Raising Tom Chambers
And, until Hank Ridley’s heart quit on him in the back garden and he’d pitched over in the tomatoes, and until Sarah had snuck out in the dark of night, Crump had been repulsed by the creatures. Even after she found herself utterly alone in the world, she avoided them. But they followed her, perching there on the kitchen windowsill, climbing across the front picture window. Whenever she went outside to clean the solar panels or harvest a basket of vegetables, she guarded herself against their advances. She fought them back with citronella torches—with a length of pipe she had fashioned into a club. And, in time, they disappeared. The weather changed and grew cold and her yard filled with their tiny corpses, and then the winter passed and it became warm again and there were no more Astras in the world.
Penny was thankful for the change in season, and she spent her days outside. The Oregon sunshine warmed the land and nourished her bountiful garden, and there were no people and no alien parasites and it was just Penny Crump and her thoughts and the wind that whipped off the surface of the white-capped Columbia River.
Then, one morning, she awoke and he was stuck to her ribcage. His head was fully embedded in the folds of skin beneath her sagging breasts, and she watched the thing with a creeping revulsion as its midsection pulsed; it was taking from her—draining her from the inside.
She tried to remain calm. It was common knowledge that simply ripping the parasite from her torso could lead to its beheading and, if that was the case, she was as good as dead. An infected Astra wound invariably ended badly. Instead, she walked calmly to the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea.
When she was finished with her breakfast, she went outside to the garden, remaining wary of additional Astras. Except for the one stuck to her midsection, there were none.
They were alone.
She went to the shed and found a set of old barbecue tongs. Gently, carefully, she tried to pry the thing from beneath her flesh.
Of course, it didn’t budge.
She spent the afternoon trying every folk remedy that she could think of for removing Martian Astras from the ribcage: warm water, alcohol soak, peanut butter—even tickling. That last attempt at removal had only caused the thing to burrow further, so she stopped immediately.
That night she ate a salad with grape tomatoes and watched a movie on the DVD player—Invasion of the Body Snatchers, how appropriate, ha, ha—and then decided to sleep on it. Careful not to roll onto her left side and crush the thing, she went to bed early and quickly fell asleep.
He had been a mere five inches in length when he first adhered, but on day two Penny Crump was sure that he’d grown. She decided to create a chart, marking the date clearly at the top and estimating the little bugger’s weight and length.
“Well,” she said, a mixture of sincere awe and pride in her tone, “you sure can eat!” She noticed that she, too, was famished, so she ate three apples, two pears and a whole bowl of bing cherries. She washed it all down with a frothy vanilla Ensure and, when she was finished with that, loosed a huge belch; the Astra seemed to grow agitated, cupping her sides with its little fingers in alarm.
Then it seemed to sigh and settle and become still.
“There, there,” Penny Crump said. She touched it, apprehensively at first, and then a little more kindly. “You’re the last of your kind, aren’t you?”
The Astra made no reply, of course, but there was a response all the same. From somewhere in the furthest reaches of her mind, a small voice agreed with her.