The Human Show
I’m not the only Californian Man in the human show, but Miss Carolyn assures me I am the best. Miss Carolyn is my handler. Her real name, like the language the Triptids speak, sounds like a riff on an accordion. She chose this human name for me to call her – it was suggested to her in one of her many books on adopting humans, all carefully arranged in her study.
She found me not long after I was abducted. I must have been in the storefront for about two days. It had been a rude awakening – one day I was sitting on my surfboard, watching the first rays of the sun gleam on the waves, and the next thing I knew I was in a cage of glass. I was naked in a bright, big room, surrounded by other people in glass cages. Each cage had a mat on the floor to sleep on. There were two bowls, one red, one blue - one for water, one with food pellets that tasted like sawdust. I’d been hungry when they abducted me, so when I woke up, I was famished. I ate the pellets without a second thought.
The Triptids must be at least twelve feet tall, with many black stem-like legs. They look like gigantic house centipedes and emit a scent that resembles rubber with a faint hint of lime. You would think this would be terrifying, but I never felt fear inside my glass cage, and none of the other humans seemed all that worried either. Later, Jessie told me that the Triptids produce a pheromone that naturally calms humans, keeping us docile.
I remember the day Miss Carolyn came to get me. She stood before my cage for a long time, asking questions to the Triptid who owned the human store. There was a small, metal device attached to my ear – a translation unit that had been implanted while I was sleeping. I could hear Miss Carolyn asking if I was fully vaccinated and if I had any health defects or behavioral problems. Then she turned to me and asked me my name. When I told her, she repeated it, “Jason…yes, I think I’ll keep it.”
I like Miss Carolyn a lot. She is one of the better handlers. She likes to make conversation – she asks me about life on Earth. She finds my accent very charming and when she has company she will show it off by asking me to say things. She asks me to talk about avocados and “gnarly waves.” Her ideas of Californian men seem to stem from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a film that she plays often on holotape. She’ll put it on and say to me, “He’s just like you!” referring to Spicoli. I want to tell her that this film was made twenty years before I was born, but I don’t like to be rude.
Miss Carolyn takes me for long, leisurely walks. This is my favorite part of the day. I love the orange grass and the high, billowing trees of my new home. There’s a neighboring red planet that you can see – it’s so close that sometimes you can make out the creatures on it. They are translucent green, and they glow. Miss Carolyn doesn’t like them much, and she will pull on my leash when I stop to stare at them.
I met Jessie on one of these walks. She was with her handler, Miss Vivian. Miss Vivian collects Chubby Americans. Jessie is one of six. Miss Vivian trusts them, and since she’s had them for so long and they are so well-behaved, they often walk off-leash.
“I see you have a new human,” said Miss Vivian.
“Yes, this is Jason,” said Miss Carolyn. Her mandibles took on a bright red glow, a symbol of pride. “He’s a Californian Man.”
“Like Spicoli!” cried Miss Vivian. Apparently Fast Times is very popular with the Triptids. “Good for you, Miss Carolyn. I could never keep up with a Californian Man myself. They’re too athletic! No, no – I just keep to my Chubby Americans. They have the same energy level as I do.”
The Triptids shared a hearty laugh. It sounded like two accordions in an up-tempo polka song. I looked over at Jessie, the only one of Miss Vivian’s Chubby Americans to stay directly by her side. I was struck by her beauty. She looked like something out of a Botticelli painting. I was used to being naked at this point, and seeing other humans naked, but I found myself self-conscious and awkward. I willed myself to look her in the face, but I could feel my cheeks burning.
“Doesn’t that offend you?” I asked her, referring to the conversation between our handlers.
Jessie shrugged. “What? I am chubby. I know that.”
I lowered my voice. “Isn’t it a little dehumanizing?”
She smiled, and her face lit up. I couldn’t believe how beautiful she was. “I get better health care here than I ever got on Earth,” she said. “The doctor listens to me! He doesn’t just tell me to lose weight. Plus, it’s free. Health care in America was a lot worse.’” She shrugged. “Miss Vivian is pretty cool too.”
“Oh, looks like my Jason has his eye on your Jessie,” said Miss Carolyn. “I could ask him if he’d like to stud for her…”
“No need,” said Miss Vivian with a wave of her stem-leg. “Jessie is fixed.”
Jessie raised her eyebrows at me. “I’d been asking to get my tubes tied for years on Earth, but no doctor would do it. I asked Miss Vivian and she had it done right away.” She kissed me on the cheek. “You’ll like it here, trust me.”
Our neighbor has a French man. Sometimes Miss Carolyn lets me out into the backyard, where I sit and contemplate. There are these royal blue dandelion-like plants sprinkled throughout the backyard. They glow when you touch them. Sometimes I gather a bunch of them in my arms, pressing my palms against the glowing orbs. They smell like baked bread. I’ve been tempted to eat them, but Miss Carolyn says they would make me sick.
