McCready’s Pets sat at the end of a mostly empty strip mall, its only neighbors a check cashing business and a liquor store. Ted had gotten directions from the internet, otherwise he might never have found the place. It was located in a bad part of town, hidden behind an old warehouse and a government-subsidized apartment complex. Crude paintings of dogs and birds covered most of the windows in front, and, except for his decaying, dirt-colored Honda, the parking spaces were all empty.
When he opened the door, he caught a glimpse of himself in the glass, looking every bit of his 53 years: a white push broom mustache, a chin that seemed to be melting into his neck, wiry wisps of hair on a leathery scalp. A bell tinkled overhead, and the barking of the puppies intensified. Birds flapped wildly about their cages.
Ted stepped into the warm interior of the shop, which was ripe with the smell of rodent urine and cedar chips, and let the door slip shut behind him. It was a narrow space comprised of a single aisle of shelves overstuffed with cages and pet supplies. Birds on the left, mostly parakeets, a handful of cockatiels bobbing their heads at the sight of him, and the saddest looking macaw he'd ever seen. Rodents on the right, hamsters and gerbils, a rat, dozens of mice. And in the back, a window into a room full of puppies and kittens in cages.
“Can I help you?” Behind the counter on his left stood a young man in a faux-leather jacket, a pair of thick-rimmed glasses balanced on a prominent nose. He was flipping through a magazine and glanced up only for a moment when he spoke.
“Uh, yes,” Ted said. “I’m looking for a pet. Well, I mean, obviously. This is a pet store, after all.”
“Correct,” the young man said, flipping another page in his magazine. Ted could just see the layout, a woman in short shorts flopped on top of a custom-made hot rod. “What sort of pet were you interested in?”
“I’m looking for a companion,” Ted continued. “You know what I mean. Not just something that will sit in a cage and mind its own business.”
“I get it, yeah. A companion. Something you’ll get attached to.” The young man closed the magazine and slid it behind the cash register, then looked at Ted. “I’ve got this big fat cat at home. It doesn’t do anything but lie around and eat. It probably doesn’t even like me, but I don’t think I could live without that stupid flea bag. So, you want a dog or a cat?”
“Actually, I was hoping to find something unusual,” Ted said. “I don’t know what.”
The young man regarded him for a moment with narrowed eyes, then said, “You live alone?”
“I do now,” Ted replied, with an awkward chuckle. It was not a subject he wanted to get into with this complete stranger, so he gave a little shrug, hoping that would stave off any further inquiry.
It did. The young man came around the counter and approached him. “How unusual are we talking about here? I mean, we’ve got a couple of ferrets. That’s sort of unusual. Got a Chilean rose tarantula, but it’s not much of a companion. There’s a ugly-as-sin Chihuahua in the back.”
Ted strolled down the aisle, gazing at the various disinterested parakeets and rodents, the frantic cockatiels, the macaw gazing back with a single world-weary eye. The young man followed him, hands in the pockets of his jacket.
“Not the tarantula, for sure,” Ted said. “A ferret might be interesting. Don’t know much about them. What’s the most unusual animal you’ve got?”
The young man didn't answer. Ted took a few more steps, until the silence became uncomfortable, then stopped and glanced back to find him grinning.
“What?” Ted asked, puzzled by the response. “Yes, I’m serious. Why?”
The young man glanced over his shoulder at the front door, then looked back, still grinning, showing a mouthful of crooked teeth. “Okay, you really want to see the most unusual animal we’ve got?”
“Well, yes. I mean, what could it be?”
The young man took a hand out of his pocket and pointed toward the back of the store. “Mister, I’ve got one animal so unusual, I don’t even know what it is. It’s in the back if you want to see it.”
