He took the name Desmond this time. It sounded nice as he said it out loud. He repeated the name, trying to commit it to memory.
“What’d you say?” his partner muttered; words slurred.
“Nothing,” Desmond said in the language both knew. Then he made the mistake of letting slip his partner’s real name. It sounded as foreign as any other word in their tongue and Desmond was pretty sure no one in Albuquerque spoke it. Nonetheless, it was against the rules and Desmond received a sharp elbow for the error.
Desmond looked up to see if the bartender noticed. She had her nose to a phone, thumbs dancing on the screen.
“Sorry,” Desmond whispered, then reverted again to English. “Partner. I call you Partner.”
Desmond turned to his right to see if he was forgiven. All he received was a dead-eyed glance and Partner went back to acting drunk. Even sitting down, he was considerably shorter than Desmond. Partner’s hands were buried in the pockets of a baggy trench coat, his shaved head bobbed forward in feigned inebriation.
Maybe they should quit going to bars. There was very little about these places that Desmond liked, but this one, at least, wasn’t crowded. A guy in a cowboy hat was the only other customer. Desmond went back to studying his drink, the way sweat rolled down the side of the glass onto the cheap paper coaster.
“Can I have some more?” Desmond asked the bartender. He pushed a wad of used napkins toward her.
“Again?” She sighed, clicked off her phone and tossed it on the back bar. She made a show of grabbing a pile that was at least three inches thick. She plopped them in front of Desmond.
“Why do you do that anyway?” she asked. “If you don’t like condensation on the glass, don’t keep wiping it off, just wrap a freaking napkin around it.”
“Con-den-sa-tion.” Desmond tried out the new English word. “Makes the skin on my hands feel funny.”
“You’re the one that’s funny,” the bartender said. Then she addressed the cowboy, two stools down from Desmond. “This one’s a regular comedian.”
Desmond appraised the woman. She would do if no one else came along. He was bad at guessing ages, but she wasn’t young, kind of tough-looking. He liked her red hair and freckles.
Desmond tried his best to peel one napkin off the stack. His movements were stiff and brutish; dexterity was out of the question. Everything about Desmond was shaded black: skin, T‑shirt, denim jacket and jeans. Clearly frustrated, he pulled back his broad shoulders, then scooped the long tendrils of his box braids behind both ears. He did so with zero delicacy, raking fingers across his scalp and forcing the hair into place. He tried once again for a napkin.
“Here. Jesus.” The bartender plucked one and started wrapping the square of thin paper around his glass. Desmond tried to stop her; he grabbed her wrist and knocked the glass sideways. Vodka, tonic, and ice spilled toward the cowboy. Desmond held onto the woman’s wrist and looked over at his partner.
“Not time yet,” Partner said in their native language.
“Let the lady go,” the cowboy threatened.
When Desmond didn’t, the man stood up, removed his hat and set it on the stool behind him.
“Do what I say.” The cowboy growled.
“It’s okay, Bridger.” The bartender wrenched her wrist free. “I’m okay.”
“I’m not. They don’t need to drink at our bar. And they especially don’t need to manhandle our women.”
“I’m not your woman,” the redhead said, rubbing her wrist. “It’s last call anyway, so why don’t all three of you take it outside.”
“It’s time?” asked Partner, speaking in English.
“It’s time,” the bartender replied.
Partner steadied himself as he pushed to his feet. The trench coat flapped open to reveal a fish-white belly, pooching out below an untucked shirt. It didn’t seem possible that a spindly frame like his could support something so big and bloated.
“We ain’t finished here.” Bridger clutched his hips and widened his stance— a human roadblock impeding exit. Desmond was a head shorter than the cowboy, but quicker. Before Bridger could raise his fists, Desmond grabbed two handfuls of Pendleton shirt and brought a knee to the cowboy’s mid-section. Bridger’s legs buckled and he doubled over. Desmond’s square-toed boot connected with the man’s temple and the cowboy went down in a heap.
The bartender went for her phone, but when Partner’s switchblade snicked open, the redhead froze. She studied the face of the pot-bellied man, his dead eyes, how slack the skin was below his chin. He raised the knife when she inched sideways, slashed the air viciously as her hand moved toward the register. In slow motion her index finger came down on a button, opening the drawer.
The old machine chimed and clattered, revealing cash and coin. The sound wasn’t what made Desmond’s partner wince, but his gut. He grabbed his belly with his free hand, hunching forward.
“Leave him,” Partner grunted to Desmond, “Watch the girl.”
Desmond did as he was told. He slammed shut the register drawer and sidled into the narrow confines behind the bar. The redhead panicked and backed up as far as she could go, pressing her shoulders against wood paneling. One of the framed pictures toppled to the floor.
The knife clattered on the mahogany bar and Partner yanked his arms from the trench coat. He saw the bartender eyeballing the blade, nudged it forward and chuckled, as if daring her to grab it.
“Kill some of these lights,” he said to Desmond.
There were three switches above the cash register. Desmond flicked one and the overheads went out, the second turned off the amber-lamped sconces on the back bar.
“Leave those,” Partner said.
Desmond toggled it back. The third switch darkened all neon beer signs, including the one in the front window.
