Stan gripped the overhead bar tightly and stared forward as the bus jostled along through the city. The driver made a right turn, and the woman beside him pressed against him. She had a cohabitant attached to the back of her neck – a big one – and its fur bristled in Stan’s face.
Stan was a nice enough guy. He generally minded his own business. But why did people have to keep pushing him all the time? And why did he always lose whenever he pushed back?
“Sorry,” she said, and pulled away from him again. He could still smell the mix of perfume and feces. He was afraid for a moment that he might shiver or do something that would offend the woman, so he looked at the television screen above for some distraction. It was one of those daytime talk shows that lonely fat women watch in the middle of the day. Some pretty boy was pointing to the cohabitant on his arm and talking.
“Tyler Steele has a cohabitant?” said a twenty-something woman in the seat just in front of him. She turned to the other twenty-something woman beside her. “I didn’t know Tyler Steele had a cohabitant!” She stood up and turned up the volume.
“How has your family reacted to the news?”
“Well, Chelsea, they’ve actually been very supportive for the most part. One grandpa isn’t very fond of it, though. He told me that I’m welcome, but that my cohabitant isn’t. As if I can just take it off when I come over for Thanksgiving dinner.”
“Do you ever take it off?”
“Never. We are bonded. I am my cohabitant. I am defined by it. I don’t take off my arm or my head whenever I want, do I? I actually said that to him, and he just got mad. But I think he’ll come around.”
“And what about your fans? How have they reacted?”
“For the most part, they’ve been very supportive too. I’m very thankful that I can live in such a progressive country as this one, where people accept each other so freely and openly.”
Stan tried to ignore the stream of brown fluid that was streaking down the back of the woman beside him. She suddenly reached up a hand to the lower part of her neck and touched it.
“Oh, you naughty little thing!” she said, laughing. She pulled a bottle of perfume from her purse and sprayed herself on the back. Stan closed his eyes and just wished the bus ride would be over soon.
“Yes, this is certainly going to affect my career. Even when producers are open-minded and tolerant about cohabitants, the fact is that there are some roles that I simply cannot play with this little guy on me. But that’s okay. I’ve lost some opportunities, but I’ve also started getting calls from producers specifically because I have a cohabitant.”
“Well, we’re glad for that, and we wish you all the luck with your new career.”
“Now you brought a friend with you today, yes? Could you tell us a little more about your friend?”
“That’s right. I met him while I was still in doubt about my own identity as a cohabitant. He showed me how wonderful it is to be a cohabitant – how much of a blessing it is to have another life tied with your own. I can’t even begin to express how much his example has meant to me.”
“Well, let’s bring him out! Ray, come on out!”
Stan watched as a man completely covered with cohabitants waddled onto Chelsea’s stage, waving stiffly to the audience. As far as Stan could tell, he wasn’t wearing a scrap of clothing – there were just furry balls of various colors and sizes attached to his flesh in various places, covering every bit of his skin except his face, hands, and feet. Stan looked over at the woman who had bumped him a moment earlier. She was subconsciously stroking her cohabitant while she watched Chelsea, Ray, and Tyler smile and talk excitedly about her favorite thing in the world.
“Now Ray, tell us what inspired you to do this.”
“I had nothing to live for, Chelsea. All my life, I had always believed that I could find meaning in money, power, fame, or religion, but because I had none of those, I felt lost and alone. And then the Arrival occurred, and our friends from Gamma Prime gave me something to live for.”
“They gave you a cohabitant.”
“Yes, I was actually one of the first. Now, most of the others only got one or two cohabitants, but as for myself, I didn’t want to stop there. As long as I had space left, there was a place for another friend.”
“And what do you think that your life has now that it didn’t have before the Arrival?”
“It’s difficult to explain. First off, there is this sense of being connected to life. It’s so different from anything else in the human experience. Some people equate it with sex, but I don’t. I don’t think it’s like that at all – it’s more like a mother being with child, except that I’m not sure who is the mother and who is the child. It’s a very beautiful thing.”
