Last Halloween, we featured a post about a visit to a reportedly haunted athenaeum, frequented by literary greats in its history. This year, we are featuring a work of fantastical short fiction by a new contributor which echoes the sentiment in these famed words from FDR's 1933 inaugural address: "[T]he only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Happy Halloween, everyone!
The Return of the Flutews
by C. B. Heinemann
The first time I saw one of those little creatures up close I nearly jumped out of my own skin. I’d heard about them, and had even seen one here and there from afar, but one evening as I sat hunched over the kitchen table going over my stack of unpaid bills I looked up and there it was, crawling up the wall next to the refrigerator. After jerking out of my chair I took a few deep breaths, removed my glasses, then replaced them over my nose, convinced I was either hallucinating or my home was being invaded by space aliens. "How’d you get into my house?!”
Covered in what looked like blue and green fur, it seemed to be a cross between a large bug and a gecko. The way it moved in slow motion was strange for either an insect or a lizard, but what really got my attention was the sound it made. At first I thought I heard a conversation out in my yard, but realized that the sound came from the thing itself—like a tiny person making talking noises without saying any real words. The tone was distinctly human-like, and I hoped I was merely having a very weird dream.
“Holy crap!” I said, trying to catch my breath. “Where did you come from?”
The thing twisted what I assumed was its head to one side before skittering down behind my stove.
I backed away, knocking over a trash can. “Hey, you can’t go there! I don’t want some weird frigging giant bug-thing living behind my stove. What are you?”
The thing didn’t reappear, and I felt no urge to go after it. I didn’t quite know what to do about it and felt a headache coming on. “I’m not hanging around here. I think I’ll have dinner out tonight.”
Closing the kitchen door behind me, I pulled out my phone to call a friend. My hands were trembling.
“Hey Paul, feel like going out for a bite to eat?”
“Thanks, but I’ve got to work tonight. Plus I just ate.”
I took a breath. “Um, I was wondering...I think I found something in my kitchen...like a big insect only with fur and no wings.”
I heard a chuckle. “Oh yeah, I found one of those on my porch. Cute little thing. Never seen one before.”
“You think it’s cute?”
“Well, yeah. Darned thing almost talks.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t find that cute at all. What is it, exactly?”
“No idea, but I’m not an expert. I’m going to ask Sandy. She’s a vet so maybe she’ll know. Did you catch it?”
“No, but it’s hiding behind my stove.”
“I caught mine and put it in a jar so I could look at it, but it made so much noise and buzzed around so that I let it go. That thing is pretty powerful for a bug or whatever it is.”
“Are you going to the pub later?”
“I’ll be there about nine-thirty. I’ll see if I can get Sandy to come with me.”
I rode my bike into town and stopped at the Lotus Garden Restaurant. Over my plate of shredded pork and Lo Mein, I stared idly at an antique Chinese painting of a man riding a donkey on a mountain path up in the clouds. I nearly flew out of my chair when I noticed a sinister figure on a tree. “Oh my God, it’s one of those...things!”
The couple at the table next to me looked up. “Excuse me,” said the man. “Are you all right?”
“I don’t know.” I peered closer. “My God, it looks just like it.”
I paid my bill and biked to the local pub, The Old Draft House, ordered an IPA, and sat trying to think. After a beer and a half I felt better, but when Paul sauntered in with his girlfriend Sandy, I felt stabs of anxiety. I could barely get through the how-are-you bits before I blurted it out. “Anybody know what those weird blue and green bug things are? Sandy, you must know. I just found one in my house, and it’s even weirder than I heard.”
“Calm down, man,” said Paul with a smile. He was a big, gentle guy with graying hair tied back into a ponytail and a pink face free of guile. “That thing has really gotten under your skin, hasn’t it?”
Sandy, an attractive woman with long honey-blond hair and big green eyes, sat next to me and began digging through her purse. “I know what you’re talking about,” she said in her Louisiana accent.
“They’re turning up everywhere, but I’ll be darned if I know what they are.”
“I’ve got one in my kitchen and I’m afraid to go home.”