Partner wrestled off the long-sleeve turtleneck, his big belly constraining every movement. Finally, he peeled it off and tossed it atop the coat. His pale skin seemed loose; it practically tented from his arm pits down to the curve of his gut. But that wasn’t what got the bartender’s attention.
“Where are… no nipples,” she muttered, eyes blinking wide.
“Shut her up,” Partner ordered.
Desmond took a step toward the bartender. She raised one hand, urging Demond to stop, her other hand turned an invisible key that locked her lips.
“Good girl,” Partner said and retrieved the knife. “Now, my mate, here, is going to lock the front door. I suggest you not move.” In the foreign tongue he told Desmond to take her phone.
Desmond did. On his way back, he ground the heel of his boot into the cowboy’s ribs and got no response. With the same foot he rolled Bridger onto his stomach.
“He’s all yours,” Desmond said, positioning himself where he could see the bartender and the blessed event.
Now stripped from the waist up, Partner took the knife, waddled over and squat beside Bridger’s prostrate body. The Pendleton shirt parted effortlessly against the upward pull of sharp steel. The collar snagged, but only for a second. A firm jerk slit the shirt in half. The sound made the woman lean over the bar to see.
Desmond was fascinated by the bartender’s facial expressions and how they changed from moment to moment. When his partner performed the opening ritual—a loving caress to the delivery site—the redhead tilted her head, confused. She recoiled when she saw the knife move, and her face contorted with surprise and horror when the blade slit the skin-sheet covering Partner’s distended stomach. The bartender snapped her head away, but only for a second, as if she couldn’t help but watch.
Dropping the knife, Partner pulled at the incision, shredding the husk-like fibers until its real belly protruded: purple, scaly, creased with darker, horizontal folds. Something undulated beneath the purple skin, and it made Partner fall to its knees and groan. The inhuman sound made the redhead lean further forward, but what she saw next made her wretch. She clamped her hand over her mouth and fell behind the bar. Desmond heard vomiting.
When Desmond looked back, his partner was wrist deep between the purple folds of its swollen belly. A firm tug disgorged a bulbous wad of glop, and a yellowy, misshaped ball was placed on Bridger’s back. Twice more a sticky mass was birthed, the last squishy sound of discharge causing a fresh heave from the bartender. By the time the third one was deposited, the first had started to burrow, the deformed orb now a half-dome, like a giant blister.
Partner pushed away and laid back on the floor, breathing heavily. Desmond smiled with pride at the third whelp. Breeders usually birth two.
Desmond walked behind the bar and helped the redhead to her feet. He held her hand and guided her out, coaxing her to sit on the barstool. There was vomit in her hair and an unblinking, catatonic stare as her eyes fixed on the three squirming larvae on Bridger’s back. Desmond bent down to block her view.
“Look at me,” he said, “We’re just about done here.”
He held both her hands, his thumbs gently caressing the smooth, freckled skin of her wrists. Her blank expression never changed, even when he asked a question.
“What’s your name?
Her eyes, rimmed with tears, shifted to his. “Rosie.”
“Okay Rosie. We’re going to change now. Then we’ll be gone.”
She didn’t see the purple stinger rip through the covering of his thumb, piercing Rosie’s wrist. There was a momentary wince of pain, then her head lolled forward. Desmond guided the limp body down to the floor and laid her face up. Her eyes were open, but it was impossible to know if she saw what was happening to Desmond.
His face covering began to loosen and unravel. Desmond quickly shed his jacket and pulled off the T-shirt. The black, flesh-like veneer on his torso became slack and he reached up to the back of his neck and tugged. One good yank and the sheath pulled away, like a human-shaped body suit with eyes, ears and hair still attached; the weakened fabric ripped at the waist where the belt held firm. The thing that was Desmond had the same mottled, purple skin as his partner.
But Desmond was already changing, shrinking in size, taking on a smaller, more female frame. The jeans and belt were much too large at the waist now, and it was able to kick off the boots and step out of the clothes. Also left behind were the black leggings of the previous skin.
Now shaped like the bartender, pale, freckled faux-flesh began to form about its true purple dermis. Blue and white eyeballs covered vision slits, mock red hair distended double-fast to the shoulders. When finished, the new sheath had an uncanny resemblance to Rosie, aside from a lack of genitals and nipples.
Partner still lay on its back, resting. The former skin suit was heaped to one side in a messy pile. Partner held hands with the cowboy and had already mimicked the human’s anatomy. With the final weavings of new sheath growing into place, most of its strength had returned.
Partner sat up and tugged his Bridger skin into place. He inspected the nest to make sure the little ones had settled in. The scars left on the brooder flesh looked like third-degree burns. At least that’s what the next humans on the scene would think. They would find a burn victim and an unconscious bartender, both very much alive. If the humans followed protocol, the victims would be taken to a hospital. Somewhere en route, three hungry newborns would make short work of any human in the vicinity.
The cowboy got to his feet, looked over at Rosie and nodded. Gathering their previous skins, they exited the front door. First order of business was to find a place to hide until they were ready to mate again.
DL Shirey lives in Portland, Oregon under skies the color of bruises. Occasionally he lightens up, but his dark fiction can be found in Confingo, Zetetic, Liquid Imagination and in anthologies Twisted Anatomy and What Remains. Short of listing them all, visit www.dlshirey.com and @dlshirey on Twitter.