He looked to be in his forties, but he had one of those faces where it’s hard to tell. His head was completely without hair, including his eyebrows, and his ears were pointed ever so slightly…”
by alan gunter
Mario’s Market is open 24 hours. They sell all of the things a regular market sells but their specialty is produce. Fifty-two year old George Skjovic works the night shift from 9:00 PM to 6:00 AM and he doesn’t particularly like his job. He sweeps the floors, and stocks the aisles, and prepares the fruit stands for the early morning shoppers. And for his efforts they pay him minimum wage. Furthermore, the people who come into Mario’s at the hours he works are some of the strangest people you’d ever want to meet. So why does George Skjovic want to work at Mario’s? It’s simple: it’s less than a block from his small, one bedroom apartment. You see, George’s wife, Anna, is sick. She has a blood disease so rare that the doctors don’t have the medicines to cure her. In fact, they don’t even know what’s causing her white blood cells to attack her red blood cells. The doctors have told him that there’s nothing they can do. They tell him to just try and make her comfortable, and make sure she gets plenty of rest. Other than that, Anna has only a few months to live. And George wants to stay as close to her as he can. So he’s willing to put up with working the night shift at Mario’s because Anna is the most important thing in the world to him. But he’s about to meet a man that will change both his life and Anna’s. George will soon discover that quite peculiar types of miracles really do happen — in the Twilight Zone.
“Skjovic! Don’t forget that crate of oranges in the back, and you forgot to restock aisle 4 again.”
It was Mario’s son, Ernesto, the night manager. He doesn’t like George very much, probably because George doesn’t seem to be into his work and he wishes he would just quit. But he shows up every day when he’s supposed to, and for the most part, does his job pretty well. It’s just that tonight he’s been a little distracted. Anna took a turn for the worse yesterday afternoon and they had to rush her to the hospital. That’s where she is now, and George just wants to finish his shift and go to his Anna.
“Don’t forget the crate of oranges,” said George under his breath, mocking Ernesto’s whiny voice.
“Yes, Ernesto!” he yelled back. “I’ll get to it right away, sir!”
“George?” said a pleasant male voice.
“Yes?” answered George, and he turned around.
There was nobody there. He wrinkled his brow, his eyes darting about the store.
“Over here, George!” said the voice.
George turned his head and saw a rather strange looking man, apparently the one who had called him. He was standing next to one of the empty fruit stands that George was to prepare. He was less than five feet tall, dressed in a tight brown suit, shiny black shoes, and a red bow tie. And he was carrying a sleek black cane with a bluish crystal as a handle. He looked to be in his forties, but he had one of those faces where it’s hard to tell. His head was completely without hair, including his eyebrows, and his ears were pointed ever so slightly. His eyes were light green, almost lime colored, and quite large; and he had a relatively small nose and a thin mouth. He reminded George of a troll, not that he’d ever seen a real troll.
“Did you call me, sir?”
“Yes, I did,” said the man.
“How do you know my name?” said George suspiciously.
“It’s on your name tag.”
But George didn’t wear a name tag. He never did. Why should he? It wasn’t his job to help the customers. But he looked down anyway, just to make sure. And there, pinned to his right breast pocket, was a name tag that said ‘George’ on it.
George touched it to make sure it was real. It was. He looked up at the man with confusion in his eyes.
“Who are you? And what do you want with me?”
“You can call me Thox,” he said, “and I’d like to hire you for seven days. I promise that I’ll make it worth your while.”
“I can’t,” said George, thinking about Anna.
“Don’t worry about Anna, George,” said Thox, “she’ll be all right.”
“How do you know about Anna?”
George was somewhat astonished. He had never told anyone that she was sick. Not even Ernesto knew that.
“Oh, I know a lot about you, George,” he said, “more than you know.” George just stood there, trying to size up this strange little man. Seeing George’s hesitation, he continued:
“I’ll tell you what. Do you know where the Purple Parrot is?”
“Yeah, it’s on 39th next to Sven’s Pizzaria.”
“That’s the one. I admit that it’s not the Ritz, but it’s a place where we can talk and no one will bother us. Meet me there when you get off work. Shall we say . . . 6:30?”
“Well . . .” George was thinking about it. “…okay, I’ll be there. But I’m not promising anything, Mr. Thox.”
“No, George. Not ‘Mr. Thox’. Just ‘Thox’. Here, take my card.”
He walked over to George and handed him what looked to be a black business card. George looked at the card. On it, was one word: ‘Thox’, and it was written in gold, script letters.
“That’s a …” George began, then stopped as he looked up.
He was gone. George looked around but Thox was nowhere to be found. He had just vanished into thin air.
“I must be losing my mind,” said George out loud.
It was then that he noticed the fruit stand that Thox had been standing next to. It was full of oranges. Big, juicy looking oranges, stacked in the most appealing way. George was sure that he hadn’t already done that stand. Besides, he couldn’t figure out how anyone could stack oranges with such perfection.
“Thox!” whispered George. “Thanks.”
