Brood

It was a little after two in the morning. Pat was walking home. His hood was up and his shoulders were hunched against the cold. He uncrossed his arms for a moment to take his smokes from his pocket. Only three left, and one looked like it might be cracked. Fuck it, he thought. He turned away from the wind, hunched further and lit a cigarette under a cupped hand. He started walking again, faster than before. Pat looked up at the haggard buildings across the street, ancient and rotting rowhouses, inhabited by unhappy families and college students. On his right a chain link fence hemmed the cemetery. Pat took a quick look behind him, held the smoke in his lips and climbed over the fence.

He set off into the darkness, weaving his way between crooked tooth tombstones and tangled, low-branched tangles of dogberry and green alder trees. His ratty white sneakers scuffed through mats of tiny wet leaves and dead grass. He felt better in the graveyard. No police, no traffic, no risk of being jumped. No people. Pat, who was called Cake by his friends, parents, and even some teachers, was always nervous around people and with good reason. He was a magnet for police attention.  They hassled him whenever they saw him at night. He’d been busted with weed twice over the summer, and once drunk. His mom had cried when they brought him home. He couldn’t face that shit again. He’d also been beat up by some older drunks once. She cried then too. Strangely, that was one occasion when the police were nowhere to be seen. Useless fuckers.

Beyond the standard dangers of being a 16 year old, there was the universal anxiety that had settled over the entire city during the past two years. Nobody went out at night these days, not if they could help it. A month didn’t seem to go by without a person disappearing or a body being found. There was no official line from the police and the media wouldn’t touch it, but to Pat and everyone he talked to, it was an obvious conclusion. Maybe it really was an unconnected series of accidents, murders and animal attacks. Whatever the case, at this hour he felt better in the graveyards, parks and back alleys.

Wind whipped around Pat in short frantic gusts, shaking the stunted trees in a frenetic dance. The chill November air soaked through his hoodie like water. His hands ached and as he tossed the remains of his smoke, he pulled them up into his sleeves and crossed his arms again. Above, clouds raced through the darkness, visible only as they passed under the moon. Pat broke from the main path, taking a narrow, overgrown and branch-crowded alley that led downhill towards the small west corner gate. As he turned, he was startled by a large dog about a dozen plots ahead of him. It was barely visible in the darkness, and it was more the familiar movement that Pat recognized than the shape. It was the rhythmic convulsions of a dog trying to work up vomit. Shoulders surging forward and head hanging low; he saw his own dog, Maggie, do it all the time. He paused, intimidated by the size of the beast, and not sure of the breed. It was side on to him, and if not for the shadows, he would have had a clear view of its profile. As it was, he couldn’t guess a breed, couldn’t even accurately estimate the size, let alone guage aggression or passivity on the dog’s face or stance.

There was a squelching wretch and a soft splash as the dog brought up whatever it had been struggling with. As the dog pawed at its own mess, as if looking for something worth re-eating, it dawned on Pat, even in the shadows, that he was seeing something wrong. The dog’s foreleg reached from the wrong position, the wrong angle. Curious, he stepped forward to get a closer look, and as he did so he stepped on a fallen branch. The dog heard the sharp snap and responded instantly with a low growl. Then it slowly stood upright, awkwardly unfolding its hind legs. That’s wrong, was all Pat thought as the creature rose. It was still unclear to him, still too dark to see, but it was clearly not a dog. It was more like a small child, but that was wrong too. The pointed head hung forward from the shoulders, like a hyena’s head. The arms were impossibly long, the back was rounded and the legs short. The creature made a harsh, rasping growl and then turned and disappeared into the darkness. Pat turned and ran in the opposite direction.

“What the fuck?” he whispered as he ran, over and over as if through repetition he could make some sense of what he’d seen. “What the fuck, what the fuck?” He passed through the main gate, a few minutes out of his way, and paused. He looked down the road, towards the west corner. The street glowed a dim and sickly orange, half lit by the street lights. Everything looked so normal, almost in defiance of the impossibility of what he’d seen in the shadows of the graveyard. He waited with his heart punching out blast beats in his chest, half from fear and half from exertion. His lungs were burning from running through the cold night air. There was no sign of the creature. Pat tested explanations in his head, trying to understand what he’d seen. Had he just seen it wrong? Was this some sort of prank, a kid in a costume? Was there some sort of deformed freak running through the graveyard every night? None of them worked for him. There wasn’t a explanation here that worked. Pat stepped onto the street and started walking. He stayed on the far side, away from the graveyard and took the first turn he came to. The whole way home, he didn’t stop looking behind him, but he saw nothing unusual.
*
Finally, with the door closed and locked behind him, Pat began to feel safe. He tried not to wake his mother, but with Maggie in the house he knew sneaking in was not an option. As he’d expected she was waiting in the hall. Maggie was an ancient beagle, stinking and obese,who had been a part of his family for as long as he could remember. She groggily got to her feet and hurried over to him, her whole body wiggling with the wag of her tail. Her excited breathing turned into a wheezing yap as he bent to scratch her. It was the next part that he knew would wake his mother: as he kicked off his sneakers, Maggie ran up the stairs and into his parents room. As he wandered to the kitchen, he heard the dog struggling to pull itself onto her bed. She would faithfully wait for him every night, then as soon as he was home, safe and sound, she was off to the comfort of a warm bed. His mom often joked that she’d only kept Pat this long because the dog would be devastated if they brought him back to the shelter.

The fridge offered a bleak showcase of condiments and eggs. Pat slathered some peanut butter on a slice of bread and began to devour it as efficiently as he could. As he forced the bland paste into his digestive tract, he thought about the scenario at the graveyard. Already his mind was convincing him that he was mistaken about the whole thing, that he’d somehow misunderstood something, some normal and explainable sight, and it would seem obvious in the morning. In the dull and comforting sanity of his home, things that didn’t fit into his accepted reality were once again slipping into the realm of fiction where they belonged. However, even as he began to disregard what he’d seen, he looked out the window many times before finally going to bed. The last time he looked out his bedroom window, just after three, he couldn’t help thinking there was something moving in the deep shadows beneath his neighbor’s hedge. Dismissing the thought, he rolled into his bed, masturbated, and slept.
*
When Pat got up it was close to lunch. After a quick piss he walked downstairs and poured a cup of badly burned coffee. Three fat spoons of sugar and a splash of milk couldn’t bury the dusty heater taste, but it would do the trick. He walked back to the living room and sat on the couch.

“Morning Mom,” he said. She was sitting in the armchair, Maggie in her lap, watching some reality show on TV.

“Hey Cake, how’s my boy?” He’d made up a hundred origin stories about where the nickname Cake had come from, but had never admitted to his friends that it had originated with his Mom. He’d been Cake to her since he was a toddler.

“Pretty Good.”

“Hung over?” It was a genuine question, no hint of accusation. Pat’s Mom knew he drank and smoked pot, but other than his problems with the police, which she found embarrassing, she didn’t mind. He knew to stay away from the harder stuff, and that was good enough for her.

