In Human Form is about an android named Wendy who loses her memory in a tragic accident. The few people who have guessed her identity lead her to believe she is human, but the plan backfires, endangering Wendy and everyone who is close to her.
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In the early days of World War II a violent explosion rattled the small Nebraska town of Antelope Valley, shattering windows in farmhouses out on Old Ridge Road. The next day, the five strangers arrived. They paid cash for a farm, built a new house, and planted crops. They avoided the townspeople, and after a few failed attempts to be neighborly, the townspeople avoided them.
Forty years later, during another thunderstorm, a mysterious fire guts the farmhouse and claims the life of the last surviving stranger. Although his daughter Wendy escapes, she has been traumatized, and her memory is gone. But Wendy has a secret that even she doesn’t know, and the few who have figured it out are keeping her in the dark. While recuperating at the home of local businessman Jared Parker and his wife Lyn, she makes many friends in the community, including 17-year-old aspiring folk singer Priscilla Davenport and police officer Aaron McCormick, who falls in love with her. As Wendy’s memories return, suspicions about her leak out to the sinister and ruthless Earl Vaughn, who seeks to profit from Wendy’s tragedy no matter who gets hurt. Will Wendy’s self-awareness come too late to save her life and the lives of everyone she loves?
The Present Day
From the rise six miles away, the small Nebraska town looks like a scattering of diamond chips glittering beneath a copper-colored prairie sun.
At the town limits, a sign reads:
Welcome To Antelope Valley
Here and there, against the storefronts along Main, facing the street, are wooden benches where folks can rest between errands and pass the time of day.
Old men like to sit here in the cool breeze and talk about what is happening in the Valley.
Or about what has happened and is worth remembering. Like the time back in 1983 when the Great Plains had the wettest spring, and the driest summer, since the Great Depression.
Also in 1983 the truth came out about the five strangers who had settled in the Valley more than a generation before, about how they’d lived and how they’d died.
And about the golden-haired woman they had left behind, the one they called Dark Eyes.
PART I: THE HOUSE IS FULL OF GHOSTS
May12 - May 27, 1983
The general store smelled of chocolate. The floorboards were scuffed and worn, and they creaked when walked upon. It was the first sunny day in a week, so Mr. Anderson had propped open the door. Wendy gazed into a kaleidoscope, which rustled softly as she turned it. Her hair tumbled down over her shoulders in golden swirls, and her eyes were the color of a prairie midnight.
“What do you think, Wendy?” Mr. Anderson asked.
“The patterns are pretty,” she said.
Outside, a boy whirred past on a ten-speed bicycle, his fingers laced behind his head. Mr. Anderson looked after him, then down at the countertop. He shook his head slowly.
“Ivar will like this,” Wendy said. She laid the kaleidoscope on the counter. “It will remind him of stars and space and the beautiful things he likes.”
“Ivar’s a star-gazer, huh?” Mr. Anderson said as he began to ring up the items on the counter.
Chocolate cake mix. Flour. Canned peaches. Frozen strawberries. A half-gallon box of tin roof sundae ice cream.
“He likes to go out and look at the sky,” she said. “I go out and keep him company. He gets lonely sometimes.”
The last item totaled, Mr. Anderson punched a button, and the cash register drawer jinged open.
“That’s eight ninety-five.”
Wendy unzipped a compartment on her purse. Mr. Anderson popped open a paper bag and began sacking the groceries.
“Looks like you’re going to have a party.”
Wendy handed Mr. Anderson a ten dollar bill. He laid it on the cash register while he counted out the change.
“Just for the two of us,” Wendy said. “Ivar doesn’t like parties. He doesn’t even have much fun celebrating his birthday anymore.”
“How’s Ivar feeling?”
“Better,” Wendy said. She picked up the sack. “He’s been sick off and on all winter, and he’s so restless. He likes to get out in the field and come to town once in a while, but lately he hasn’t been able to do it.”
“Must be pretty tough on him, him being a mute and all.”
Wendy said good-bye to Mr. Anderson and went out. A cool breeze hit her as she stepped off the curb. She stood for a moment to let a station wagon idle past. By the time she had crossed to the old Ford Galaxie, a heavy cloud had hidden the sun. She could smell rain coming.
While Wendy was putting the groceries on the floor in back, four men stumbled, shouting, out of Mike’s Bar and Grill down the street. One of the men saw Wendy and pointed. They all stared at her.
Wendy slid behind the wheel and pulled the door shut. She started the engine and drove past the men, who waved at her and yelled. One of them leered and thrust his hips toward her. Wendy ignored them. She followed Main Street through town and out into the country.
Later, shortly after turning onto Old Ridge Road, she noticed a pickup closing on her from behind. Wendy pulled the Ford as far as she could to the right and slowed to let the pickup pass. The truck came alongside her and slowed to match her speed. An unshaven man in the passenger seat winked at her.
“Hey, Baby, wanna fuck?”
Wendy glanced at the man, then back at the road. She braked the Ford, and the pickup inched ahead. Two men sat on the sides of the truck bed.
“Goddamn, look at her,” one of them hollered. He spat over the side of the truck. “How’d you like to get your hands on that piece, Butch?”
“I could fuck her,” Butch said. “Tits’re kinda small, though. I like ‘em with big knockers.”
The pickup crowded Wendy’s Ford. The man in the passenger seat made a face at her. The truck wobbled from side to side on the road.
“Either pass or get behind me,” Wendy shouted.
She could barely make herself heard above the rumble of tires over gravel.
“Hey, Rog! She talks,” the man in the passenger seat said.
He punched the driver. The truck veered suddenly and nudged Wendy’s Ford with a metallic clank. The Ford lurched, but Wendy controlled it as easily as if it were a toy.