Ted, intrigued but also a little disturbed, studied the young man’s face. He looked excited, eyebrows up, mouth open, like a kid sharing a secret for the first time. Briefly, all too briefly, Ted wondered if he shouldn’t just get out of there right that second and drive away from McCready’s Pets as fast as his Honda Civic would take him, but in the end, he nodded and let the young man lead him. They walked past the birds and rodents, past the ferrets who were rolling around on a bed of what appeared to be shredded blue paper, past the Chilean rose tarantula perched on a rock in her tiny cage, past frogs and geckos and a corn snake wrapped around a fake tree branch. At the very back of the store, they took a left, moving past the wall of puppies and kittens.
“Where are we going, exactly?” Ted asked.
“The back room,” the young man said, glancing over his shoulder. “I haven’t put this thing out in the store yet. I was kinda waiting to see if I could figure out what it is.”
“What are we talking about here? Some kind of giant mutated rat or what?”
“You’ll see,” the young man said, pushing through the back door.
He led Ted into a small office area beside the kennel, where the barking of hopeful puppies was almost painful. A tall shelf covered in boxes took up one wall, a small desk and bulletin board the other. On the desk was an old fashioned office phone the size of a cinder block, a pile of papers, a small leather journal with yellow pages, and a cage with a pillowcase over it. He walked up to the cage, grabbed the edge of the pillowcase, gave Ted another strange smile and said, “You ready to see this thing?”
“I guess so,” Ted said. How weird could it be, really? The cage was small, made of wire rather than glass, and whatever was in there wasn’t making any sound.
The young man whipped the pillowcase away and made a sweeping gesture with one hand toward the cage. “Take a look at that!”
Ted leaned over and looked through the bars. He saw a floor of cedar bedding, a small food dish in the corner with some brown mess in it that he couldn't identify, and a water bottle hanging from a hook, but he didn't see any animal in the cage, not at first. Then he spied a small gray lump behind the food dish, a fuzzy back poking up from the cedar. The young man gave the cage a shake, and the animal reared up.
A small round body, not much bigger than the hamsters Ted had seen in the front of the store. Certainly nothing impressive or even particularly strange. But then it kept rising, and he saw its legs. Four naked limbs, ruddy brown with wrinkled skin, far too long for such a little body. One limb reached up, revealing flat toes which curled around the bars on the side of the cage.
“See what I mean?” the young man asked. “What do you figure it might be?”
It was climbing the bars now with its grotesque limbs. They looked like the shriveled legs of an old man, but the feet and toes were definitely not human, more like a toad’s feet. As it climbed, the top half of its body twisted to one side, revealing a blunt head with almost no neck, big round eyes, like glossy black beads, and a tiny mouth, open, revealing pink gums. The tip of its tongue was visible, shifting back and forth like the end of an earthworm. Ted was torn between numb fascination and revulsion. He leaned in even closer, and the creature stopped climbing and looked at him, unblinking.
“I figure it might be some kind of lemur or something,” the young man said. “It seems friendly enough, whatever it is.”
“Where did you get it?” Ted asked.
“It was here,” the young man said. He folded up the pillowcase and set it aside, then picked up the small leather journal. “My name’s Roger McCready. My grandfather was Charles McCready. He owned this place for years, but when he died, he left it to me.” He thrust the journal at Ted, who was still gazing into the blank eyes of the creature and didn't notice. “When Gramps died, I had to come in here and go through everything, and I found this guy in his cage under the desk with this book on top of the cage.” He tapped Ted on the shoulder with the journal.
Ted took it from him and flipped through it. Page after page filled with the worst cursive handwriting he'd ever seen. He stopped on a page and scanned it, and, although he could tell it was English, he couldn’t make out a tenth of the words.
“Wow, who wrote this?”
“I guess Gramps did,” Roger said with a shrug. “I can’t read much of it, but it appears to be a book on the care and feeding of this thing. I don’t even know what to call it. Can’t make out the name.”
Ted looked back at the creature. It had climbed to the very top of the cage and pressed itself against the bars, its gaze still fixed on him, its little tongue flitting back and forth like the pendulum of a clock. Indeed, it was the most unusual thing he'd ever seen, but its great big eyes and slack mouth made it look forlorn and afraid. The poor thing had been living in the dark under a desk in a filthy dump of a pet store. Ted felt kinship with it.