“Nope,” answered Pat, “Just tired.” He shook the two remaining cigarettes from the pack, lit one and put the cracked one on the coffee table. Theirs was one of the few remaining homes in which smoking was still accepted.

“Coleen called,” said his mom with a knowing smile.

“Cool.” She was still looking at him. “What?” She kept looking. He felt his face getting red. He tried not to grin back at her. “What?”

“Just call her back.” She looked back to the TV, but kept smiling.

Pat cradled his smoke in the ashtray and looked for a rolling paper to doctor the cracked one.
*
The day passed and Pat thought little about what he had seen the night before. When he did think about it, he just filed it in the mental cabinet under shit he didn’t understand. It was an overflowing bin in the cluttered mess of his head. Not knowing if it was related to the scare he’d had, he found himself thinking more than usual about the murders. In the two years since they’d started, dozens of people had died. In some cases they just vanished, but most people assumed they were dead. Others were found, often torn apart. The attacks were brutal, splashes of blood and pieces of meat thrown dozens of feet in all directions. Limbs, organs and other parts were usually missing. Most of the time the weapon used had been something the killer found at the scene; people were killed with their own knives, scissors and tools. The police had no suspects, no leads, nothing. They hadn’t even acknowledged that there was a pattern. Everybody dealt with it the same way: stay inside and never alone if it could be helped, ignore the fear and pretend things were normal. The same way, he reflected, that he seemed to be dealing with seeing a weird little freak vomiting in the graveyard.

That afternoon he called Colleen, talking for half an hour about music and other people. He didn’t like the music or the people and he hated to talk on the phone, but he still refused to end the call. They’d just started texting when his phone had found its way into a toilet, and he was starved for some kind of social interaction. Not to mention, Coleen was easily one of the hottest girls he knew. They made a plan to hang out after school on Monday.

That afternoon, having pestered his Mom for ten ten bucks, Pat walked to the store to buy another pack. Even though it was still light, Pat walked quickly with many backward glances. He crossed through an overgrown vacant lot with a burned out shell of an old car in the middle of it. He couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was following him, just out of sight. How many of the murders, he wondered, had taken place in the afternoon? Not many. How many outside? Maybe half. He walked faster. On his way home he skirted along the edge of the lot, looking into the shadowy husk of rusted metal in the far corner. Something moved there, and his heart leapt at the realization, even as his mind denied it. When he saw that it was only a cat, he felt both embarrassed and relieved. Pat started to consider the possibility that he was a lot more shaken than he’d thought.

That night Pat had horrible dreams. He dreamt he had no control over his body, that he was doing horrible things to people, but couldn’t stop it. He watched helplessly from his own eyes as his hands cut flesh from a screaming boy’s arm in long strips. There was a bonfire nearby. He grabbed a branch from it and pressed the blackened end into the struggling child’s eye, stabbing slowly until he felt something give way beneath the pressure. The branch sank with a muffled hiss into the socket. A woman’s voice, soft and close whispered to him. “You belong to me now.” He was writing in sand with the black and bloody branch. They weren’t letters though, just a series of angled jabs. He woke up drenched in sweat and looked out the window. Again, he thought there was movement under the neighbor’s hedge. This time though, he felt it looking back at him. He sank back onto his bed and lay awake until morning.
*
After school on Monday, he and Colleen walked their usual route towards her neighborhood. They’d been spending a few days a week together for over a month now. Pat thought they both knew where it was heading, but neither of them were hurrying. He hated how lame it sounded and he’d never admit it, but there was something different about them. He liked to talk to her, to see her smile. Of course, he wanted to fuck her, but he wanted to make her happy too. Past experience had taught him that once sex came into the picture, friendship became a very complicated thing which rarely left the girl involved happy.

They talked about a lot of things, families and gossip and drugs. Who they hated, what they liked. The usual shit. While they spoke, Pat found the conversation being slowly pulled toward the dark anxiety he’d been feeling all weekend. He didn’t know if it was the murders, what he’d seen in the graveyard, or just a feeling of paranoia. He didn’t even want to talk about any of it, but it seemed the conversation was sliding that way. Downhill. Eventually, they were running over the familiar but unsettling ground of the murders. There was a new rumour making the rounds at school that suggested there were two killers. It wasn’t really new, it had come up a few months ago, but there was nothing to it. Neither of them bought it.

“Know who I think it is?” Colleen was sitting on the cement foundation of an unfinished building. Pat stood next to her, lighting another smoke. He’d already been through two, tossing the butts into the abundance of dying, dried out grass. The place was already littered with broken glass, coffee cups and a couple of limp condoms. A rusty shopping cart was embedded in the weeds a few yards past the foundation. Fucking romantic, thought Pat.

“Who?” asked pat. “What’s your new theory?”

“I think,” She said, pausing for dramatic effect “it was Melissa Parsons.”

“Seriously,” he answered, “That is a tired theory.” Melissa Parsons was the first known disappearance that people generally connected with this pattern. There was a lot of gossip, including allegations that her uncle Terry had been abusing or raping her. The original theory thrown around was that he’d been the one responsible for her disappearance, he was even questioned by the police. The theory was weakened when others started to die and it fell apart altogether when Terry was found in his basement and both of his legs had been cut off. He’d also been stabbed in the chest, throat and face with what was eventually identified as his own snapped tibia. The cuts to Terry’s legs had been made with his circular saw. The tibia had been “peeled” with vice grips and a box cutter. They were also his. Somehow, in the mess left by all this, the cops failed to find a shred of information about who had done it. This was when people first started whispering about Melissa being on the run and returning to kill people. For a while her house had been a major attraction for a lot of his friends. They were always daring each other to break in, but nobody ever did, partly out of fear, but mostly out of compassion for her mother.

“Come on,” he said, “you can do better than Melissa parsons.”

“You didn’t know her,” said Colleen. “She was a fucked up bitch. She scared the shit out of me! I saw her cut an upside cross into her own arm once! I almost threw up!”

“Yeah, but come on,” said Pat, “a sixteen year old girl overpowered all of those people, killed all of them, left no evidence or anything?”

“I don’t know, maybe she’s, like, possessed or something. Shut up! She was really into that Satan shit.”

“Yeah, you should go straight to the cops with that, they’re gonna take you completely seriously. We know who did it: a devil worshipping sixteen year old! Oh, yeah, why didn’t we think of that?”

“Fuck you,” Said Colleen, laughing a little. “Besides, she’d be almost eighteen now.”

“Why’re you so sure it was her? I mean, it made sense for her to kill her uncle, but what about all the others? And he wasn’t even the first.”

“Well, you know that last guy, they said he had the whole front of his head scooped out?”

“Yeah, what about him?”

“Well, I was talking to Meghan DeRosa, she used be in Melissa’s class, and she said Melissa used to draw all these gross pictures, all pentagrams and blood and guts and everything. Anyway, she said there was one of these drawings that what just like that, this guy with the front of his face cut off and it was just empty and black inside.”