And he smiled.
George was on foot, but it was only a fifteen minute walk from Mario’s to the Purple Parrot. The Purple Parrot was a dive. The only problem was that it was closed at 6:15 in the morning, a fact that he’d completely forgotten to consider. So he just stood there like an idiot in front of a closed bar waiting for Thox.
“What am I doing here at this time of day? Why’d I think this place would be open?” said George out loud.
“Because it is open,” said a pleasant little voice.
It was Thox. He was standing right next to George and he didn’t even hear him walk up. George jumped.
“Don’t sneak up on me like that. You almost gave me a heart attack.”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic, George. You’re still here. See, . . . no heart attack,” he said reasonably.
Thox walked up to the front door and pulled on the handle. And just like that, the door opened.
“Come on, George. Let’s find a booth.”
And with that, he walked in. George just stood there.
“This is crazy!” thought George. “How …”
“George, you ask too many questions,” said Thox.
Once again, Thox was standing right next to him.
“Are you coming in, or not?” asked Thox.
“I give up,” said George resignedly. “Sure. Let’s go in and find a booth.”
And they did. There was no one else in the place, but there was a bartender at the bar, wiping down the counter.
“Hey, barkeep!” shouted Thox, “two cold ones.”
George watched as the bartender poured two huge beers from the tap and then brought them over to the table.
“What do I owe you?” asked Thox of the bartender.
“Don’t worry about it, Thox,” he responded. “Your money’s no good here.” The bartender walked back to the counter and continued his wiping.
“That’s what I like about this place,” said Thox, picking up his beer and chugging half of it, “their prices are so reasonable.”
George wasn’t sure if he was dreaming or not. It certainly was insane enough to be a dream.
“No,” said Thox, “it’s not a dream.”
He then chugged the remainder of his beer and set the glass down.
“Hey, barkeep!” he yelled again, “two more cold ones.”
The scene repeated itself and George now had two large beers in front of him.
“Okay,” said Thox, “let’s get down to business. I’ve been traveling all over the world looking for someone like you. It turns out, George, you are the only one with the antibodies I need.”
“Come again,” said George.
“Yeah. Let me explain. You see, my people are dying from a blood disease that our doctors can’t figure out. We have an epidemic, George,” he said, “and it won’t be long now until we’re all gone.”
“Including you?” asked George.
“That’s right,” said Thox. “Including me.”
Thox just sat there and stared at George, making him uncomfortable.
“Are you going to drink those beers?” asked Thox.
“Not really,” said George.
And with that, Thox took one of George’s beers and chugged the whole thing.
“Ahhhh!” that hits the spot,” said Thox.
“Thox, look,” said George, “get to the point already. You keep drinking those beers and you’re not going to be in any condition to explain anything. Now tell me what this job is that you want me to do for seven days.”
“George, . . .,” he paused, not knowing how George was going to take it, “I need four pints of your blood.”
He grabbed George’s other beer and chugged it.
“What? Are you nuts? My entire body has only . . .”
George didn’t know how many pints of blood he had in his body but four pints was way too much.
“That would kill me!”
“That’s why I need you for seven days,” said Thox. “You give us two pints, wait six days, and then we’ll take the other two pints. George, . . .” he leaned in closer, looked around to make sure no one was listening, and brought his voice to a whisper, “It will cure the disease my people have.”
He leaned back and looked at George to get his reaction.
“Yeah? And what’s in it for me?” asked George defiantly.
“I’ll save Anna.”
George’s face went pale. He’ll save Anna? If he can save Anna, George thought, then why doesn’t he just save his own people?
“Because it doesn’t work that way, George,” responded Thox. “It’s pretty technical. Do you really want me to explain the physiology of our bodies and then provide you with a detailed scientific reason why it can’t be done that way?”
“Well . . . no,” stammered George. Besides, he probably wouldn’t understand it.
“Suffice it to say that you can do us a great service, and in return I’ll give to you the most important thing in your life.”
George was tempted. How could he turn it down? He could save Anna!
“All right, Thox, you’ve got a deal,” replied George, his heart pounding like a hammer.
“Excellent!” beamed Thox. “Hey, barkeep! Two more cold ones.”
The bartender brought over two more beers.
“This time, George, drink with me. I’m going to make a toast.”
They both picked up their beers.
“Here’s to a long and fruitful relationship,” and he held out his glass to clink it with George’s.
They clinked glasses and chugged the beers.
“We should get started as soon as possible, George. How about right now?” He couldn’t do it now — he had to go to his Anna in the hospital. She would be scared and . . .”
“George, don’t worry about Anna,” said Thox. “She’ll be fine for the next week. Besides, when you return to her, she’ll be making a miraculous recovery — I promise.” And he widened his eyes and smiled.
“But what about my job?” asked George. “I can’t just walk away without telling anyone. They’d fire me.”
“I’ll tell you what, George, I’ll see to it that Ernesto not only doesn’t notice that you’re gone, but gives you a raise for doing such a fine job.”