“I’ll take it,” he said. “How much?”
Roger McCready shrugged. “Gosh, I don’t know. If Gramps wrote a price for the thing in that book, I couldn’t find it.”
“I’ll give you a hundred bucks,” Ted said, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket.
“Man, you’re attached to it already,” Roger said with a laugh. “Okay, a hundred bucks it is.”
Ted fished out the bills, all twenties, and handed them over. Roger took the money and gave him the pillowcase. And just like that, the deal was done.
The creature--he had taken to calling it Peepers--clung to the side of its cage all the way home. Ted had the seatbelt around the cage, and for a few minutes the creature nibbled on the edge of the seatbelt, but then it grew bored and resumed staring at him. The journal, the pillowcase, and a small container of dried mealworms (as the brown mess had turned out to be) were in a paper bag on the floorboard.
Ted pulled into the parking lot of the run-down duplex that had become his home, set the paper bag on top of the cage and carried his new pet into the house. It took some fumbling around to get the key out of his pocket and get the door unlocked, but he managed it and stepped inside.
The one bedroom duplex had little in the way of furniture: a couch in the living room, a card table with a single chair in the kitchen, a mattress on the floor in the bedroom. The rest of his stuff remained in boxes, most of them still taped shut, sitting in piles in every room.
“You want to be alone, be alone,” was the last thing she had screamed at him. And so he had been, for almost six months now.
Ted walked into the kitchen and set the cage on the table. When he lifted the paper bag, he saw the little creature reaching for him with one of its long, shriveled limbs, toes grasping. He reached out and touched its foot, and the toes clung to him. They felt sticky.
“Hey there, little fella,” he said. “Let’s figure out what you are, shall we?”
It took some work to get his finger out of its grasp, but he didn’t want to pull too hard and hurt the poor thing. When his finger was free, he opened the paper bag and fished out the journal. He opened to the first page and again marveled at how bad the handwriting was.
The Care and Feeding of the…the last word was a mess of loops and squiggles.
“Of the what?” he said.
He studied the last word for a few minutes, tracing each mangled letter. He grabbed a pen and pad of paper from beside the nearby phone and wrote the letters down one at a time as he deciphered them. When he was done, he looked at what he had come up with.
“The Care and Feeding of the Homunculus,” he said, reading it out loud. “What the heck is a Homunculus?” He looked at his new pet. It was still reaching for him, still staring at him with its big, unblinking eyes. “Hey there, Homunculus,” he said, touching its foot again. It clamped down on his finger. “You want to come out of your cage and look around?”
When he said this, the creature released its hold on his finger and started climbing toward the door of the cage, as if it had understood him. When it reached the door, it grabbed the bars in its forelimbs and rattled them.
“Now that’s interesting,” Ted said, under his breath. “How smart are you, Peepers?”
He opened the cage door, and Peepers, who was still clinging to the door, plopped out and rolled onto the table. It lay on its back, legs sticking straight up, its tiny chest moving up and down with each breath. Ted reached down, cautiously slid his hand under the little Homunculus and picked it up. It let itself be held without complaint, curling its limbs up against its body.
“That’s a good boy…or girl,” Ted said, bringing it closer to his face. “You’re a funny-looking little thing, but you might be the mildest tempered animal I‘ve met.”
Peepers’ tongue was moving back and forth again but faster, like a clock going out of control, and its mouth opened wider, flashing those toothless pink gums. It almost looked like it was smiling. Ted rubbed its belly, and it actually made some kind of a purring sound, high-pitched and fast and in the back of its throat.
“Well, listen to that--”
The tongue shot out, so fast he scarcely saw it, like a chameleon’s tongue, a little blur of pink, and attached itself to his neck with a soft, wet thump.
“That’s an interesting little trick there, Peepers,” Ted said, reaching up to remove the tongue.