“I see,” said Pat, “pretty solid evidence.”

“Yeah, well, whatever. Say what you want, it was her.”

“I think you’re the killer.”

“Yeah, Cake, you got me,” said Colleen with a smile. She hopped off the wall and jabbed a finger at his chest. “And you’re next, motherfucker.”
*
It was nearing dark when Pat got home. He said a quick hello to his mom and went upstairs to his room. He was feeling the full weight of his anxiety and couldn’t handle sharing or hiding it right now. It was hard enough to talk to Colleen and she offered ample visual distraction and motivation. He didn’t want his mom to worry, but figured she’d worry more if he tried to talk to her now. He wasn’t usually the kind of person who would spend hours alone in his room, and he figured his mom was probably freaking out about it. Pat decided to talk to her about it tomorrow, or at least come up with a good lie to explain why he’d been so withdrawn. He’d made a plan to meet Colleen again the next day, and he hoped he’d have a clearer head by then. He’d been feeling foggy for days now.

He put on some music and lay on his bed, to go over things in his head. He lit a cigarette, sat back up and grabbed an empty Big 8 can to tip the ashes into. He stood and crossed to the small desk and sat there. He was restless, wanted to do something but didn’t know what. “Fuck my life.” He grabbed a pen and scratched at the surface of the desk with his left hand. He needed a new phone. “Fuck my fucking life.”
*
Colleen wasn’t around at school the next day. He wished he could text her and ask if she was alright. At lunch he asked Nancy, a mutual friend of theirs, if she’d heard from Colleen, but she said no. She gave him a knowing, smug look, like she was some fucking genius for figuring out he had a thing for her. Clever. Clever and useless.

When school was over, Pat set off towards Colleen’s house. He didn’t want to intrude, but it worried him that nobody had heard from her at all. He took the same route they’d walked just the day before, winding through the twisted network of interlocking streets towards her home. He’d only knock once, he decided, in case she was asleep.

When he stepped out from a narrow path between two houses, the forgotten foundation where they’d talked yesterday, came into view. It was almost completely buried in tall weeds, all dying in the November cold. Pat was walking past it, paying little attention, when it occurred to him that the rusty shopping cart he’d seen the day before was missing. He might not have noticed except it had left a cavity of crushed weeds grass. There was also a vague trail of flattened and torn weeds that led back towards the cement shell. He started to walk away, but paused, looking again at the gaping cavity in the tangled overgrowth. Something he couldn’t nail down about it troubled him, resonating with the foggy anxiety he’d been feeling for days. He turned back, following the trail towards the foundation.

By the time he got to the lip of the concrete basin his heart was racing. The ground was lower on this side, so the wall was chest height, and it was lower inside. It was therefore not until he was within two feet that he could see the bottom of the aborted building. The floor, the inside walls, all the filth and debris and litter, all were spattered with blackish red and brown. There were two objects on the far side of the blood bathed bowl. One was the shopping cart, crushed and broken, rusting wire bent, spread and splayed like nightmare fingers. Although he could recognize no distinguishable feature, he knew immediately that the other was Colleen. He jumped into the pit, his sneakers making a wet sound as he landed. He felt vomit rising in his throat and tried to fight it down. He needed to find her phone and call for help. Even as he thought it, he dismissed it as stupid, knowing she was beyond help. Still, he kept looking.

When he came close, what he saw confirmed his sense of hopelessness. From the wreck that had once been a beautiful face now erupted a bouquet of rusty, gore-caked wired, recently ripped loose from the cart. Deep gouges scored her naked body and large prices of her skin and flesh had been hooked and pulled away. Her collarbone had been pulled until it snapped, leaving jagged white pincers of bone peaking from the smooth skin. Both of her breasts had been ripped away leaving dark gaping wounds. For a horrible, shameful moment Pat thought, fuck, now I’ll never see them. He expelled the thought instantly and felt an incongruous sense of remorse press through the horror and panic he felt. He was getting dizzy and had the grotesque sensation that he was inhaling particles of her blood and her flesh just being in this hellish pit.

The slices and scratches showed no discernible pattern except in one place. There, on her forearm, was an upside down cross, just like she said she’d seen Melissa cutting into herself. His head was spinning. He needed the police, his mother, somebody who could take control of this situation; somebody who would know what to do. Again, he felt himself dismissing his own thought. The police won’t have a fucking clue what to do, he thought. This shit’s been going on for years now and they haven’t done shit. They’d probably just arrest me.

He looked again at her arm. There was no way a teenager could be behind all this, was there? Maybe somebody had heard them talking the day before, had taken ideas from their conversation. Maybe Colleen had been targeted because of what she’d said. He couldn’t help but imagine a small half canine creature slinking through the grass while they’d talked. He put the thought aside, hoping it was childish, hoping it was as unrealistic as it had seemed yesterday, before this had happened.

Pat raised his head, looked straight up at the grey sky. It was the only place to look where he was not overwhelmed by the carnal mess of splattered viscera. He took a deep breath, trying to reconcile the reality of just a few minutes ago with this new world. He looked down again, trying to see past the mat of hair and skin on the wall, past the broken mess of fingers that has once been a hand, past the spider-leg burst of wire that was Colleen’s face, to see where her phone had ended up. It took him several minutes to find it, several minutes during which the images of his closest friend’s butchered remains took root in his memory and strengthened their hold. He picked up the phone, noticing in an abstract way that the green plastic looked brighter with the red smears all over it. He punched in the numbers, 911, hit send and
*
It was late when the police dropped him off. He’d been right about how useless they were going to be. One of them had made it clear they were going to try to pin this on him. He knew they wouldn’t, that the officer was fishing out of desperation, but the stupidity still enraged him. He’d told the cop to go fuck himself. That hadn’t really gone over well, but given the circumstances, it hardly seemed unreasonable to Pat.

They hadn’t told him much at all, but from the questions they were asking him, he could tell they were totally in the dark. He answered all their questions, over and over again, just like a cheap cop show on TV. He told them about his conversation with Colleen, everything they’d talked about. He talked for hours, and at the end he felt as if a part of him had been pulled out of his body by force. The only thing he hadn’t mentioned was the weird thing he’d thought he’d seen in the graveyard. When they dropped him off one of the two officers, the same cocksucker he’d yelled at earlier, told him not to leave town or talk to anybody about what he’d seen.

“Don’t be such a cliche,” said Pat, “fuckin’ retard!” He had planned to get out as he said it and slam the door of their car for effect, but realized he was locked in. He had to wait in awkward, fuming silence while the other cop got out, walked around the car and opened his door.

He went inside where his mom was waiting in a crushing stew of anxiety, questions and, most painful by far, love. The fucking cops hadn’t even called her. For the next hour he watched her pace, alternating between compassion for her traumatized son, and a vicious anger towards the police. She had taken her entire emotional response to the murder, her son’s connection to it, and the potential aftermath that might unfold, and laid it at the feet of the police as if they’d been solely responsible for all of it. Pat wondered if she was aware of what she was doing. He wondered if he had similar defence mechanisms of his own that seemed obvious to others but which he was clueless about.