“Many people say that the relationship between you and your cohabitants is an unnatural thing. What do you have to say about that?”
“It’s ridiculous. There’s nothing more natural than the symbiosis of two intelligent organisms.”
“That’s very true. But again, other people will say, ‘Yes, it’s fine and good to have a cohabitant, but this guy has taken it way too far.’ What would you say to that?”
“I say those people should let go of their hate. Because that’s what it is, Chelsea. It’s hate, pure and simple. There’s nothing reasonable about it. Look at me. I’m healthier than most abstainers. What harm do they cause me? No harm at all. My message to the world is pure and simple: love. I decided to do this because I love.”
Ray’s mentioning of health caused Stan to think back on the rehabilitation class he had taken the week before.
“The goal of this class,” said his even-toned, pony-tailed instructor, “is to bring about a state of ideological and emotional health in everyone involved.”
Sitting in a circle, they would first engage in a cleansing breathing exercise, and then do a series of choreographed hand motions to summon the Chi. Stan never felt anything particularly special, but he had definitely preferred the silence to hearing his instructor lecture.
“Remove the hate from your heart,” his instructor had said while sitting cross-legged. “No bitterness. No envy. No malice. Just love and tolerance.”
Stan recalled how, on the third day, the instructor had removed his own cohabitant and passed it around the circle for everyone to hold. That had been the first time he had ever intentionally touched a cohabitant. Holding it in his hands, he looked at the ring of pointy legs raying out from its smaller ring of needle teeth. When it started making slurping sounds, he passed it on and instinctively wiped his hands on his pants. Seeing him do this, the instructor had been not at all pleased.
“Cohabitants are not animals or parasites,” the instructor had said. “They are partners. They are life-companions. They are equals.”
Stan felt that the instructor had looked at him exactly when he said the word “parasites” – probably because that was the specific word that had landed him in rehabilitation. In discussing cohabitants with a coworker, he had made the mistake of saying that cohabitants technically were parasites. Unfortunately for him, that coworker had a small cohabitant hidden away under his clothes. That same coworker had reported Stan to the manager.
Shoulders slumped, Stan waited for the bus ride to end and his Monday at work to begin. It would be his first day back after the week-long rehabilitation. He hoped that he would be able to keep doing his job without any more mishaps. From the back of the bus, a few school children pushed past him toward the front. All of them had small cohabitants attached to their necks. As the bus decelerated, he watched one of the girls stroke the furry ball that was clinging to her so tightly.
Stan frowned and scratched the scruff on his face as he thought of how he was going to face his coworker now. He would surely have to apologize, and that thought incensed him even more than the other events that had led him to this point. Why should he apologize for stating a simple fact?
He sighed. Sure, he didn’t have to like it, and he didn’t have to get one of those oversized ticks for himself, but he was a grown man. If he couldn’t come to accept this type of lifestyle, he could at least manage to choke back his disgust. Let them have their bloodsucking fuzzballs. As long as they didn’t expect him to become a host too, he would just smile and nod. His father had always told him never to argue with a fool, and he had now come to realize just how valuable that advice was – especially when it was about something that did not constitute any sort of direct harm to himself.
The cohabitant craze was just a horrendous fad: it would go the way of the bellbottoms and the mullet, and all of these folks would one day laugh and tell their grandchildren how they had spent a decade letting ticks from outer space suck on their necks so they could look hip.
Yes, let them have their neo-hippie ideals. Stan would keep his mouth shut, keep wearing a necktie, and keep taking care of himself. They had sent him to rehabilitation to learn a lesson. Well, he hadn’t exactly “learned” what they had intended, but he had learned enough. He had learned to suppress his gag reflex for long enough to get what he wanted from the world.
As the bus started up again, Stan watched the last of the school children slide out of view, his eyes fixed on one particular little boy. He was very small, even for a child his age, and he had an abnormally large cohabitant fixed to his back. Its upper half filled his shirt and made him look like Quasimodo, while its lower half jiggled like a waterbed as it bumped along on the ground behind him.
With his backpack under his arm, the tiny child hunched his way to class.