It made a slurping sound, and its body flew out of his hand and landed on his neck hard enough to made him gag. The body was warm against his flesh, and he could feel the tongue, a tiny hot point moving around. He reached up, feeling for the body. The Homunculus had nestled itself beneath his chin to one side of his windpipe. He tried to grab it around the middle, but it was pressed tightly against him, the legs tucked up beneath it. He couldn’t get his fingers under it, not without applying quite a bit of pressure and maybe injuring it.
“Alright, little guy, this isn’t funny,” he said. “Roger didn’t tell me about this.”
He picked up the journal again and flipped through it. A sea of scribbles. Certain words and phrases had been underlined in pencil, probably by the grandson: mealworms, likes to climb, soft bedding. Ted didn’t see anything about its freaky tongue, though he did come across the word attached underlined twice. The words before and after, however, were a mess. It might take him hours to decipher a single page. He sighed and tossed the book on the table. Then he tried again to gently pry the animal off his neck, but he still couldn't get his fingers under its body. And the more he tried, the more the little guy nuzzled in closer.
“Attached,” he said with a laugh, though he was beginning to feel a tiny bit of panic. It was pressing so hard against him now that breathing had become unpleasant.
He pushed away from the table, rose and walked to the bathroom. Stepping into the darkness, reaching for the light switch, he nearly tripped over an open box of toiletries. He cursed, kicked the box out of the way and flicked on the light. The only mirror in the house was the small oval one above the bathroom sink, and it was only there because it came with the building. Ted looked at himself in the mirror. The Homunculus was a fuzzy lump, no sign of those big black eyes or the hideous wrinkled legs. It looked like some kind of giant, deformed mole.
He turned on the faucet, wet his fingers and flicked water at the creature. He had always heard that cats hated water. Maybe, he figured, Homunculi hated it, as well. The flicked water had no effect, however, so he got a handful and smeared it on its back. The fur was all matted down, and the water dripped into Ted’s shirt and ran down his chest, but the creature didn't seem to mind.
He felt its tongue, hot as the end of a lit match, pressing into his skin, and the heat was spreading. Across his skin, into his skin.
“Okay, okay, that’s it,” Ted said, voice quavering.
He grabbed the Homunculus, grabbed it hard, squeezed the soggy little body, trying to force his fingers under it, but he only managed to dig into his own flesh with his fingernails. He pinched a fold of skin at the nape of its neck and pulled, gently at first, then with increasing strength, but it wouldn't budge.
Whatever was seeping into his flesh, the moment it reached his bloodstream it became pure agony.
“Get, get, get,” Ted shouted, batting at the Homunculus. The blows didn't seem to bother it.
The agony shot down into his chest like something molten flowing behind his ribcage. A knife. A knife. That was all Ted could think to do. Stab it. Cut it off. He ran into the kitchen and opened the silverware drawer, forgetting that the drawers were all empty. Everything was still boxed up, silverware and cups and dishes, and the boxes were stacked three high along the wall, unlabelled. He had moved in haste, just dumping whatever she would let him take. He knew he'd tossed in a few knives, but he had no idea where.
And the burning was all across his chest now, flowing through the chambers of his heart, making every heartbeat a lightning burst.
“Off, off,” Ted said, punching it. Punching as hard as he could, seeing stars with every blow.
On the fourth punch, the pain subsided. It turned into a kind of raw, unpleasant warmth and the tingling of traumatized nerves. Ted paused to catch his breath. His hand hurt, his neck hurt, his whole body trembled.
And then he heard the voice. A whisper, low and gentle, speaking slowly. Speaking inside his head.
“You must never leave me,” it said. “I cannot live without you, and you cannot live without me.”
It was not a thought but an audible voice, vibrating in his skull.
Poison. It injected me with poison, and the poison has gone to my brain. That’s what he thought.
He debated with himself. Should he call 911 first, or should he kill the stupid thing and take the carcass back to McCready’s for a refund? Either way, he was determined to get the Homunculus off his neck.
“I cannot live without you, and you cannot live without me,” the voice said again.
A tingling persisted in his neck, across his chest. Ted went to the row of boxes and tore open the first one, ripping through duct tape, cutting his hand on a sharp edge of cardboard. Inside, he found a jumble of random knick-knacks. He dug through, looking for something sharp, but only came up with a butter knife. He pulled out the knife and pressed the edge to the creature’s back.