After a while she fell asleep on the couch and Pat sat on the battered armchair, comforted by Maggie’s familiar warmth on his feet. None of them would go to bed tonight. He watched tv, trying to use the abrasive colours and movement to scour the scabbing afterimage of Colleen’s murder from his memory. It didn’t work. He knew his mother wouldn’t leave him, and neither would Maggie. He bent down and gave her a small scratch, was rewarded with a grunt and a rasping sigh. He could not feel comfort from their presence, but he knew the pain and fear and confusion would be worse without them. He thought he should feel numb, that an emotional deadness was expected after something like this. He stared at the television and waited to feel dead inside. It couldn’t come soon enough as far as he was concerned.
*
Pat had been having another dream when the scream woke him. Like the last dream, he’d been helplessly watching from behind his own eyes as his hands were torturing somebody he didn’t know. He was working his fingers under the skin of a man’s neck while the person screamed. His victim was being held in place by two small hideous creatures he could just make out in the darkness. They were each a wretched assemblage of misshapen limbs and swollen flesh. The aberrations gripped the man’s naked shoulder with hands that boasted seven or eight fingers each, some long and thin, others short and twisted, but each ending with jagged, thick, yellow nails that bit into the flesh. There arms and faces were swollen tangles of folded skin and bulging veins. Pale, almost white skin was mottled with yellow and purple bruise-like patches. Their eyes, wide with excitement and watching his furious efforts on the man’s throat, were small and pink with horizontal slit-shaped pupils . One of them had a wide mouth, bulging purple gums and scores of tiny yellow teeth jutting sporadically without rows. The other had a bulging mouth, almost like a muzzle. It had a bony growth sprouting from its jaw forming an inch long spike.

In his dream he raised his head to see some movement at the edge of his vision. More of these creatures were gathered around him, milling about in the darkness. Some squat and roamed on all fours, others simply hunched. He noticed one of with several limp appendages hanging from his torso like useless, boneless arms. Another, with a torso and neck of exaggerated length seemed unable to support his own weight and hobbled on its knuckles like an ape. In their midst he also saw the same skulking creature he’d seen in the cemetery. Again he heard the woman’s voice whispering, you are mine now, and they are ours.

Then he heard it. It was the worst sound he’d ever heard his mother make: a long ragged shriek. He was torn from the dream with a violent jerk that would have moved him from the chair had he not been pinned there by some unseen weight. Across the room, his mother was struggling on the couch. From where he was, all he could see were her frantically kicking legs and a bent dark shape on her stomach. Something was sitting on her, straddling her, its back and shoulders hunched over her, its long arms working furiously at something. It threw something aside and it landed on the floor with a wet slap. Pat tried to lift himself from the chair but couldn’t move. Pain bit into his shoulders. He looked down and saw the same deformed hands from his dream holding him down the way they’d held his victim. His eyes flew back at his mother while he struggled. The scream had stopped but she was still kicking and bucking her hips in an attempt to dislodge her assailant. One of her attackers arms flew upwards and something hit the ceiling in a spray of blood then fell to the floor. He couldn’t see what it was in the flickering light of the television. There was a harsh cracking noise and the screaming resumed, but muffled and wet this time. There was another crack and a wet crunching noise. The screams continued, but they were lower, between a howl and a gurgling whimper. Pat threw all of his weight forward but could not pull away from the chair. The figure hunched over his writhing mother sat upright for a moment and hurled another object. It hit the wall with a thud and dropped to the floor, a dark stain dripping where it had struck. Pat looked at the small spider-like object and realized it was his mother’s hand. Her legs had stopped kicking and were now slowly squirming back and forth, feet pressing against the couch and sliding across it. In different circumstances it would look like she was trying to smooth the fabric. Her assailant increased his pace and savagery, began to stab and slash at her with whatever weapons he held in his hand, swinging his skeletally thin arms wildly. Blood, skin and pieces of Pat’s mother were being splashed and scattered all over the room. She was still now, except the jerking motions caused by the blows from above. Still and silent.

After several minutes of cutting, stabbing, pulling and tossing, his mom’s upper half was strewn all over the room. The figure that had done the damage stood and turned toward Pat, and even in the darkness it was clear that this was the same creature he’d seen in the graveyard and in his dream. It limped closer to him, unsteady on stunted legs, and Pat looked at it’s grotesque face. It did hang forward from the shoulders like a dog’s head, like he’d thought, and it was flattened and sloped like a wolf’s as well, though lacking a full muzzle. The face was a an uneven mass of ravaged meat, a maze of scars with slits of nostrils and lidless black eyes. It smiled or grimaced at Pat and held up his mother’s jaw in front of its own face like a mask. Its naked body was covered in blood. It lowered its head and spit on the floor and then, half running, half crawling, it scrambled out of the room taking the jaw with it.

It took a moment for Pat to realize he was no longer being held. He moved to the side of the couch, though little remained of his mom. He led her one remaining hand, already getting cold, and said his goodbyes, to her and to the world he’d been a part of.
*
It was still dark, but morning was approaching. Pat was walking again, this time as far away from his home as he could get. Trembling, he took out his cigarettes and noticed he’d managed to get blood all over the pack. It was all over him as well. He walked without purpose or direction, but fast. He only knew that when his legs slowed down, his mind sped up and there was nothing to think about now that didn’t bring pain and fear. He felt entirely hopeless. There was nothing left to him except Maggie. He’d found her cowering in her own piss in the kitchen. When he left, he’d dropped her gently behind the neighbour’s fence. He didn’t know where he was going, but he knew he wasn’t going to be back and she wouldn’t be safe with him. Somehow, saying goodbye to Maggie was as painful as everything else.

He was walking shakily down the middle of the road, no longer worried about the murders, the police or anything else. Vaguely, he wondered why the creatures hadn’t killed him. As far as he knew, he was the only surviving witness to any of the “murders”. He also wondered if he was being followed and suspected that it was a feeling that might never end. Ahead of him, at the end of the road, leafless trees were silhouetted by moonlight. The wind, blowing hard shook them, blowing paper dry scraps of leaves and other rot around the road. He looked at the houses, wondering where he was. The neighbourhood didn’t look familiar, and it took a minute to register. He was walking down Melissa Parsons’ old street. Her house was on the left just a few doors down. He moved closer, looked at the house. It was clearly uncared for, needed a paint job and new windows, but it was still lived in. Pat thought back to the cross carved into Colleen’s arm, to what she’d said about Melissa. He was full of confused anger and he had no other outlet. Without thinking about it, without knowing why, Pat ran across the lawn to the house. He needed to see her room.

He tried the front door but it was locked. He crept to the back, but that was locked too. Between the house and its neighbour, was a narrow alley. There were no windows above ground, but there were two basement windows sunk into small wells. He tried one, was able to get a finger almost into the gap, and it wiggled like a loose tooth. He guessed nobody bothered locking this one because it looked almost impossible to climb down through and they probably didn’t own shit worth stealing. Who knew it would be this easy to break in, thought Pat.

