THE THING ABOUT LOVE

Golden afternoon sunlight flooded the car as Karen drove down the road. The canopy of vivid red, yellow and orange leaves made it feel as if she were travelling through a fiery tunnel. One arm hung out the window, her hand gliding through the warm air of an Indian summer, her goldenrod-colored hair flying about her head. Everything was bright, warm, and cozy, and it acted as a mirror to the warmth she felt in her own soul.

Karen was in love.

To use such a bold and serious term as "love" both frightened and excited her. At times her inner voice called her silly, an overgrown school girl swooning over the dashing, dark-haired stranger. Except he wasn't a stranger; not any more. Nearly a month of dating had seen to that.

Karen had first met Lucas, not as a potential soul mate, but as a patient. He was a geologist, and had been stationed at an American base down in Antarctica over the previous summer. But something had gone wrong, some sort of accident. There were rumors of cabin fever, that the men had murdered each other. The base had burned down, leaving Lucas, the only survivor, out in the cold, alone. But someone must have called in an S.O.S.; a rescue helicopter found Lucas sitting on top of a mountainous snow drift nearly a mile away from the burnt wreckage, apparently in shock. From there he had been flown back to the military hospital in the U.S. where Karen worked as a nurse.

For over a week he had drifted in and out of consciousness, requiring constant supervision and intravenous nutrients. Karen was at his side the entire time, caring for him, nursing him back to health. She was an educated woman; she had heard of Nightingale syndrome, where a nurse falls in love with her patient for complicated psychological reasons. Maybe it had happened to her, but Karen didn't care. It wasn't just that Lucas was someone who needed her care, her nurturing. True, he had been extremely vulnerable for the first few weeks of their relationship. At times he seemed almost like a child, or a puppy; confused, uncertain about what he should do or how he should act in certain situations. But as he recovered his true personality quickly shone through, and Karen found that he was a charming, intelligent, and compassionate man. He always listened and always said the right things. He didn't pressure her for sex. In fact, they hadn't done much more than kiss. But that was alright. Karen knew that some things just needed to be taken slowly. At least this way she could be confident that he liked her for more than her body.

But it didn't hurt that he was very handsome. Dark hair, deep blue eyes, with rugged features and a dazzling smile. At times he had a sense of mystery about him, as though he knew a secret he wasn't sharing. Occasionally Karen would catch him watching her with a small, knowing, almost smug smile. When questioned he would simply laugh and shrug enigmatically.

Lucas could be such a tease.

The car rounded a bend and she entered the small town of Grenfield. The population was about 10,000, but Karen didn't mind. She thought it was a good number; not so small that the place seemed deserted, but small enough that everyone knew each other. She turned onto Main Street and entered the town proper, passing colonial white-washed buildings. It was all so quaint; there was even a barber shop with the stripy pole. She passed the town square, where children were helping set up pumpkins and scarecrows in anticipation of Halloween. A German shepherd was running about and barking at the scarecrows, making the children shriek with laughter. The sight made her smile; this would be a lovely place to start a family.

At the corner of Main and 7th Street she saw the coffee shop and pulled into a parking space next to a familiar sky-blue Ford truck. Her heart leapt a beat: Lucas was already here. After briefly checking her hair in the rear-view mirror she stepped out of her own car and entered the shop, a small bell tinkling as she pushed the door open. The interior of the coffee shop was just as charming and cozy as the rest of the town: the floor tiles a pleasant terra-cotta red, with small round tables with curving iron-work legs dotted around the room, and a record player in a corner softly playing jazz. The air was thick with the smell of coffee beans and various baked pastries. The old man in white behind the counter gave her a cheery wave and toothy smile, which she returned.

"Karen!"

She turned and her heart leapt once more; Lucas sat at a table by the windows facing Main Street, two steaming cups of coffee and a croissant already on the table. He rose to his feet, smiling, as she hurried over, and they embraced. She loved the feeling of his arms around her, strong yet also gentle. He kissed her neck and she giggled.

"So glad you came," Lucas said as they sat down.

"So am I," Karen said. "This place is wonderful; you're so lucky to have grown up here."

Lucas merely offered a modest shrug in return that made Karen want to playfully punch his shoulder. Instead she took an experimental sip of her coffee. It was piping hot and exactly the way she liked it. Lucas knew her so well.

"I take it you got the O.K. to stay the weekend?" Lucas asked over the rim of his own mug.

Karen nodded. Gulping down a scalding mouthful of coffee she said, "I had to break a few arms, but I'm all yours for the next three days."

Lucas grinned, the expression lighting up his entire face. "Excellent. How are you liking the coffee?"

"It's delicious! Much better than anything we get back in the city."

Lucas looked crestfallen. "That's too bad."

Karen frowned. "What? Why?"

Shrugging, Lucas replied, with an air of regret, "I was just thinking we could ditch the bean shop and head back to my place." A hint of a mischievous smile crept onto his face.

Karen practically slammed down her mug, slopping a bit of coffee onto the table. She composed herself– mustn't seem too eager– and said casually, "Oh sure, if you want, we could leave…"

The grin returned. "Excellent idea." He rose to his feet, one hand extended. Smiling, Karen took it and was practically lifted into the air. Lucas took her dramatically in his arms.

"Alas, Roger!" he cried to the man at the counter. "We must depart! My fair lady tires of your sub-par service!"