A young guy sitting on a nearby stool turned to us. “You talking about those salamanders or whatever? Everybody I know has seen them.”
“I’ve seen two of them in my yard,” said another guy. “I don’t know if it’s a bug or a lizard or what.”
“That’s what we were talking about,” said Sandy with laugh. “I’m a veterinarian and even I don’t know.”
The bartender brought our round and chimed in. “I’ve got one living in my basement. I tried to put it in a terrarium, but it went berserk.”
“I did the same thing,” added Paul. “I had to let it go.”
“The craziest thing is, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed the same,” the bartender said looking up and down the bar and leaning closer, “and I’m not sure if it’s my imagination or what, but mine's not only getting bigger, it looks different. It’s down to four legs from six, with little feet.”
“Like a salamander?”
“Yeah, and that’s not all. It started off like a big grasshopper or cicada. Now it’s got a head. And that voice...”
“Yeah!” I cut in. “Like a baby trying to talk.”
Sandy grabbed my arm. “Speak of the devil.”
I followed her gaze to the television above the cash register. News 8 was showing some guy holding something that looked like what I had in my kitchen. “Turn it up, quick! This is it.”
“They’re appearing everywhere,” said the man.“They were thought to be extinct, but as we all are finding out, they’re making a comeback. In case you haven’t yet heard, they’re called flutews, and they originated in China.” The word flutew flashed on the screen.
“Flutews,” I said. “Why do they have to give it such a stupid name? How did he pronounce that again?”
“I didn’t catch it.”
“From China? How did they end up here? I just was eating in the Lotus Garden, and I swear to God I saw one of those things in an old painting. I nearly tossed my noodles.”
“They’re completely harmless. They don’t bite or sting, but they will try to get into your food, so keep everything in the fridge or in Tupperware.”
“I can’t believe this,” I muttered. “It’s like the Twilight Zone.”
“Hold on, I’m trying to hear this.”
“According to Chinese legend, these flutews started off being considered good luck, but that changed.” The camera pulled up close to the man’s face. “It seems that the flutews were almost completely wiped out centuries ago, killed off by the citizens of the areas they inhabited. Some survived, kept as pets, and were brought over here by immigrants. Remember, these are only legends, and we still know very little about these creatures. We here at News Eight will keep you updated on our new brightly-hued invaders.”
The station switched to news of a fire in an apartment building. “No other information?” I looked around incredulously. “We’ve just got to learn to live with these things crawling around everywhere?”
“I guess you haven’t seen many yet, but now that you’ve got one living with you, you’re sitting up and taking notice,” said Paul. “They’re like little pets. They do have a silly name, though.”
I ordered another beer. “It reminds me of that Star Trek episode about the furry things that multiplied everywhere.”
“Hey, what about the seventeen-year cicadas? Every seventeen years they pop out of the ground, zillions of them over the trees, the bushes, the streets, the gutters...”
“In your hair, clinging to your clothes,” Sandy added.
“Buzzing all day and all night long. Yeah, maybe it’s like that. Maybe they’ve been dormant for decades. Or centuries.”
“Lucky us they decided to wake up now.”
“I wonder if you can eat them?” The bartender grinned. “I don’t think I could do it myself. I’ll talk to the chef. Might be the next big thing.”
I shook my head. “Maybe it’s just psychological, but their size and that talking sound has me worried. If they were, like, half their size, they would be more interesting and less creepy.”
“I know what you mean,” said Sandy. “They’re a little intimidating. It’s hard to pin them down. I wouldn’t mind doing some research on these things. Think of it—it’s essentially a new species! It’s totally unheard of, except in Chinese legends.”
The headache returned. “I wish I could share your enthusiasm, Sandy, but this gives me a bad feeling.”
During the next few days I noticed more of them—on a tree, one crawling on top of a car. I even spotted one dangling from a woman’s purse as she walked down the street, oblivious to her hitchhiker. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of the flutew in my kitchen, and I could have sworn it was getting larger. Like the bartender said, it developed four legs with tiny feet and a distinct head. I wanted to get a better look, but I couldn’t bring myself to get close to it. I didn’t care what the so-called expert on the news said—I didn’t trust it.