The French man, Fabian, is often in the backyard next door. Sometimes he smokes cigarettes. He tells me his handler gives him cigarettes when behaves well. It’s been a hard transition for Fabian. He left behind a wife and kids, but it’s something more than that. He is insulted by the way he is treated. As far as I can tell, Miss Julia treats him perfectly fine, but he is discontent. Sometimes he starts hurtling abuses toward me from across the fence.
It is on one such occasion that Miss Carolyn takes me back inside, hushing me. She walks me over to her study and sits me on the couch. It is so large that I must jump to reach it, but it’s awfully comfortable up there.
“You shouldn’t let Fabian rile you up,” she says. She strokes my hair. It has a calming effect. I roll over my side, resting my head in her lap.
“He said that Americans are docile,” I tell her.
She nods, cooing softly at me. “That is something that Triptids say,” she tells me. “But don’t let it worry you. The French are more suitable for experienced handlers. They tend to be…difficult.”
Something needles at me, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think about something Fabian said, about how our handlers would never let us see our families again.
“Would I be able to visit my parents?” I ask her.
Miss Carolyn makes an uncomfortable trumpet-like sound. She looks away from me. Her mandibles turn blue. “Oh, Jason,” she says. “I knew the day would come when I would have to tell you.”
“Tell me what?” I ask, sitting up on the couch.
“It’s been thousands of years since you were taken from Earth,” she tells me. “Your home planet still exists, but humanity was wiped out some time ago, I’m afraid. It’s uninhabitable now.”
“Everyone I know is dead?”
“We Triptids took many humans,” she tells me. “Gradually, over the years. We knew what was happening. Everyone in our galaxy did. Those lousy Frostorians wanted us to let you all die. They said you’d brought in on yourselves.” Miss Carolyn scoffs. It sounds like a violent chord on a harmonica. “If it will make you feel better, we can check the human database. It’s possible that your parents were taken at some point. We may be able to find them.”
I shake my head. The thought of seeing them on Tripton makes my mouth go dry. I’d rather remember them as they were on Earth.
“Thank you for telling me the truth,” I say.
She strokes my back. “Of course,” she says. “I love you, my little Jason.”
The human show is the main event of the year, and It’s finally happening. We are in the backstage area of a gigantic stadium. Our handlers are thrumming around us – giving pep talks, brushing our hair, and basically acting like stage moms. Miss Carolyn rubs my shoulders with two of her stem-legs, and brushes back my hair with two other legs.
“You are my precious little man,” she murmurs.
There is an audible hush as someone enters the backstage area. He is tall and muscular, handsome, with long blonde hair carefully mussed. I don’t recognize him at first, but then it dawns on me – it’s Brock Hammond. He went missing two years before I was taken. I remember his parents posting fliers around town. The cops didn’t take it seriously and assumed he went off to surf in Hawaii or Australia. They didn’t really care about poor burnout surfers.
Brock looks better than ever – lean, muscular, and tanned, but it’s something more than his physicality that has changed. It’s his whole demeaner. He has an unwavering confidence that is practically visible. He swaggers through the backstage area like it’s his kingdom. His handler walks behind him, her mandibles bright red. He is flanked by two very pregnant women – one blond and tanned like him, the other olive-skinned with thick, dark hair down to her waist. He almost walks right by me before he does a double-take.
“Wait a minute,” he says, his eyes darting around my face, trying to place it, “is that – Jason Wells?” I nod. He shrieks with joy and throws his arms around me. “Welcome to the human show, bro! Oh gnarly. I guess we’ll be dueling it out today, huh?”
His accent is more pronounced than it used to be, so that he almost sounds like a Southern California caricature. “What’s with the girls?” I ask him, trying to be polite and not stare at their huge pregnant bellies.
“Oh man,” he says, “Miss Bianca is studding me out right now.” He lowers his voice. “I know a lot of dudes would love this kind of thing, but it’s exhausting and weird. Plus, the girls aren’t even that into it. But Miss Bianca says once I father ten healthy babies she’ll let me go back to Earth. I can’t wait to see my parents again.”
My eyes dart over to his handler. Although most Triptids wear simple garnishments, she is adorned in jewels, with several gold bands wrapped around each of her stem-legs. I remember what Miss Carolyn told me, and I wonder if I should tell him the truth. He is bound to find out sooner or later, but is this really an appropriate time?
Miss Carolyn makes a scoffing noise from behind me and addresses Miss Bianca.
“I see you’re showing Brock today,” she says. The disdain in her voice is apparent, even through my translating device. “And it looks like he’s got babies on the way.”
“Yes,” says Miss Bianca, tapping the blonde woman on the shoulder, “Amy bore him a healthy baby a little over a year ago. Let me tell you, I got a hefty sum for that one. Pure-bred Californians are so popular right now.” Amy looks forward, biting her lip. I can tell she is holding back tears. “And Maria will bear him a beautiful child, I think. You see how she has this strong jaw? Brock, bless him, is a little weak in the jaw area. I’m hoping his mixing with Maria will help. I just love that the Californians come in so many colors, don’t you? Not like those Swedes or Koreans.” Miss Bianca tuts. “And this is your Californian Man, Miss Carolyn? He looks a little rough around the edges. Is this his first show?”