Roger simply gave his toothy grin and nodded. With another dramatic flourish Lucas hoisted Karen up into his arms and carried her out of the coffee shop. She giggled uncontrollably the entire way.

Lucas's house was a white two-story with dark blue trimming and a well-manicured lawn. Apparently someone had been hired to tend to it while he was in Antarctica.

"This used to be my parents' home," he explained as they entered the front hall, a long stretch of dark wooden floor and off-white stucco walls with yellow molding. "I grew up here."

Karen followed him down the hall, past a living room on the left, where a couch and two chairs could be seen facing a fireplace. A grand piano stood off to the right.

"Do you play?" Karen asked, indicating the instrument.

Lucas shrugged. "A bit. Been a while since my last lesson. We couldn't get one hauled down onto the ice."

Karen was a bit taken aback at this. She hadn't heard Lucas say a word about being in Antarctica since the hospital. She paused at the door way. "I'd love to hear you play."

Again Lucas shrugged. "Nah," he said, and continued down the hall, past the kitchen, towards a staircase. "You coming?"

Karen followed, a tickling of excitement building in her stomach. "You seem to have the afternoon planned out," she commented, trying to sound nonchalant.

Lucas laughed. "Oh, yeah."

He led her up the creaking stairs to the second floor. It was slightly darker up here, with four rooms branching off the main landing: one was a bathroom, the other three bedrooms. Lucas paused at the closest bedroom.

"Ladies first."

Karen couldn't stop grinning. She entered the room, which featured a large double-door window opposite the doorway that opened to a small balcony, and a king-sized bed against the wall to the left. Lucas followed after, closing the door behind him.

"Is that necessary?" Karen asked, adding a slight hint of seductive huskiness to her voice as she sat on the edge of the bed, legs crossed so that her skirt was raised just a bit.

"Oh I think so," Lucas said with a grin and leapt onto the bed. He grasped her by the shoulders and rolled so that she was on her back while he straddled her waist. Karen laughed in surprise. His eager energy was unexpected, but not unwanted.

"Easy, cowboy!"

He simply grinned down at her. Gently taking her wrists in his hands he raised them above her head, holding them against the bed. She smiled up at him, a tad nervously, her breath becoming a bit shallower.

"Ready?" he whispered.

Karen nodded.

Lucas lowered his face towards hers.

It was a split second too late that Karen noticed something odd. As she tried to move her arms into a slightly more comfortable position, it seemed that Lucas's hands were literally stuck to her wrists; were, in fact, melting into them. But by then his face was less than an inch from hers.

With a wet peeling sound it split open, the front of his skull folding back like the petals of a flower, to reveal a dark, gurgling maw lined with needle-like teeth. Momentary shock and general disbelief at what had just happened kept Karen from screaming.

Then its head jerked forward and Karen's face was entirely engulfed inside the gory opening. She screamed into the inside of its skull as the needles pierced her skin. The petal-flaps of what had been its face closed partially to grip the back of her head, her golden hair slick and dark with blood. She thrashed about on the bed, but its legs held her tight around the waist, pinning her down. She tried to push it away with her hands, but her hands and arms were no longer her own; they were theirs. Its hands had fused into hers, so that they were now connected by two twisted, fleshy ropes.

Karen's mind was in absolute panic, not thinking or comprehending what was happening, just pushing, driving towards some way to survive. She tried desperately to throw it off her, but was slammed back down onto the mattress. Then long, barbed tendrils snaked up from its gullet and, piercing through her temples and eye sockets, entered her brain. The grey matter was quickly assimilated and converted to the thing's own cells. Whatever it was that had made Karen, Karen, was now gone; finally it had some semblance of control. The assimilated brain told the rest of the body to stop struggling, allowing the assimilation proper to begin.

Fifteen minutes later the thing on the bed was nothing more than a large, quivering mass of twisted flesh lying on shredded, blood-soaked clothes and sheets.

Thirty minutes later it resembled a pair of highly-deformed conjoined twins, one (apparently female) slowly pushing its way out of the other (apparently male).

An hour later two nude people sat on the bed: one a handsome male with dark hair, the other a gorgeous female with long locks of marigold. Looking around, she located a bloody purse and rooted through it. She withdrew a lighter and two cigarettes, handing one to the male. They both lit up and inhaled deeply, smoking in silence.

All of Grenfield was abuzz over the newly-married young couple. The wedding had been small, quiet, and, apparently, spontaneous. A spur-of-the-moment decision after the girl, Karen, came to visit for the weekend. Some of the town's older inhabitants disapproved of such a casual and seemingly-careless marriage (but they were always courteous enough to drop their stern mutterings to a carrying whisper whenever they saw the couple). The majority of the townsfolk, however, gladly welcomed the new couple. The husband, Lucas, had grown up in Grenfield, so he was alright, and Karen was certainly a nice enough girl. And the way they met was just so romantic, with Karen bringing Lucas back from the brink of death after that horrible tragedy ("Now how did he end up being the only survivor?" was the common sentiment, often asked with meaningfully raised eyebrows). And now they lived in the very home Lucas had grown up in, which was an absolutely perfect place to raise children, and they even had a dog (very loyal, that one, almost seemed to know what its masters were thinking). All in all Karen and Lucas were the very picture of a perfect young couple.

All in all, it was agreed, they were definitely in love.