People at work talked about their encounters with the flutews and everyone had a story. One woman’s dog chased an extraordinarily fast one through the neighborhood. I overheard a man telling someone on the phone that his four-year-old son caught one and tied a tiny toy harness on it, but it managed to escape. One of my buddies stopped at my desk. “I hear you have one living in your kitchen.”
“Yeah. Now I keep the kitchen door closed.”
“So you’re already giving up your place to him?” He laughed. “He’s probably eating cockroaches. I read somewhere on the Internet they do that. Slugs, cockroaches, things like that. Just be careful and don’t let him see you too much.”
“Some scientist was on last night talking about how they’ve got some kind of survival thing where they try to look like whatever other animal is living nearby.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a camouflage thing, you know, like some fish do. They try to look like whatever they’re living near.”
The headache returned. “So you’re saying that if it lives with me long enough, it’ll look like me?”
“If your flutew starts losing his hair, I’d say he’s halfway there.” He laughed again. “And keep him away from the beer.”
I decided that it was time to catch the thing and release it somewhere because I didn’t like mysterious creatures lurking around trying to impersonate me. “Enough of this,” I muttered on my way home. “This is getting out of hand. I don’t want to have anything to do with these stupid flutews.”
Spikes of alarm jabbed my nervous system. As I drove, my eyes were on the verges and woods. After a moment of adjustment I realized that there were dozens of flutews clinging to the brush, and even on some of the other cars. “Harmless? Are they sure about that?”
My jittering fingers reached for the radio and I tuned it to another news station. "It seems the flutews are everywhere, and are getting larger and altering their appearance." Another voice came on. “In a riding stable near Potomac, several flutews were found with horse-like heads.” The first guy returned. “Researchers are calling this the most puzzling phenomenon they’ve ever seen.”
Yet another voice came on. “The flutew is neither insect, lizard, nor mammal, but a kind of blend of the three. It has an incredible ability to take on the characteristics of whatever dominant animal lives nearby in an attempt to protect itself. And one of the strangest aspects is its ability to mimic the voices of other animals, including humans. In fact, reports are trickling in that some may have learned actual words, in the same way parrots and some other birds do.”
I turned off the radio and glanced at a cluster of trees. Three flutews, green and blue, dangled from a branch. I felt afraid, though I wasn’t sure exactly what I was afraid of. After all, the things were harmless. But that fear ran to the core of my being. It was a feeling unlike anything I’d ever known, and I had to fight against it. “Come on, man,” I told myself. “Don’t let this get to you. Think of it as...interesting.” The fear didn’t budge. “They’re not hurting anyone. This is just silly, irrational fear—fear of the unknown.”
When I got home my heart was pounding and I panted for breath. Without planning or thinking, I rushed into the house, pulled back the stove, and there it was, clinging to the wall next to the gas line. I didn’t want to look at it, but I could see that it was the size of a Barbie doll and had developed a large, round head. While horror tore through my system, I reached for the dustpan and a newspaper, scooped the thing into the dustpan, and covered it with newspaper. I could hear it chattering and felt the vibration of its body. I could have sworn I heard a little human voice saying, “Wha er ou, wha er ou.”
“Oh my God.” Praying I wouldn’t pass out, I staggered on legs of rubber to the front door, ripped it open, ran across the street and into a small park, where I tossed the dustpan, paper, and flutew into the bushes before turning and racing back to my house.
After slamming the door shut, I stood for a moment. My vision flickered and I felt lightheaded. Sweat gushed down my face and onto my shirt. “This thing is messing with my head. This is crazy—it’s harmless.”
I searched through the house, from the basement to the attic, to see if I could find any more flutews. I even listened for that baby-voice, but it seemed that flutew had been my only roommate. Collapsing onto the sofa, I turned on the television. “Maybe I should have named it,” I said, trying to make myself laugh. “At least now I’m finally flutew-free. I never want to see or hear any of those things again. I’m not going to look for them or even talk about them. They’re out of my life forever, I hope. Poor little bastard. He can’t help it, but...I just don’t like them.”
