was not where the story ended, my language had clammed inside, latching against my larynx and closing itself to the world. I smiled and she smiled and then we continued our own shopping.
At the checkout now, the cashier looked at my cart. Party? he asked.
The food, he said. It looks like you’re preparing for a party or the apocalypse.
Oh yes, I said. The latter.
The harvestmen stood where I left them, but I could tell they’d been over the house again while I was gone: the bathroom mirror had new oily smudges, the clothes in my dresser were riffled through, and the bottle of lube I’d kept with my socks for almost five years was sitting out in the middle of the floor, its cap undone.
I wondered what ten hands would feel like on my body all at once. I wondered if they kissed.
That’s old, I said from the doorway.
The harvestmen shrugged, stepping past me to get to the kitchen.
I retrieved the bottle and moved to drop it behind the bureau. The expiration date had come and gone, but the lubricant still made things slide, and while I’d only used it once with another person, much more alone, the charge of sex was radiant. I imagined stripping, lying prone, presenting myself to the harvestmen as another thing to be had. I wondered what ten hands would feel like on my body all at once. I wondered if they kissed.
After thirty minutes of needy chewing, they ambled back into the corner of the bedroom. When do you stop feeding? I asked.
Spring, they said.
I smiled at the word—an old term for the light weather season. And then what?
We don’t know, they said. We’ve never been.
A surprising pain ran through me, thrashing beneath my ribs like an eel. I hadn’t felt such acute hurt in months. I’d forgotten that the lifespan of the harvestmen, like some insects, was a fixed numeral, a six-month sojourn with the living.
Come here, I said.
The harvestmen climbed onto the bed, their legs creating a cage around me. Once they settled, I continued: Spring is nice. The sun doesn’t leave the sky and some of the trees grow leaves. It’s much better than now. You can stay here until then. It’s worth the wait.
They didn’t speak for a while. With each minor adjustment, their limbs creaked. Thank you, they eventually said.
Above us, dust nodes drifted to the ground, having been uprooted by the surplus of bodies. There was pressure on my skin from every direction, and I pressed myself against it, reveling in touch. I could not hold myself like this, whether in the tub, or on the couch, or in the hallway closet, which is thick enough with the smell of leather to almost believe someone else is there with you.
Can I tell you something? I asked.
Yes, the harvestmen said.
A few months ago, I was on 3rd and B and a man came out of the woods and told me to give him everything in my pockets. The first thing I saw was the blade in his hand, and the second was his face. I knew him from middle school.
The harvestmen did not react like the woman in the store. Shadows caught in the hollows of their faces, yet I could tell they were not experiencing surprise.
I took a pause, the texture of that other day spreading across my mind like moss. It was the middle of the light weather season. The ground was not black but not green, either. I’d been walking for almost three hours, hoping the time away from my house would return my possessions to just objects, rather than tools that could be used to end my life. I didn’t anticipate how the same problem would exist outside—highways, lakes, bridges—but it was only a week after Marcus died and I didn’t yet understand how when you want to die, the world is always willing to help.
When I did turn and see the blade, I felt more relief than fear. To die, I just had to run myself against his hand, easier, somehow, than if the knife were in my own grip. But the blade retreated into his sleeve once we made eye contact, and my death dream went with it. He said my name. I said his. He tried to explain, a joke, but I stopped him, opening my arms.
It was a hard hug, emptying my breath and sending us into a slow spin. We moved in circles until we had regained our composure.
I haven’t known anyone since moving here, he said, pulling away with an embarrassed smile. Will you walk with me?
I didn’t tell him about Marcus until much later—after we’d gone to my house, eaten dinner, exchanged stories from middle school and our lives since, and had sex, our hands and mouths frantic. Sunlight slanted through the room, nighttime in the light weather season, and his hand was threaded through my chest hair, trembling slightly.
Last week, I said, my best friend killed himself. He drove to the bridge and jumped off and didn’t say goodbye. He left meat defrosting on the kitchen counter—like he was going to die and then come back to keep living the next day. Can you believe that?
On the bed beside me, he shifted but didn’t retreat. All he let out was a hushed whistle.
I keep thinking, I said, about how he had to drive by my house on his way there. And how he didn’t stop. I wish I’d been out in the middle of the road so he couldn’t go by without running me over on the way.
But then you’d be dead instead, he said, his hand taking the chance to slip off my chest.
The word landed between us like a chick from its egg, feathered and wet.
He didn’t know how to pick it up, how to comfort something beyond resuscitation, and we stayed silent as our bodies began to freeze over, detaching themselves from one another. I knew we wouldn’t see one another again, but I followed as he dressed and made his way to the door.
Thanks for letting me tell you, I said.
He nodded, opened the front door, and stepped outside. The night air was breezy and bright, lifting the edges of his jacket. He took a few steps toward the street then turned back to me. I hope you don’t do it, he said.
Do what? I asked.
One of the harvestmen shifted beside me and I was pulled back to the present. I couldn’t tell if I had been speaking, but it felt as if the story had been exhumed, staling the air around us. Sorry, I said. I lost track of where I was.
We’re hungry, they said.
I’ll go for more food in the morning.
I turned off the lamp and darkness blanketed the room like a falling mine. I could have stayed there forever and slept like I would, only waking to reach out and make sure I was not alone.
Theirs was a need that could be met. I would meet it. I would fill my house until the idea of hunger abstracted to nothing. I would stuff the future full.
In the morning, my hands were full of bed sheets. After stumbling to the open window, I saw a trail of tracks leading out into the darkness. My body instantly begged to cry out, to hammer its own heart and tear at its own face, but I refused, gripping my sides until my breath leveled again. At the dresser, I discovered that the harvestmen had taken my clothing. Mementos, I thought, heart flaring. Walking through the house, though, I realized that they had grabbed without sentiment—gone were the towels, the jackets, the pairs of shoes by the door. My photo of Marcus still hung, a possible mercy that still saddened me. His use, I thought, should extend beyond these walls.
I reached the kitchen, where the floor was sticky and littered with empty boxes and punctured cans. How stupid I was for having bought so little. In a moment, I would be calm enough to stop shaking, to sit, to determine how much food would keep the harvestmen through the season. Theirs was a need that could be met. I would meet it. I would fill my house until the idea of hunger abstracted to nothing. I would stuff the future full. Then, I would go after them, my pajamas thin against the wind as I traced the soot tracks from one yard and into the next.
I’ve figured it out this time, I would tell the harvestmen when I found them.
It would be a house somewhere south of me, a place like mine but not.
Who is there? someone’s voice would ask when I knocked.
Scott Broker is a queer writer currently based in Columbus, Ohio. A Lambda Fellow, his work has been a finalist for the Iowa Review Fiction Prize, an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's "Fiction Open" Contest, and a nominee for two Pushcart Prizes. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Hobart, Passages North, DIAGRAM, and The Rumpus, among others. He can be found at www.scottjbroker.com.