Pat lowered his body, feet first into the well, twisting to get his knees, then his hips through the narrow gap. For once he was thankful for his scrawny frame. His back scraped painfully as he slid to the floor, but otherwise it was shockingly easy for him to break into a complete stranger’s house without even planning it.

He glanced around, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. There were a lot of cardboard boxes, old VHS tapes, and a huge old television. There were tires stacked in one corner, though he doubted there was a car anymore. A tower of lawn chairs was topped with a tangle of Christmas lights. It looked like a normal basement.

The house was silent above him. He made his way to the stairs, wondering if they had a dog. By the time he was at the top, stepping into the kitchen, he’d come to the conclusion that if there was a dog, it must be deaf. The kitchen was small and cramped, everything was white but broken and aged. The sink was packed with dirty dishes and the counters cluttered with food and wrappers and more dishes. He turned and walked back through the hall, his heart pounding. At the foot of the stairs he paused and listened. Nothing. He put his foot on the first stair, slowly leaned his weight on it, paused again after the creak. Still nothing. Nobody had heard him yet. He made his way up the stairs, keeping his weight on the outer edges to diminish the noise, pausing after each one. He tried to keep his breath even, but but he was shaking too much. Finally he stood in the hall at the top of the stairs. Still, nobody had risen.

There were three doors in the hall, two open, one closed. The first he guessed to be a bathroom. A quick glance proved him correct. He paused at the second, seeing only darkness within. Standing as quietly as he could, he listened and heard soft breathing within. He was suddenly terrified, but couldn’t turn back. He pressed on through the darkness to the the last door, the closed one. Up close he noticed that something had been scratched into the door and painted over. He looked closer to read it: “Fuck Off!”. Yeah, this was definitely the right room. He turned the knob and slowly opened the door a crack. No creak. He opened it just enough to slip in then closed it again behind him, leaned against it and let loose the breath he’d been holding.

It was a small room, walls painted dark, probably purple or blue. He could make out shapes and shadows by the light from outside the window, but all colours were reduced to shades of blue and black. It looked much like the rooms of some of his friends; metal posters, black candles, a shitload of cheap nail polish and makeup on the dresser. It looked as though Mom Parsons hadn’t changed shit since her daughter had died, which was just what Pat had been hoping for. Next to the bed was a stack of books and doll which had been painted over to look like a sexed out zombie. On the wall over the bed was a Mayhem poster that showed a shadowy church under the band’s logo. There was a complicated circular design, like a strange, asymmetric pentagram mutation, painted on the floor with an ancient stain smeared across the middle. He walked to the dresser and poked around, looking for a diary or something. There was nothing but disappointingly bland underwear, some cheap jewelry and a long double-edged dagger. On top of the dresser, in the back, was a framed picture of a girl, about Pat’s age, with black hair and a mischievous grin. So, this was Melissa. Kind of hot in a creepy way. Nothing scary. He picked the dagger up. It had a satisfying weight to it, but he doubted it was very sharp. All the same, he felt better with it in his hand. He wandered over to the books by the bed. They were all about demonology, but none of the Necronomicon bullshit you can buy at the mall. These were nothing like anything he’d ever seen before. They were old, and had titles he couldn’t understand. He picked up the top book. It was in a language he couldn’t understand, but also had scribblings and notes written in the margins. “Bullshit! cunts and candles”, read one, whatever that meant. “Only one kind of blood has power bitches!”, read another. Bitches was underlined several times. He flipped a few pages further and came across a picture of some strange demon. It was a woman with the head of a dog or a lion, and from her breasts hung a dog and a pig. For some reason the picture terrified him, but at the same time he felt an inexplicable stiffening in his crotch. He dropped the book and turned away, towards the closet. That’s where he saw a familiar form, squatting naked and watching him. The graveyard vomiter, still cloaked with his mother’s clotted, flaking blood, was grinning at him.

Pat made a move toward the window, which was now open somehow, but there he saw another creature lowering itself down to the floor. It was bleeding from its mouth, where it looked like the lips had been freshly ripped away. Raw gums and gleaming wet teeth shone red in the glow from outside. From one of its elbows hung two forearms, both with withered, flaccid looking hands. As if answering his observation, the stunted creature whipped the twin hands at the wall where claws caught the purple paint and transcribed a deep circle into the drywall. It swung the other arm forward, this one long and swollen with corded muscle, ending with a glistening knob of scab-crusted skin and protrusions of thorny bone. It leaned on this fist like a crutch and swung its body forward like an ape. Pat backed away, raising the dagger feebly, only to see there was another creature sliding out from under the bed. Another came in from the door. They were one him, a wave of stink and scar and pulpy flesh. He swung the dagger wildly, felt it hit home and expected a scream. Instead, all he was rewarded with was a throaty cackle and the dagger was ripped from his hand. He knew it was over, that he was going to be left sprayed over these ugly purple walls, and there was nothing he could do about it. He felt long, cold fingers scrape across his face, plunge into his mouth. He gagged and bit down hard, tasting blood mix with the salty filth and rot that invaded his mouth. He felt his teeth hit bone, but the hand pushed deeper, seeking passage into his throat. He wretched as the nails passed his back teeth, biting into the soft meat of his tonsils, pushing further, deeper into him. Vomit rose, flooded his nostrils with nowhere else to go. Pat couldn’t breath and he panicked. He flailed his legs and swung his arms, but could not break loose of the grotesque bodies that piled on top of him. Acidic bile burned as it erupted from his nose and flowed around the pulpy meat of the fist fucking his mouth and throat. It burned more as it flowed back, choking him and filling his lungs. It felt like a fire inside him, and there was no air coming in. Another hand gripped the front of his face, holding him still, closing his nostrils. There were black spots in front of his eyes and a terrible pressure in his chest. More hands were pressing the sides of his throat, crushing what little passage might be left between salty, grime covered fingers and vomit. He stopped seeing and the last flame of thought was snuffed out from him.
*
The first thing Pat knew, before he even realized he was still alive, was that his back was hurting and cold. His shoulders and the back of his head were being battered relentlessly. He opened his eyes and saw trees and grave stones, sliding past him at an alarming rate. The only stillness was the sky above. Grass slid past too, whipping his face as it went. The ground, cold and stony hard, slid past beneath him, grinding against his ribs and arms and skull. He felt an iron grip around each ankle and knew he was being dragged through the graveyard. They were pulling him faster than any man could run. Others were running beside him and behind him, squat knots of naked fleshy limbs gyrating and pulsating in the moonlight. He tied to roll, to fight or resist, but was powerless. His throat was broken beyond speech; a moan of pain was beyond hope, let alone a scream. There was no help, no hope.