Miss Carolyn puts a protective leg on my shoulder. I am immediately soothed by the feel and smell of her. “Yes,” says Miss Carolyn. “I just want the whole world to see my Jason. It doesn’t matter if we win.”
“Good,” says Miss Bianca, turning away and beckoning her humans to follow her. Brock gives me an apologetic look.
“Best of luck, dude,” he says.
When it’s time for me to be presented, Miss Carolyn walks beside me. I have my leash on, as is customary for human shows. The judges look at my skin, my teeth, my hair. They murmur to one another. They have me talk about surfing. They even have a rigged-up surfboard that they make me stand on and pretend to surf on. They do seem impressed by my moves. There are seven judges – two give me 10 out of 10, three give me 9 out of 10, and two give me 8 out of 10.
Brock goes right after me and gets 10s across the board. The crowd goes wild for him. It sounds like an orchestra of accordions and harmonicas out there. Afterward, when we go backstage, Brock pats me on the back. “You did good, bro,” he says.
I think about his parents back home, long dead now, worried sick about him. I feel like the walls are closing in on me. Wouldn’t I want to know the truth if I was him? I don’t even know how to begin to tell him everything, so I just lean in and whisper to him, “Don’t trust Miss Bianca.”
He furrows his brow. “But I love Miss Bianca,” he says. At that moment, our handlers take us away from one another. His words reverberate in my mind. To me, it is obvious that Miss Bianca is lying to him, but what if she isn’t?
“Do you love Miss Vivian?” I ask Jessie. We are lying in my bed. Miss Carolyn is at her book club meeting, so it’s just the two of us at the house.
Jessie squirms beside me. “Sometimes I feel like I do,” she says. “I mean, I’ve heard horror stories about some handlers. Miss Vivian treats me well. And I’m her favorite.” Jessie tries to play it off, but I can tell she’s proud of this. “Why?”
“I don’t know,” I say, “just something about Brock. He said he loved Miss Bianca, but it’s obvious to me that she treats him poorly. It made me feel like…I don’t know, what if Miss Carolyn is lying to me and I don’t know it?”
Jessie laughs. “Brock is just dumb, sweetie,” she says. “They’re pumping him full of testosterone for his studding service, and he wasn’t exactly Einstein before that.” She kisses me deep and slow. “You’re lucky, Jason. Miss Carolyn is the real deal.” I hope she’s right.
After Jessie leaves, I feel unsatisfied. Something is gnawing at me about this situation, and I can’t quite figure it out.
I decide to test Miss Carolyn’s love for me. I take the holotape player and throw it on the ground, breaking it into tiny little pieces. I run out into the yard and eat the flowers that smell like bread. They taste amazing, but moments later my stomach starts making odd noises and I end up vomiting all over the living room floor. I am on all fours, trying to catch my breath, when Miss Carolyn returns from her book club meeting. She makes a shocked sound like a tin horn and her mandibles turn bright yellow.
“What is this?” she cries. “What have you done, Jason?”
She scoops me up in her many legs and rushes me to the doctor.
The doctor looks at me, humming and hawing. She gives me hot tea to drink and takes my vitals.
“Why would he do this?” asks Miss Carolyn.
“Does he have plenty to do at home, when you’re away?” asks the doctor. “Humans act out when they’re bored.”
On our way back home, Miss Carolyn softly cries. It sounds like someone playing the glockenspiel. “Why, Jason?” she says. “Why did you do this?”
“Just take me to the shelter and get rid of me,” I say. “I’m no good.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” she says.
“Yes, I do! Take me to the shelter.”
Miss Carolyn takes me to the shelter, crying all the while. She keeps one of her legs on my shoulder, guiding me. We walk through and see the rows and rows of humans. Many of them are old and confused. Some are different in other ways. I see blind humans, humans with birth defects and missing limbs. Some look just like me, but they scream and cry, and bang against their cages. Some of them don’t speak at all, and just look forlornly out into the distance, not seeing anything. Some cry softly on their mat.
“Is this what you want, Jason?” asks Miss Carolyn. “Because even if you destroy every single one of my possessions, I won’t leave you here. You can vomit all over my house and I will not leave you here. You can call me horrible names and I will not leave you here.” She turns me toward her. Her mandibles are purple. I don’t know what this means. I am crying. I want her to save all the humans that are stuck here. I want her to take me away from this awful place. “Jason, I love you, and I will never abandon you.” She pulls me into her arms – or legs, as it were – and I feel all of them wrap around me like a million little hugs, and I smell that strong rubber and lime scent. It soothes me like a warm bath, like the way Jessie smiles at me, like a big plate of eggs and bacon after catching waves all morning. She is my Triptid, and I am her human. I love Miss Carolyn.
Gaby Harnish received her BFA in Screenwriting & Directing at EICAR: The International Film School of Paris. She has work published and forthcoming in Hash Journal and On the Run. She works as a veterinary receptionist and lives in Sacramento with her fiancé and her cute-but-troubled dog, Britta.