BY RON McDOUGALL
Copyright is held by the author.
WARREN CERTAINLY considered himself brave, regardless what his sister said. He liked to pick up snakes and ride his bike really fast and climb up to the highest branches in the tallest trees. Yet, as he pondered the film canisters jostling back and forth on his lap, he couldn’t help but think that Katie might have a point when she teased him about sleeping with his bedroom light on.
Glancing over at the driver’s side of the truck cab, Warren wondered if his father shared a similar opinion about his bravery, or lack thereof. With a look of displeasure smeared across his unshaven face, Warren’s father stared straight ahead out the windshield, one hand on the steering wheel and the other steadying the film projector that sat between the two of them on the seat. He seemed lost in thought.
Like father, like son.
Warren returned his attention to the type-written labels stuck on each of the cannisters. They were discoloured and worn, their corners curling up off the molded metal. He re-read the film titles to himself, much more quickly this time than his first few attempts: A Chump at Oxford; Three Little Beers; Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The first two titles seemed kind of funny to Warren, the words themselves even sounding silly. The third title…not so much.
“Dad, what’s a body” — Warren checked the label again, guiding his finger beneath the words as he read — “a body snatcher?”
His father grimaced, then thought for a moment, glancing back and forth between Warren and the road ahead. He cleared his throat. “Well now, and mind you, I haven’t seen that movie in years so my memory’s a bit foggy on the details, but I’m pretty sure there’s these aliens from outer space who can replace a person’s body, while they’re sleeping I think, with another body . . . an imitation body . . . that — ”
“What’s an im . . . imitation body?”
“Uh, fake . . . like not real, like those toy soldiers you play with.”
“Aliens replace someone’s body with a toy soldier?”
“No . . . no.” His father gave the steering wheel a squeeze. “That was just an example . . . it’s just . . . their body gets replaced with something that looks like them . . . but it’s not actually them . . . it’s not a real person, even though it looks just like that person, and walks and talks like them too.”
“So they’re just the same as before?”
“No. They’re different because the aliens replace their brain with an imi — they replace their brain with a fake brain too, so it looks like them and sounds like them but it’s not really them . . . kind of like a photograph . . . or a picture in a magazine.”
Warren nodded and turned away. He stared out the passenger window at the blur of houses rushing past, not completely satisfied with his father’s answers but uncertain what else to ask.
“All ready for movie night?” Warren’s mother asked. She and Katie were sitting at the kitchen table shelling peas into a bowl when Warren entered through the backdoor.
“Uh huh,” he said, grinning. His chin rested on top of the stack of film canisters in his arms.
His father followed behind with the projector, squeezing past his son who had stopped cold right in front of the door. He gave Warren’s mother a look. “One of the movies they sent was the wrong one,” he said, handing her a canister for Invasion of the Body Snatchers. “Not the one we booked. I guess there was a mix-up.”
His mother gave a concerned sigh.
“What is it?” Katie asked. She yanked the canister from her mother’s hand, her elbow hitting the bowl of peas and sending it teetering toward the edge of the table. “What’s wrong with this movie?”
Her mother swiftly grabbed the bowl before it fell onto the floor. “Oh . . . it’s just . . . I think it’ll be too scary for Warren,” she said. “He might have nightmares, don’t you think, Frank?”
“No I won’t,” Warren piped in.
His parents traded glances.
“Really, I’ll be fine,” Warren insisted, his eyes darting back and forth between them. He clutched the canisters tight against his chest and took a couple steps back.
“Well now,” said Frank, “you seemed a little nervous about it in the truck.”
Warren’s grip tightened. “I don’t get bad dreams from stuff like this. Honest I don’t. Cross my heart. Remember that thunderstorm last week? It didn’t bother me at all. I stayed in my own bed the whole night.”
Frank stroked his stubbly chin a couple times and furrowed his brow with suspicion. Following a moment of thought his face grew slack with indifference. He shrugged and turned to Warren’s mother. “It’s a 20-year-old movie; how scary can it be?”
He carried the projector past Warren toward the living room. “Oh, and they also forgot to book a screen for us,” he added, “so we’ll have to project it on the wall. Not sure what the point of paying taxes is if no one does their job right.”