The movement slowed and his feet tipped downwards. He was pulled under a knot of tangled alders that tore at his clothing and whipped his flesh. He looked towards his feet, summoning his final reserves of strength and will to lift his tilt his neck. Deep beneath the alder was an ancient toppled tombstone, and a small gap under one side. One of the creatures tilted the massive stone, lifted one edge and Pat felted himself pulled down into the dirt. It was a narrow, cold tunnel, the damp soil squeezing from all sides and painfully compressing ribs that already felt broken as he was pulled downward. Then the passage opened and Pat felt a new horror in the light.

The tunnel opened into a low ceilinged cavern, roots breaking in from all sides. Soil, stone, wood and rotting flesh formed all the walls and the floor. One wall was broken by the edge of a rotting, splitting coffin. The smell of bad meat filled the room, with undertones of shit and sweat. There was greasy smoke clouding the air and a small fire burned in the center of the chamber. It provided a dull glow not quite sufficient to illuminate the farthest recesses of this cave. Pat struggled to stand, but could only manage to swing his back upright leaning on the wet soil wall. He peered into the flickering red and black shadows. The walls, where he could see them, were not composed of dirt alone, but included the skeletal remains and decomposing bodies of dozens of corpses, knitted together to form a matrix of limb and bone and meat. Dozens of hunching creatures lurked in the shadows, scurrying like rats, crawling over one another, eating and fighting and sleeping. The passage, as well as its inhabitants, seemed to lead towards a focal point at the far end, out of his range of vision. Even corpses woven into the walls were leaning somehow towards it, their limbs like ripples on the surface of a river that flowed toward some unseen horror. The creatures, whether hunched or crawling or creeping, all watched that end of the passage, looking at something blocked from Pat’s sight by the glare of the fire. Even the litter of meat, skin, limbs and rags that covered the floor grew denser and more cluttered on the far side of the fire. The ground was sloped slightly in that direction, but Pat felt a pull towards it that was more than gravity, more than curiosity. It was an undeniable urge.

Pat struggled. trying again to get to his feet, but his limbs had no strength. He flailed and slid further down the wall, pain wracking his whole body. In addition to his ribs, one of his arms seemed to be broken and his limbs were littered with damaged muscles and tendons everywhere. His body was a shattered wreck. He was about to try again when he felt powerful hands close around his arms. With a rasping growl, the first creature he’d seen here, days earlier, lifted him to his feet. Pat tried to scream, but was rewarded only with a gurgling whimper. The pain was so severe he felt consciousness slipping away again, but the creature held him upright, holding him from behind. It pushed Pat forward and his legs started to gave way. He struggled, flexed his shaking muscles, and stood. With the support of the creature behind him, fighting the weight of crushing agony, he stepped forward. Shuffling, stumbling, staggering, he made his way past the fire, held from behind by the vomiter, watched by all the rest. The cavern wall on the far side slowly came into view. It was somehow brighter here, though Pat soon wished he could see less.

There was a separate set of bodies there, encased in the soil. Six of them, all men, standing upright with only their torsos and faces showing. But the mud they were trapped in was different. It was impossible to say where flesh stopped and soil began. There was a blend of blood, skin and meat, mixing as it decomposed with the soil, and all of it alive somehow, writhing and throbbing with life and corruption. The scraps of shredded muscle flexed and tightened around the men, severed hands clutched at empty air and the whole mass seemed to breath. Maggots swam in the festering fence of viscera. The reek was overwhelming, but Pat was drawn helplessly forward towards the quivering heap that held the six inert men. Their bare chests were bruised and scratched, but the worst damage was centered around their genitals, Their cocks were blackened with scab and bruise and rot, swollen and gangrenous. All six of them, even the clearly dead ones, were dripping a thick mucilage of yellow pus. Blisters and sores covered their shafts and testicles. Three of the men were obviously long dead, but all six were decomposing at the crotch, and the rot was spreading slowly through their torsos.

The first of the men, clearly dead longest, was becoming a seamless part of the wall. There was a gaping hole in his torso and a mass of pale maggots glowed inside, catching the flickering light of the fire. There was little skin left on the skull, and no muscle beneath. Black and empty sockets gaped wide and bone showed at the edges. The next, only slightly less deteriorated, was frozen in a rictus of agony. Its long dead face, what was left of it, was raised to the ceiling with its mouth widened beyond normal human range. The eyes were gone, but rather than gaping blackness, there was a grey, frothy soup overflowing from them like thick tears, the pools vibrating with countless tiny white worms. The third, though also badly rotted, was fresher than the others. Its face still had flesh and eyes, though all were pale and glazed with a slick layer of transparent slime. There were holes in patches all over it, but the worms had done little substantial damage. His face was still whole enough to hold an expression; it was grimacing, teeth gritted under drawn lips. The teeth were cracked, and the lips were split and blackening like his genitals below.
The fourth body looked to still be alive, moving rhythmically like it was breathing, but this could have been the pulse of the wall or maggots inside him for all Pat knew. The head hung low, long hair hanging limp in front of his face. The stomach had been cut open and stitched back up recently, and clear signs of infection spread from it. Blood, new and old, stained his body beneath the gash. Pat, barely aware of what he was seeing or thinking beyond the personal realm of pain that existed inside his own body, found himself imagining a rat being pressed into that wound before it was sewn up. He wondered again about the gentle heaving of this torso before being drawn away from thought by pain.

Numbly, still propelled by the beast behind him, he staggered on. The next body may have been alive, but it hung limp. There were fresh wounds, still bleeding, all over it. Deep scratches scored the chest, and there were several bite marks. The head, except for the mouth, was entirely encased in the wall. Folds of skin draped over the eyes and nose were held in place by tendrils that could have been veins or roots, all smeared in blood and mud and decay.

The last body in the line was the only one that was moving independent of the pulsations of the mass in which it was trapped. The muscles were twitching spastically. The man’s head was raised, looking forward. He was breathing heavily, almost panting. A string of thick drool hung from his clenched, grinding jaw. Veins bulged and muscles flexed, but he could hardly move through the black and bloody murk he was encased in. There was no thought, no awareness visible on his face, just tension and pain. He was staring forward, to a space just out of Pat’s line of sight. The wall of the cavern opposite the six men curved away, and the last man was looking at something just past the curve.

As Pat staggered forward, the spectacle came into his view. Lurching towards hims was another figure, bloated and grotesque. It was once a woman, but her body had succumbed to disease and decay. Her flesh had the uneven swelling and wrinkling masses of vein and skin that he saw on the creatures around him, but this thing was enormous, easily triple his weight. Her pendulous gut hung low, a darkened leathery sack swaying between her vein laden legs. Heaving white breasts with black nipples seeped thick yellow milk. Her limbs were so swollen that her hands and feet were almost swallowed by them. She looked directly at pat and smiled. Horrified, beneath the ravaging she’d experienced over the past two years, he recognised Melissa Parsons. Her body had been horribly transformed, but it was undeniably her mischievous grin leering out under tangled black hair.

