The Retrieval

By Jacob Schwarz

A dark forest at night

Something sour was brewing. Under a glowing moon, characters roamed the sidewalks, dressed in strange hats of colorful polyester. Cheap, scratchy cloaks and masks of plastic shuffled into exit-only doors carrying coolers of glass bottles with rounded edges and monochrome labels. A man in skin-tight superhero garb carrying a thirty-gallon storage bin full of lukewarm sangria sloshed through the back door of an apartment complex and teetered up the stairs to the second floor, where “it” happened to live.  

Behind the door of room 219, resided a strange gray thing. A being that was like a human— like a thing in a human’s clothes. Though it certainly lived a human’s life— taking the shape of one, working the jobs of one— there was just something noticeably off about it. Its movements were uncanny, like a squirrel learning to control a human’s body. It rarely engaged in social interaction, frequently locking itself in its room, only emerging for food and water. As a result of these habits, its skin was disturbingly pale. Not the usual sort of aesthetic paleness you see in goths and hermits but rather this bloodless, blue-gray paleness, like that of a drowned body.  

No one could place a finger on the exact cause of these abnormalities, though some did try. Doctors made all kinds of approximations and took inconclusive x-rays; shrinks shuffled their three-letter acronyms and dichromatic pills; dermatologists lathered it in creams to encourage the production of melanin and restore some kind of natural human skin tone. Despite their valiant efforts, it seemed the thing would remain forever misshapen, detached, and gray. 

It sat on the end of its bed by a cracked window, taking deep breaths and blowing out mouthfuls of smoke, occasionally receding into a coughing fit. At the crest of another drag, it heard the apartment door swing open and slam shut, followed by footsteps heading for the bathroom, then a thud and the sound of loud retching. It snuffed the end of its cigarette into the windowsill. 

The bedroom door creaked open, and it slipped into the kitchen, then into the hall toward the bathroom. Light bled out of the half-open door. Inside was its roommate, Devon, with his face buried in the bowl vomiting up the festivities of the night. 

“Hey Devon,” it said. 

There was no response. 

“Do you need anything?”  

The vomiting continued. 

“Water, or… or a granola bar.” 

Still no response, just vomiting. It thought for a moment.  

“Well, actually I just ran out of the bars but I do have some loose granola.” 

The vomiting stopped, and Devon’s head remained firmly centered in the bowl. 

“It’s honey and oat granola. It’s the vanilla ice cream of granola.” 

The vomiting returned. 

“Okay. Sorry to bother you.” It closed the door a little and sank back into its room. Thankfully, Devon was not bothered at all, as he had his AirPods blasting at full volume. 

Behind the shut bedroom door, it paced frantically, breathing heavily. The way the same orange lamplight danced on the same bare walls every night, it was enough to make a man— or a thing— crazy. It threw on a hoodie, snuck through the living room to the hallway door and flung it open. The door slammed hard into something in the hallway, letting out a buoyant thud. A torrent of inky purple came flooding around the door, saturating the musty carpet shattering the fluorescent hallway hum. The door closed slowly, revealing a distraught, spandex-clad man standing over his fallen sangria bin. His shoes and legs and part of his gloves were now stained a velvety maroon. Both parties’ eyes stung with the stink of rotting grapes. 

“My juice!” the superhero exclaimed, “My juice!” 

“I’m sorry,” the thing cried, “I’m sorry.” It wondered why the superhero was transporting sangria in such a way but figured it was not the time to ask, as the man fell to his knees and began to scrape what he could of the putrid substance back into the bin. The thing quietly squelched past him, leaving dark shoeprints on the soaked hallway floor that squeaked down the stairs and out the door. 

It emerged upon the carnival night. It threw a hood over its strange head and stuffed its long, distorted fingers into its pockets, scratching nervously at its wallet with unkempt nails. Those colorful characters hanging around the complex took indirect glances, side-eyed snapshots as to surmise what this figure was— but it was nothing. No one. For it had no face, no spine, no heart. 

It wandered the curious, colorful night in confusion. Aimless, disoriented, a scrap of plastic on the highway shoulder. It led itself to a short stone wall, jutting out from the side of a steep hill, bordering the main road. The wall propped up a shadow, under which the being curled down at the base and slumped over. Some loose strands of its wiry hair fell into the wet dirt and made jungle gyms for ants. Paying no mind to the company, it stared hard into the valley with its cold, uncanny eyes, looking for an answer it knew would not come. Listening to the songs of the night. The choruses of frogs, the crickets’ repeating refrain, the freaked-out fluttering of bats overhead. It was all music— the music of outsiders, the music of inhumans. It came from nowhere and was seemingly everywhere. And my, how diligent those singers were— singing even if no one was listening. And no one was listening, in a disheveled pile at the feet of a short wall under a werewolf’s moon. 