Forty minutes later, the kids lay sprawled out on the living room floor while their father tried for the umpteenth time to thread the film through the projector in the manner demonstrated by the diagram in the instruction manual.
“This — is — bor — ing,” said Katie, rocking her head back and forth in unison with each syllable. She leaned against the couch with her legs stretched out, knocking her shoes together. Tap . . . tap . . . tap . . .
“How much longer will this take?” she asked.
Tap . . . tap . . . tap . . .
His lips pulled into a tight pucker, Frank ignored the question, this being the thirteenth time it’s been asked. Instead, he stayed focused on lining up the sprockets with the perforations on the film, mumbling to himself about getting his eyes checked.
Warren lolled upon his belly and studied one of the film reels inside a canister, running his fingers along the side of the coiled celluloid.
“You know, Warren,” Katie said, “you’re not allowed to watch the scary movie.”
“Am too,” he said without looking up.
“Yes I am. Dad said.”
“He changed his mind cause he knows for a fact you’ll have nightmares.”
Warren turned to Katie shaking his head. “No I won’t.“
“Sure you will. You’ll have nightmares and then you’ll have to sleep with Mom and Dad.”
“That’s not true.”
“Don’t you remember? When The Exorcist was on TV you barely saw two seconds and you practically peed your pants you were so scared.”
“I bet if we checked your underwear there would have been poop in there too.”
“Dad, tell her to be quiet!”
Frank let out an exhausted sigh. “Why don’t you both just shut up and leave me alone till I get this contraption working. Go . . . make popcorn with your mom or something.”
Katie jumped up and trotted away, a satisfied smile on her face. Warren rolled his body like a runaway log to the other side of the living room, away from his father. He faced the wall and pouted, picking at the peeling paint on the baseboards. Every so often he let out a series of long heavy breaths, which were soon drowned out by Katie and her mother briskly shaking a pan of oil and kernels back and forth over a stove element. The sound of exploding popcorn soon followed.
Twenty more minutes and the projector was up and running. The entire family convened to watch, with bowls of burnt popcorn and mugs filled with root beer and ice. It was quarter past eight and the two grown-ups slouched down into the couch, their eyes halfway closed. The kids lay on the floor with their heads propped up by an avalanche of pillows.
Up first was A Chump at Oxford, the first Laurel and Hardymovie Warren and Katie had ever watched. In this misadventure, while dubiously attending Oxford University, Stan receives a hit on the noggin that transforms him into an English nobleman.
“A bonk on the head might do you some good, Warren,” whispered Katie at one point. “Might knock the scaredy-cat out of you.”
Warren responded by throwing a handful of popcorn at her. He tried to enjoy the movie, but the concept of body snatching kept entering his mind. He couldn’t help but wonder how exactly the snatching process worked. Was it similar to what happened to Stan, with a knock on the head? That turned him into a completely different person. Or was it more involved than that?
Rather than shades of black and white, everyone in the movie was varying degrees of green, the colour of the living room walls. Ollie and Stan seemed nauseated the entire running time of the movie. Warren couldn’t help but feel a little queasy himself from the experience.
Frank was quicker to thread the second movie, Three Little Beers — a Three Stooges escapade. Hoping to win a golf tournament, Larry, Curly, and Moe try turning themselves into reasonably competent golfers, only to fail in hilarious fashion, destroying the course grounds in the process. They eventually flee capture by the police in a beer delivery truck.
Warren enjoyed the barrage of violence the Stooges inflicted on one another, but their efforts to transform into different versions of themselves only reminded him further about aliens making copies of people. On several occasions he glanced over at the canisters for the final movie sitting on the floor just a few feet away, the grey containers reminiscent of flying saucers. What he expected to see each time he looked he couldn’t say.
Three Little Beers ended and Frank prepped reel one of the ‘featured presentation.’ There was an outbreak of yawns, but everyone was intent on watching all three movies, except for Warren’s mother, who had gone to bed at the end of the first one.
“Now, before we start, Warren,” his father said, “I want to make it clear that any bad dreams tonight will mean no more movies like this until you’re older. Got it?”