She stepped forward and Pat realized he was no longer being held from behind. He stepped away from her and found his feet were sinking into the grime beneath him. He started to trip, threw out an arm to catch himself. He realized, as he fell, that his arm was sinking into the same wall that held the line of men. He tried to struggle, but found he was only sinking deeper into a mess of rotting flesh and earth. It was like quicksand; the more he struggled, the deeper he sank. He felt hands position him, and in moments he was trapped like the six men in line before him. His clothes were shredded and stripped from him by the chittering creatures that filled the cavern. They backed away from him, and he was left with nothing between him and the nightmarish creature that lumbered toward him.

He looked at the shuddering bulk before him, horrified. Beneath her hanging abdomen, sparsely haired lips wavered. Her thighs dripped with slick mucus. He struggled to free himself but knew there was no hope. He couldn’t move. She stepped closer, and he could smell her. She raised her arms, displaying two drooping pouches hanging from her rotting black fingers: Colleen’s small, severed breasts, already leathery with rot. He’d seen them after all. As he had in his dreams, he heard a soft voice whispering, not Melissa’s but something deep inside his own head. You belong to me now. He knew it was true, that he belonged to Her, and so did Melissa, and so did all of the creatures they would create. Against his will, he felt his cock stiffening as the gelatinous beast that had once been Melissa came closer. He could smell the corpse stench lifting off her, and somehow it filled him with lust. In his mind, he saw a woman with a hyena’s head suckling a dog and a pig. You are mine. They are ours. He felt the icy cold of Melissa’s cunt embracing him. Then everything went black as the wall covered his eyes with a veil of fetid meat. Mine forever.