She floored the accelerator. The engine roared. Gravel ripped from beneath the Ford’s tires and splattered the truck. The pickup swerved, and the driver fought to keep it out of the ditch. Soon Wendy had left the four men in a dust cloud behind.
After two more crossroads, the Ford crested Lookout Hill, and Wendy spotted the farm. Trees and bushes hid some of the buildings and lined the long crushed-rock driveway. The small pond on the east side of the driveway gleamed with late afternoon sunlight. Trees were clustered along Antelope Creek, which cut through their farm a quarter mile west of the house.
Wendy coasted down the hill and turned into the drive. Chickens scampered, fussing, out of her way as the Ford bumped across the yard. As she pulled up to the gate, the pickup carrying the four men chugged over the hill. She got the groceries out of the back and watched the truck approach. It slowed while passing the driveway, and its horn blared. Then it picked up speed and disappeared down the road. The men’s shouts floated back to her.
Wendy looked at the sky. The rain smell was stronger now. It would be a bad storm. Anxious to check on Ivar, Wendy hurried up the walk to the back door.
Water rippled down the window pane. Wendy looked out into the night. The yard light cast an eerie glow over the farmyard, and the wind lashed rain ahead of it in waves. Vaguely, Wendy could make out the solid dark bulk of the barn, looming against the grove of crabapple trees, and a dull glint of silver from the windmill.
A gust of wind dashed raindrops against the glass, blurring the picture, and Wendy turned away from the window.
“I don’t see anything, Ivar.”
The old man waved his arms. He made noises in his throat that sounded like marbles rolling around the bottom of a cast iron barrel. The skin over his throat flapped like a bed sheet hanging in a strong wind. He ended with several whirring clicks.
“You can’t go out, Ivar. You’ll get sick again.”
The old man’s head was almost hairless. His eyes resembled reddish-brown beads, and his ears were misshapen lumps of flesh that stuck out from the sides of his head. He turned away from her and paced back and forth. Thunder cracked, rattling the window glass. The furnace clunked and came on beneath the floor register. The room smelled of burning dust.
Wendy went to the pantry for her raincoat and overshoes. Lightning flashed and lit up the kitchen like midday. Thunder grumbled against the walls. Rain battered the house.
The old man stood in the kitchen doorway and watched her pull up her hood, tuck her hair into it. He followed her to the back door.
“I’ll only be a few minutes,” she said.
Ivar made a noise that sounded as if he were choking on his tongue. Wendy touched the old man’s cheek.
“They’ll come, Ivar. I know it’s been a long time, but they can’t have forgotten. They can’t have.”
The old man didn’t reply, so Wendy went out and down the walk.
Rain beat coldly on her face. Water ran into her eyes and dribbled down her neck into her raincoat. It wet her shirt and made her shiver. The night smelled wild and fresh. She swung open the gate and started across the yard, her feet squishing through the mud and sodden grass.
Wendy didn’t know what to look for. Ivar had insisted he’d seen something moving in the grove down by the barn.
He’s probably just imagining things, Wendy thought. His illness and this cold, rainy weather had kept him inside a lot lately. She’d never seen him this discouraged.
On clear nights Ivar and Wendy would stand in the pasture and look up to the stars, sparkling like sequins on a silken evening gown. But no star moved. They’d seen a satellite once, and Ivar had gotten excited, thinking his people were finally coming for him. On another occasion they’d seen what had later turned out to be a high-altitude jet creeping across a star field. After both sightings, his disappointment had been deeper than if he’d seen nothing.
Ivar’s beacon had been operating for more than forty years. Yet, no one had heard. No one had come. No one in all that time.
As the lonely years passed, Ivar had slowly wasted away. Now he was shrunken and old. He spoke often of giving up, the way the others before him had given up as hope had soured into heartsickness and despair. One by one, they’d sat down, had slipped quietly into trance, and had passed on to a world free of misery.
The land flared with golden fire. A thunderclap struck. Wendy’s ears rang, and she could hear nothing for a few seconds. Slowly, the brightness faded, as if swept away by the tide of rain.
Water gurgled in tiny rivulets to the drainage ditch behind the barn. Rain slashed the crabapple trees’s leaves, and water rushed in the ditch. A small animal rustled through the long grass near the barn’s foundation.
Rain pounded Wendy’s back. She unlocked the small door and cautiously pushed it open, peered into the darkness. Dimly, she could make out the welding machine just inside the door, the bench and the tools hanging above it, the junk oil drums and other scrap iron. The air in the barn was dry and dusty.
A mouse scurried along the wall.
Water dripped on metal toward the rear.
Blasted by a gust of wind, the walls creaked,
Wendy closed and locked the door. She glanced at the machinery shed on the other side of the windmill. She didn’t want to walk down there. She wanted to get back to the house and look after Ivar.
She felt a sudden chill. Something seemed strange, but she couldn’t say exactly what. Perhaps, despite the storm howling around her, things seemed quieter than they should be. Perhaps Ivar’s talk about dying had made her jumpy.
She scanned the landscape.
Only grass waving, tree branches clashing together, a few leaves sailing over the farmyard. Lightning stabbed out of the southern sky. After a long wait she heard the faint boom and crackle of thunder.
Wendy returned to the house. She took off her boots and raincoat and left them to dry in the laundry room.
The sense of uneasiness was so great now that her muscles hummed with tension. She stepped into the kitchen. The refrigerator was running. Something cricked in the basement.
Wendy went to the living room doorway.
Breathing. Not a single man breathing. There were one, two, three—
The skin on her abdomen tightened.
“Get in here.”
A voice, grating on her mind. A familiar voice. A voice she’d heard that afternoon, yelling at her from the cab of a pickup truck.
“Hurry up, or I slit the old fart’s throat.”
Wendy stepped into the room.