Warren fervently nodded.
“And the minute you get scared you tell me and we’ll turn it off. OK?”
Warren nodded again, with an added eyeroll.
After a bathroom break and refill of root beer, Frank turned the projector on and the lights off. This was the first real grown-up movie, let alone a scary one, Warren had ever been allowed to watch from beginning to end. He didn’t understand most of what the characters said, but he got the gist of what was happening. While a person sleeps, a nearby pod transforms into their exact duplicate. It was just like his father had told him — a body that looks like them but doesn’t act like them. The new version is devoid of feelings and emotion, and only seems interested in making more ‘pod people.’
An entire town transforms over the course of the movie. Characters who at first fret over family members acting strange, eventually deny any abnormalities and placidly go about their business, having been replaced themselves.
At one point, Warren looked around the room to see what everyone else was doing. Katie was braiding the ends of her hair and his father was stretched out on the couch, eyes closed, quietly snoring. Warren tried not to make too much of his sleeping.
After the second reel ended, Warren poked his father awake. Frank set up the final reel and decided it was past his bedtime. Katie had already gone to bed, finding the storyline boring and implausible. Frank showed Warren how to turn off the projector, but also gave him one last chance to stop watching.
“We can easily finish this in the morning,” he assured Warren.
“No, I’m fine . . . really . . . I promise. I won’t be scared.”
Frank stared back at his son a moment, looking for a tell, but he was too tired to call Warren’s bluff and headed off to bed.
Warren settled back down on the floor, his body surrounded by spilled popcorn, and continued watching by himself.
The movie ended. Warren made it the entire way through. And while there were moments of suspense, there was never any instance when Warren had to shut his eyes or cover his ears or briefly step out of the room. But his victory was overshadowed by an ending that was not at all what he was expecting. The hero failed to stop the spread of the body snatching, and instead discovered the threat even greater than imagined — convoys of trucks filled to the brim with pods headed toward several heavily populated cities. Even though it was implied they do, for Warren, it was never made explicitly clear if the authorities actually stopped the aliens in time.
The whap–whap–whapping of the spinning film hitting the projector’s arm interrupted Warren’s rumination over the ending, and he was blinded by the sudden brightness of the empty frame now projected onto the wall. He turned off the projector and was equally surprised by how dark it was with nothing illuminating the room. He stumbled toward the wall and flipped on the light switch. Then he slowly scanned his surroundings, staring into shadows he’d never noticed before, studying the outlines of his footprints in the shag carpet, confirming it was his reflection he saw in the windows. Once satisfied—of what…that he was alone? — Warren trundled upstairs.
Forgoing brushing his teeth, Warren jumped straight into bed, determined to prove as quickly as possible how wrong his family was about his cowardice. And to further convince himself that he truly was brave, he even turned off the light he’d always kept on since seeing that brief clip of The Exorcist. He’d be sure to mention that to everyone in the morning during breakfast.
Once settled in, however, Warren became keenly aware of the noises their old farmhouse made in the quiet of night. Creaks and moans from the walls seemed to be speaking to him, whispering just quietly enough so he couldn’t quite make out their words, prompting him to imagine all sorts of sinister things they might be saying.
Warren solved this problem by donning a toque that was sitting on top of the pile of comic books on his end table. It wasn’t a perfect solution — he could still hear the window panes occasionally rattle from wind gusts outside — but it was enough to settle his nerves so he could fall asleep.
That is how they get you. That is how they copy you.
Warren pushed the thought from his mind and tried replacing it with anything else he could think of—hockey, G.I. Joe, Bugs Bunny, Superman vs. Spider-Man.
It seemed to work. His eyelids grow leaden, his breathing slowed down to a snail’s pace, and all he could picture now inside his head was the Webslinger landing blows on a vulnerable Man of Steel. And just as the two superheroes were agreeing to join forces — a rumble outside Warren’s window. His eyes popped open in time to witness headlights track across the bedroom ceiling, something he’d never noticed before with his light always left on. He immediately wondered what kind of vehicle it was. Motorcycle? Race car? Transport truck? What about the kind of truck from the movie — the kind that delivered pods to all those different cities?
Warren sat up.