On Friday evening I decided that I had to watch a special report that had been advertised. Not thinking about something can be far more difficult than thinking about it, and I began to feel that I couldn’t live my life until the flutews either disappeared or I learned to accept them.
When I turned on the television, however, what I saw was so horrible that I wished I hadn’t. Heaps of dead, mangled, flutews lay by the side of the road—like strange toys, beaten to death and tossed into piles.
“Unfortunately, this has become part two of the flutew invasion. Although they are harmless and even friendly to humans, people who are disturbed by the flutews are going out and killing them in great numbers. There even seems to be an organization coordinating this on the Internet. Disturbed people have been going out and killing as many of the flutews as they can—in the woods and fields, going into yards, everywhere they can find them, and usually at night.”
“That’s right,” said a woman as the camera showed more crushed flutew bodies. “In fact, police in some areas describe it as a ‘killing mania.’ Some lawmakers are rushing to pass bills protecting the flutews before they’re wiped out.”
I thought of my flutew and realized he might end up beaten to death if he wasn’t dead already. As uneasy as I felt about them, I wished them no harm, and the violent reaction others had to them revolted me. That poor flutew never did anything but purr at me and eat the bugs behind my refrigerator.
Before realizing I had already taken action I was out the door and halfway across the street with a flashlight and dustpan. Carefully, I stepped into the park and called out the only thing I could think of—“Wha er ou! Wha er ou!”
The sun had just eased below the horizon, so the light was dim. A bunch of guys in hoodies tramped up the street in my direction, and I saw bats and sticks in their hands. “Come on—here, flutew!” I urged. “Come on! Wha er ou! Wha er ou!”
A chirp erupted from the tree beside me, and I turned and saw my flutew. He had a round head and plump belly—I knew damned well he was trying to look like me. It wasn’t flattering, but for the very first time I felt a wave of empathy for him. I poked the dustpan under him. “Come on, flutew. I’m sorry I kicked you out. I had no idea. I still don’t, but come on anyway. I’m not letting anybody hurt you. You’re my flutew, after all, so come on!”
To my amazement, he hopped into the dustpan. I covered him with the newspaper in my other hand and made my way back to my house, trying to walk casually to avoid suspicion. The guys in hoodies laughed and hooted, thrashing their sticks through the bushes. My heart started slamming again, but they didn’t challenge me. When I reached my front gate, I turned to them. “What are you doing, anyway?”
“Looking for flutews,” one said with a hesitant laugh. “What’s it to you?”
“What did they ever do to you?”
The guy turned away, ignoring my question.
Once inside, I ran down into the basement with the flutew and crouched beside my storage refrigerator. “Okay, flutew, you can live down here. I know you like fridges, and there are plenty of cave crickets and stuff you can eat. I guess I’m going to have to get used to you.” I watched him crawl on four legs to the back of the refrigerator. He turned and blinked at me.
“I guess you’re not so scary after all,” I said. “I just didn’t know what you were and it freaked me out. But you’re okay. You can live here and I’ll take care of you.” I looked at him for a moment. “I’d better give you a name. Maybe you’re a girl flutew—how can I tell? Judging from your appearance, I ought to call you Frank. Strange as it is to both of us, though I thought I needed protection from you, it’s now my job to protect you. Hell, for all I know, you guys could be the best friends we humans ever had.” A strange, deep sorrow flooded my heart. “We were just too frightened and ignorant to give you a chance.”
Bio: C. B. Heinemann has been performing, recording and touring with rock and Irish music groups for more than 30 years. The Washington Post said his songs are “. . . among the best coming from either side of the Atlantic,” and Dirty Linen called him a “virtuoso.” His short stories have appeared in Florida English, Berkeley Fiction Review, Cigale, Rathalla Review, Howl, Ascent, Lowestoft Chronicles, Outside In Literary Journal, Storyteller, One Million Stories, Whistling Fire, Danse Macabre, Battered Suitcase, Fate, The Washington Post, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Cool Traveler, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Car & Travel. His stories have been featured in anthologies published by Florida English, One Million Stories, and Whereabouts.