That’s ridiculous, thought George. Ernesto was sure to notice and . . .
“Don’t underestimate me, George. I can do some pretty amazing things. And this thing with Ernesto? It’s child’s play.”
“Okay,” relented George. “What do we do now?”
“We go to your apartment and begin,” replied Thox.
“My apartment? We’re going to do this there?” asked George, incredulously.
“Sure. Where’d you expect to do it?”
“Well, I didn’t . . .”
“Relax, George. Let’s go. My people are dying by the minute. Time’s a-wastin’.” He reached over and grabbed George’s arm, winked, and kissed the blue crystal on his cane.
George was sitting at his kitchen table and Thox was across from him, still holding onto his arm.
“How do you feel, George?” asked Thox. “Pretty exciting, huh?”
George just looked at Thox and swallowed hard.
“Come on, let’s get you into bed and we’ll get started.”
They both got up and went into the bedroom, but it wasn’t like the bedroom he’d left that morning. There was a bed all right, but the nightstand had a clean white towel over it; and on the towel was a small bottle of alcohol, some cotton swabs, a pitcher of orange juice and several paper cups. On the other side of the bed was an IV stand, on which hung an empty clear plastic pint bag with clear rubber tubing attached to it.
“Lay down, George. It’ll be over before you know it.”
George did as he was told and Thox prepared the equipment. In less than a minute, Goerge’s blood was flowing into the bag. And as George watched it till he began to get drowsy, and he fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.
George opened his eyes slowly. The first thing he saw was Thox. He was standing next to the bed with a big grin, watching him. George looked at the plastic bag and saw that it was almost full. It felt like he’d been asleep for days but judging from the bag, it couldn’t have been more than a half an hour.
“Welcome back, George,” said Thox amiably. “Have a nice nap?”
“Yeah. How long have I been asleep?”
“Oh, let’s see,” he mused, and looked at his wrist as if there were a watch on it. “You got here on Tuesday at 7:00 AM and it’s now Monday evening . . . I’d say just a few hours short of a week.” And he looked at George as if that were normal.
“A week?” repeated George. “I’ve been sleeping for a whole week?”
“Yep. And I was impressed that you didn’t even snore.”
Just then, the bedroom door opened and Anna walked in.
“Anna! What are you doing home? And why are you out of bed, walking around? You know the doctor’s told you to stay in bed and get plenty of rest.”
“Oh, George. You’re such a worry wart,” and she came over to him and kissed him on the forehead. “Thox here has been helping me out and I’m getting stronger every day. Whatever he’s doing — it works. I feel like a whole new person.”
George looked at Thox with wonder in his eyes.
“So soon? I thought. . .”
“The cure is very fast, George. Anna’s responding well, and soon she’ll begin the transformation.”
“What? What transformation?”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? She’ll begin to take on my characteristics. She’ll lose all of her hair, her mouth will thin, her nose will get smaller, and her ears will become slightly pointed. Oh, and her eyes will get large, like mine, and turn a beautiful lime-green. All- in-all, she’ll be quite an attractive package, don’t you think?”
“Anna? Did you know about this?” asked George.
“Of course, dear,” she replied. “Thox explained everything to me. It’s a small price to pay to live forever.”
“Forever? What do you mean, ‘live forever’”? asked George anxiously.
“George,” said Thox, “My people are now inside of Anna. They are growing and multiplying and making her strong. One of the side effects is that she must be transformed physically to accommodate our colony. Another side effect is that as long as my people exist, so will Anna. Thank you, George. Our colonization is complete. You have your Anna and everyone is happy.”
George looked at Anna with horror in his eyes. But she was smiling and looking at Thox as if he were her new savior.
“Colonization? What are you talking about, Thox? Who are you?” George tried to sit up but couldn’t.
Thox began laughing. It was a high-pitched, unearthly laugh. It was the most alien thing George had ever heard. He’d been tricked. This wasn’t part of the deal.
“It was a pleasure doing business with you,” said Thox. “But now I’ve got to go. Goodbye, George.”
And he winked, kissed the blue crystal on his cane, and disappeared. Anna turned to George and their eyes met.
“I love you, George,” she said. “I always have and always will. I’ll never be able to repay you for what you’ve done for me.”
And she bent over and kissed him on the mouth. But as they kissed, their eyes remained open, staring at one another, and George could swear that Anna’s were never that green.
Some say that love conquers all, but George Skjovic let his love get in the way of seeing that he was making a terrible mistake. A mistake that he would pay for the rest of his life. True: he still has his job, and he still has his Anna, but he also has an alien colony of over three hundred million nanobots living inside of Anna. So, for now, George and Anna are trapped, forced to dance a rather macabre dance with beings from another world, Thoxian aliens, if you will; a dance that goes round and round, and where it will stop, God only knows. And you and I can only watch as George lives out his life, trying to think of a way to escape the madness he’s gotten himself into, a way to escape a rather bizarre place called the Twilight Zone.
(illustration: john richen)