“Feel that, Peepers?” he said, raspy and choked. “You’re coming off, little guy. Sorry.”
He pressed the tip of the knife into the space where the creature’s round body met his neck and wiggled it, working it in. The Homunculus twitched and tried to nestle more firmly, but the knife slipped underneath its body.
“It is not possible,” the voice said again. “You cannot separate us.”
Ted ignored the whispers. The knife was now all the way under the creature, and he gave it a twist. With a moist pop, the body came loose, the sticky little feet breaking their hold, and the Homunculus fell. But the tongue was still attached, and it hung from him now like some strange kind of spider hanging from a too-thick thread.
Its legs thrashed, trying to find purchase. Ted dropped the knife and grabbed its body, holding it away from him. With the other hand, he reached up and grabbed the tongue. It felt like a hollow worm, slick and pulsing. He pinched it between his fingers and pulled.
Immediately, pain like a blade stabbed down from his neck into his chest. His heart skipped a beat then slammed against his sternum and began to pound violently. Ted cried out and dropped to his knees, gripping his chest. Fire, fire all through his body, and his chest felt like it was being ripped open. A curtain of red fell over his vision, and he heard the blood rushing in his ears. He lost his grip on the Homunculus, lost his grip on everything, and the whole world seemed to be slipping away from him. Dying. He was dying. He knew it. Agony filling everything, driving out the world.
But it passed. The agony melted into warmth, into the same numb tingling, and his heart settled and resumed a normal rhythm. The curtain of red lifted, and he took a great, heaving breath. He wiped tears from his eyes and probed at his neck with his fingers. The Homunculus had resettled itself against him, nuzzled in tight.
“You must never leave me,” the voice said again. “We are attached.”
Attached. Ted laughed at the word. Laughed bitterly. Attached, yes.
“You want to be alone, be alone,” she had said to him on the day he stormed out of the house. “Be alone!”
“I never said I wanted to be alone!” Oh, how he had protested at the time, and he laughed at that now, as well.
He rose and stumbled across the room, bumping into the table. The journal fell, and he picked it up. Flipping through, he saw the same mess of writing, the few underlined words. Likes to climb. He laughed at this. Soft bedding. The laughter became a cackle. Attached. The cackle became a scream. He grabbed his face in his hands, shut his eyes, and screamed.
“You cannot live without me,” the Homunculus said. “And I cannot live without you.”
Ted Garber stood on the sidewalk outside McCready’s Pets. His whole body felt numb, tingling all the way to his extremities. Whatever poison had seeped into him, it was everywhere now. The Homunculus no longer felt like something attached. The feel of it had merged with the feel of his own skin. He reached up and touched the round little back, the fuzzy gray hairs. Attached. Yes, and more than attached.
He thought of the grandfather, old Mr. McCready. How had he died? Ted hadn't asked. But of course not. One did not ask such things of a stranger. Perhaps the whispers of the Homunculus were only half true. “You cannot live without me.” Had Charles McCready learned this the hard way? Ted thought so.
He was staring at the pet store now with dull disbelief. Empty. The crude birds and puppies still pranced in paint on the windows, but the building beyond had been gutted. Aisles with nothing on them except a few scatterings of cedar, droppings, and pet food. The cash register was gone. The birds and rodents all gone. The smells lingered, but the yipping of puppies, the squawk of the macaw were silent.
Had it only been a day? Fewer than 24 hours. Yes, but it was all gone, as if Roger McCready had scooped it all up the second Ted left the store and hightailed it out of town. Ted stood there for a long time, one hand idly stroking the embedded creature, the other clamped over his mouth. Gone. Could McCready be found? He doubted it. If he reported this to the police, would they be able to track him down? His gut told him no. Could he go to a hospital and get this thing removed? Yes, and he would die.
“I cannot live with you,” he muttered under his breath.
“And I cannot live without you,” the voice whispered in his head.