It felt the warmth first. An artificial warmth, the kind a radiator gives off. A poisonous, electrical heat you could almost choke on. It lurched upright in a panic. Strands of hair began to rise as though afflicted by static electricity, outstretching like arms inviting a hug. The ants who played upon them suddenly lifted off into the air before burning up in quick blue flickers. Worms and beetles were pulled from the grass by invisible hands and fried to a crisp in a matter of seconds as they floated toward the teething stars. That’s when it noticed the darkness. A patch of sky where there were no stars, an unnatural obstruction. It was like a shard of the sky had shattered, fallen out. Then, there was the light. A glowing blue beam quickly erected itself from nothing around the figure. Patches of grass evaporated and the bricks on the wall began to blacken and char. It tried to stand but quickly found itself blind, unable to move. Soon the Earth faded, and its body was enveloped the glazing heat, where it kissed the sun. 

* * * 

It awoke to the sensation of cold water. It did not open its eyes, paralyzed in shock. Perhaps, this was a nightmare, and upon opening its eyes, it would be returned to the hard springs of its mattress. Its eyes creaked open like heavy coffin doors, and everything was white. They hovered in the center of a pure, heavenly white room, restrained. Held by unseen forces, strange invisible hands, floating in a tank of nothing. Against the white void its hands, legs, all areas of flesh that were once gray were now blue and glowing like the light that had bombarded it. It shone through the holes where its clothes had burned away in the heat, the tattering of a hoodie and sweatpants. It could hear what sounded like the whirring of machines in another room, perhaps on another floor. It thought it was dead, commuted to purgatory, before a sharp crushed static pierced through a small speaker in the ceiling, interrupting the distant hum and the thoughts of death. 

“Subject,” a robotic voice echoed through the emptiness. “Subject, do you understand me?” 

“Yes,” it was too overwhelmed to even have any questions to ask, “yes.” There was a brief, uncertain moment of silence, before the voice returned: 


In a hissing choir, a sweet air filled the endless, snowy vacancy, and soon, the being slept once more. It dreamt it was on a school bus, the scaly green seats empty, save for the one occupied by itself. The outside, too, was a void— not a blank whiteness, instead an endless summer sky. Cloudy and baby blue and perfect. There was no road, no grass, no ground. Crystal skies in all directions. It heard the hydraulics of the bus and the doors open, and quickly turned its head to find someone climbing up the stairs. It was an old friend from grade school, whose name was Boston. They hadn’t spoken, hadn’t thought of one another in years. He walked up the aisle and swung into the seat in front of it. No words were exchanged— able to be exchanged, as suddenly, Boston’s body was devoured by grotesque purple vines that resembled large, protruding veins. 

When it woke again, it was standing in a chamber, a cell. The room was dark. The walls were made of a black metal with the texture of obsidian. Its tarnished clothes had been removed which exposed glowing, blue flesh, everywhere. Light flooded into the room through a long, reinforced window, made of smooth, marbled glass. Behind it, stood another grotesque thing, also glowing blue, made of what seemed to be tentacles, or possibly a pile of blue leeches wriggling, struggling together as though shoved into a perfectly clear plastic bag and puppetted around by a giant invisible toddler. It raised a pulsing appendage to a circular pad on the wall and touched it, emitting a screeching static that pierced the chamber. There was a moment of garbled silence before it spoke in the same robotic voice as before. 


“Hello” the figure repeated. 

“How are you?” the squirming monsters robot voice inquired.  

“Good, how are you?” it replied reflexively. The monster paused; its tendrils slapped some button-looking things around. 

“You’re later than we expected.” 

“I’m sorry. It will not happen again.” 

Just then, what looked to be dozens of leech creatures burst in through the door on the other side of the glass, each holding foreign looking items, cylinders with rotating cuffs and flashing lights. The thick wall muffled the frantic garbled voices, as many of the creatures pressed against the glass, trying to get a closer look at the specimen. 

“One moment.” the robot voice spoke. The first creature turned away from the module and let out a screech that silenced the newly-formed crowd “Not one for human conversation” the monster observed. “It is highly doubtful, at least based on your biological readings, that you are feeling anything remotely close to ‘good.’” 

It swallowed tightly. 

“Moreover, you had no idea you were expected here, did you?” 

It shook its head. The creature turned back to the crowd and spoke in its gibberish language. Toward the end of its speech, it paused, turning back toward the abductee to deliver its last few syllables. The crowd of tentacled beasts erupted into nonsensical cheering. Their leader retook the communication module. The robotic voice spoke once more. 

“The retrieval has been a success. Welcome home.” 

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