He watched the lights cross his ceiling and scale down his wall. They were tinged green, like the colour of the living room walls, like the people in the movie who’d been transformed into pod people, devoid of all emotion and desire. Green like Miles and Becky, the two leads, who struggled to stay awake even though their lives depended on it. Green like the pod that eventually transformed into Becky’s replacement.
The queasiness returned. Warren wondered, what happens to the original body after a copy is made? There can’t be two versions of a person — surely only one can exist at any given time. There must be some way to get rid of the original, he contemplated, a notion that was never really made obvious to him in the movie. Did the people just die? Were they taken away somewhere and held captive? Were they chopped up and thrown into the garbage? Could they have been . . . eaten?
Warren shivered, prickles dancing up his arms and across the back of his neck. At this point he knew he would feel so much better laying between his parents in their bed. He also knew he would regret it the minute he got under their covers. What would be worse, a scolding from his parents or turning into a pod person? It was a tough call. If he went to his parents, he’d ensure no more movies without their seal of approval. And how long would that last, till he was 10 . . . 20 . . . never? However, transforming into a pod person would take the fun out of a lot of things — birthdays, Christmases, comic books. But on the plus side, having no feelings meant Katie’s teasing wouldn’t be a bother to him anymore.
Another vehicle drove past. Another set of green-tinged lights skittered across Warren’s ceiling and down the wall.
Warren got up from his bed, took a deep breath, then slowly walked across his dark room toward the door, adjusting his bearing whenever he bumped into a piece of furniture or stepped on something strewn on the floor. He could have turned on a light, but being blind to whatever might be hiding around the corner or under his bed or in his closet felt oddly comforting — out of sight, out of mind. And if he was about to die, he’d rather not see it coming. Better it be swift and out of the blue.
Reaching the door, Warren looked into the hall. It’s even darker out here than it is in my bedroom!
Pressing both hands flat against the wall, he felt his way along, taking tiny steps even though the cold linoleum sent chills up his legs and into his spine. The floor creaked with every one of his footfalls, as though he was crossing a path of live frogs. He could still smell the scent of burnt popcorn drifting up from downstairs and it turned his stomach.
After what seemed an eternity, Warren felt the doorjamb of another bedroom. He pushed against the partially open door and entered. The glow of a streetlamp peered in through the window and Warren could just make out the slug-like shape of the bed, the dresser drawers that could have easily been mistaken for a coffin, the swaying curtains that could have been hiding any sort of horror in behind.
He approached the side of the bed then stopped. His heart pattered inside his chest like their lawnmower. This was his last chance to turn around and go back to his own bed. But he knew that if he did, he’d just stew and work himself up into another tizzy. Sleeping in here was the only thing that would give him peace, tonight at least.
He gave a sniffle, then tugged on the covers. “You awake?” he whispered.
A form under the covers stirred a moment, then settled back into stillness.
Warren leaned in and gave a poke with his finger. “You awake?” he said a little louder.
The form moved more decisively this time, and then the covers opened up like a bursting pod from the movie. Warren sucked in his breath and stepped back. Did he just make the worst decision in what now appeared to be his short-lived life?
He heard Katie’s voice before he saw the dim outline of her face. “What are you doing here?” she asked, her voice wobbling between a whisper and a mumble. She spoke without emotion.
Warren gulped. Is it really Katie, or has she been replaced by a pod person?
“You woke me up, dummy. What do you want?”
Yeah, it’s really Katie.
Warren exhaled. His body went slack.
Katie rubbed her eyes. “Is that a toque you’re wearing?”
Warren stepped forward and shyly looked down at the floor, then he gently pulled the edge of the covers with his fingers, as if picking a needle off the floor.
Katie surveyed the gesture and the sombre look on his face, then nodded. She moved over to make room.
Warren removed his toque and crawled into bed with his sister. He pulled the covers up to his chin, closed his eyes, and immediately fell asleep.
Ron McDougall primarily writes fiction, and most recently appeared in the horror anthology, Happy Hellidays. Beyond writing, he is a well-established art director in print and digital media, and has produced several award-winning independent short films and animations. Find him at ronmcdougall.ca.