Good

“You understand,” said the agent, “that this whole procedure has barely been tested. Your safety is by no means guaranteed. It probably won’t even work.”
“Yeah,” said Joe. “But I get paid either way, right?”
“Of course,” assured the agent, looking stiff in a thick suit. “Absolutely. And should anything go wrong, you will be fully compensated.”
“Or my family, if…”
“Or you family, yes.” The agent spoke while the doctor pulled on latex gloves. They were in a small room, no furniture except for the chair that Joe was sitting in. On the floor was a cooler. It was not a hi-tech biohazard cooler, just the kind used for beer and soda at the beach. Inside it, dozens of glass beakers were sitting in slots in plastic shelves. “This is it, last chance to change your mind.”
“No,” said Joe. His voice was hoarse, He took a deep breath. “no I want to do it. Let’s get to it.”
The doctor pulled one of the glass tubes out of its place. Inside it, floating in pale, murky liquid, was a worm. It twitched when the doctor twisted the cap off.
“When you get into the mansion,” said the agent, “there will be no need to speak.” They both watched as the doctor gently clamped flat tweezers around the worm. “Just think, but try to keep your thoughts clear. Focus on any important information. The worm is telepathic. It will pick up your thoughts and transmit them. Our receiver will decode them. Of course, by receiver I mean I mean the Telegnosticator app on my phone.” He held up his phone, helpfully.
“Ok,” said Joe as the doctor brought the worm to his face. It looked like an overgrown garden grub, whipping itself back and forth to escape the grasp of the tweezers and the discomfort of dry air. “I get the telepathy thing, but why did it have to live in my dog for so long?”
“Well, the worm itself can’t process human thought. He’s a species-specific parasite, evolved specifically to grasp canine mental patterns. Spending time in your dog has adapted him to your thoughts. You know how your dog obeys commands? You really think he know’s what those words mean?”
“Never really thought about it I guess.”
“For years people assumed it was body language, tone of voice, even pheromones. No, turns out dogs are also mildly telepathic. Probably a byproduct of generations of evolution while infected by the worm.”
The agent kept talking, but the sound was muffled and Joe was suddenly focused entirely on the cold, wet and uncomfortably sexual sensation of the worm being fed into his left ear. He struggled not to jerk away and tried to prevent his shuddering shoulders from clenching. It felt like a cold tongue probing his earlobe, then slowing pushing into the canal. There was a short, sharp pain as it slipped under his eardrum. The doctor had explained that it would secrete slime, much like a slug, and the slime would first anesthetize and then dissolve the nerve endings and blood vessels. Once lodged in the eustachian tube, the worm would fuse with its surroundings, extending its own nervous tissue into Joe’s, drinking his blood, lymph and bad dreams. The pressure was almost unbearable. Joe opened his mouth wide, stretching his jaw. Seconds later he could smell the worm, feel numbing effect of the slime right into the back of his throat. Oh sweet skinny Christ, he thought. What have I done?
Soon, Joe was walking up the long, winding drive to the mansion. He would be a servant of some kind, told only that he was to obey. Obey and observe. The rich old bastard who owned this place was apparently into some really fucked up shit. Joe was supposed to eavesdrop and snoop, and all he had to do was concentrate on anything suspicious he found. Child pornography, cannibalism, human trafficking, devil worship, weapons trading, biotechnology, or any of the many other accusations that had been made of Mr. Veneer. No charges had ever stuck, few had ever been laid, so rules were being broken.
The game was changing faster than the laws could be written, so new technology was used before it was banned or perfected. And this is how Joe found himself in the middle of a less-than-legal investigation, walking between towering banks of underlit oak trees towards the largest house he’d ever seen. That, and the fact that he’d lost his job again and his wife was pregnant with their third, and he owed a substantial amount of money to a dangerous man. It didn’t matter. This would solve so many problems.
Joe had been feeling alone in the world for a long time, and he’d stopped waiting for things to improve. The lofty heights of ambition and expectation had been leveled by the overwhelming gravity of reality. He’d taken too many chances and each time he’d stepped in it at every corner. Well, fuck hope, he needed money. That’s all.
What had been a light drizzle had increased to a heavy downpour. By the time Joe reached the foot of the wide stairs leading to a lavishly ornamented oak door, he was soaked to the skin. Rain was running into his eyes and sputtering from his lips with his breath. There was a heavy dull ache deep inside his ear, weighing on the top of his neck. He climbed the steps. They were split and creaking with patches of moss sprouting from the rot at the ends. Likewise, the door, the clapboard, the window casings, were all in need of paint and patchy with decay. Joe felt feverish. He knocked the knocker. It was brass.
The door opened. Standing in the passage, just to one side was a tall man in a black suit. He was holding a white towel in his hand. He ushered Joe inside with a warm smile.
“Look at you,” said the tall man. “You poor thing, soaked to the skin. Never you mind, sir. We’ll have you warm and dry as toast in no time. My name is Diller. I’ll be taking care of you, show you the ropes, all that. This way.” Diller led Joe into a small chamber just to the left of the front hall, which was a dark cavernous mix of stained oak trims and mouldings. Diller then proceeded to towel Joe’s hair like he was a child. It was awkwardly intimate, but Joe did his best to ignore the discomfort. In spite of being embarrassing, it was pleasant. Afterwards, Diller helped him out of his clothes and into a plain but well made suit. He’d known there would be strange customs inside the mansion, and he did his best to adapt to them.
When he was dry and changed, Joe was led to the kitchen and Diller served him a bowl of soup, hot and thick, crowded with beans and chunks of fatty beef. There were also thick slices of crusty homemade bread with thick smears of butter. As Joe ate, the rules were explained. He was to confine himself to the servants’ rooms and passages, but was free to explore the grounds outside. He would do any job or task that was requested of him, be clean and quiet, awake by 6:30, abstain from all drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. Joe would also maintain a healthy diet, consuming at least 3500 calories a day. Exercise was encouraged. When he was not required, he could occupy himself as he wished, but he was not to leave the property or contact anybody outside the mansion. When the food was finished, Diller slid the contracts across the table. Joe signed without reading them.
“Tonight, you may explore, get your bearings, settle into your quarters. There is a generous library on the third floor which you may use so long as you do not dog ear the pages. There are exercise machines and weights in the basement. In another day or two you will meet Mr. Veneer.”
“Thank you,” said Joe. He followed Diller to his room and unpacked the few belongings he’d brought with him: Underwear, toothbrush, two books, his wallet, and a pocket knife. He sat on the narrow bed and thought about the worm lodged in his skull. He wanted to stab it, but knew that could be suicide. Instead he tried to focus on what little he’d learned so far, his first report. He focused on the layout of the sprawling, convoluted labyrinth of rooms. There seemed to be little else of worth. Diller seems nice, he thought, then wished he could take it back.
The next morning the jagged blade of Joe’s alarm slit him from the web of dreams. He noticed for the first time there was a window. Yellow sunlight was flooding through it. Joe lay still watching tiny dust motes floating through the glow. He rolled out of bed and stretched. The air, previously dry with a distant mustiness, was now thick with the rich smells of eggs and spicy sausages. His mouth was watering by the time he’d wiggled into his suit.
“Good morning,” said Diller, mussing his hair affectionately. It would have made Joe uncomfortable with anybody else, but for some reason he trusted Diller. Joe sat at the same place at the table and ate his fill. No other staff joined them.
“Any work for me this morning?” asked Joe.
“Nothing as of yet, but we never know what may come up.”
Joe smiled and wiped the last smears of yolk with his toast. After breakfast he chatted a little with Diller, then wandered off to explore the house.
It was a complicated building. It seemed to be composed of dozens of unrelated buildings that had been pulled and knitted together. Joe would find himself walking through an elegant baroque sitting room, ornamented by rococo plaster mouldings and gold framed paintings of pink cherubs, then after turning a corner encounter bare cinderblock walls and exposed steel beam supports.
Joe soon found his way into the library. It was a massive hall lined with overstuffed shelves blocked with books of all description. There were glossy new bestsellers piled on top of dense and dusty ancient tomes, novels and thin volumes of poetry. Books about every conceivable subject were littered all over desks, chairs and heaped in stacks on the floor. There were books about science, art, medicine, religion, grimoires, dozens of biographies about people he’d never heard of. On one of the closer tables, Joe scanned the bare pages of a thick book that was lying open. It was called Parabiosis for Health and Youth. It looked quite dull. The text was small and dense and even the pictures were boring and complicated.
There was also a battered, pink Five Star notebook. Each smudged and oily page was packed with cramped, uneven script in tiny black letters. Even the margins were filled, and miniscule notes were wedged into the sliver of space between the lines. Joe flipped through a few pages.
Alabaster crescent, drunk and hanging, he read, over pallid corpse fingers that trace spirals over flayed flesh. Haggard mother’s broken lips part and weep a wave of black spiders into the waiting screams of her dead children. Black eyes roll as the tubes slip in, pumping red devil bladder-burning poison, pink piss poison that blisters as it passes, love killing poison that brings life as it kills, the pretty waste that destroys, veins collapsing like dying black spiders, crumbling, tumbling from mother’s broken lips.
“Weird,” said Joe. He closed the notebook and walked on. He eventually left the library with several books under his arm. He had surprised himself by using a totally new method for selecting the books. Typically, he would choose books based on genre, author, title, and the cover. This time though, he’d found books that smelled right, books that had the nostalgic papery breath of dust and age. He’d felt the comforting wash of nostalgic association- bookstores and school libraries, cabins and soft chairs- and taken those books. He didn’t even know what they were called.
That night, after an enthusiastic workout, after meditating on all he had seen for the benefit of the agents, Joe dreamt he was running through dense forest. He was moving incredibly fast, the speed dizzying. The cold night air whipped at his face, pressing under his eyelids, pulling his lips back from his teeth and gums. In the dream, he was chasing one minute, then being chased, then chasing again as he fell into and out of nightmare. He woke a number of times, confused, before sinking back into the same dream.
“Today is the day,” said Diller the next morning. “You finally get to meet your new master.”
Joe found he was actually quite eager to meet the reclusive old man. The feelings of trepidation he’d carried in with him had been replaced by a tight coil of excitement at the bottom of his belly like impending diarrhea.
In his enthusiasm to meet his new benefactor, Joe had forgotten to maintain his clear and focused thoughts for the benefit of those receiving them outside. In fact, if he’d taken a moment to reflect, he would have noticed that his thoughts had grown duller than usual. He would have assumed it was a side effect of the worm, which in part it was. He would have been unaware that he was being fed a salad of mild pharmaceuticals and that he was under the suggestive influence of a mesh of spells cast by a staff of professional thaumaturgists. As it was, he didn’t even notice the fly-in-molasses laziness of his mind.
It was near eleven when they finally met. Joe was taken to the front sitting room to wait. It was a spacious, high ceilinged room, fronted with wide, bright windows. Everything in the room, furniture, fittings, pink porcelain sculptures, all looked delicate and expensive. Had Joe been thinking clearly he would have considered it dainty, lavish, extravagant. As it was, he just thought it was fancy and worried he was going to break something.
Mr. Veneer stepped in slowly, pausing just inside the door to take in the room, and to be taken in. He was wearing a long red robe that would have looked ridiculous in any other context, but seemed to suit the head of this strange house perfectly. The man buried in the folds of luxurious fabric looked frail, almost mummified. His skin was papery and blotched with brown spots. However, there was also a hunger in the old man’s eyes, a fierce expression of appetite that gave animation and vibrance to what would otherwise have looked like a dying old man.
“You must be Joe,” said Mr. Veneer. He stepped closer, surprising Joe by wrapping him in a warm, tight hug. After the hug they shook hands and looked at each other.
“It’s very nice to meet you, sir.”
“The pleasure is mine,” said Mr. Veneer. “I think we’re going to get along quite well.”
Joe was convinced that Mr. Veneer was right. They were going to get along very well. In fact, he’d never felt so accepted. Mr. Veneer could have chosen anybody, Joe reflected, but the man had chosen him.
“Let’s go out and walk the grounds, shall we?”
“Yes sir,” said Joe. “That sounds great.” He meant it.
They walked the winding path that circled the property. The sun was bright but the air was cold and crisp. It was the kind of autumn day that made Joe crave pumpkin pie and miss his parents. He told Mr. Veneer so, then told him about his parents’ death, his childhood, his forgotten hopes and abandoned dreams. He would have been embarrassed to share so much and so openly, but Mr. Veneer listened with such enthusiasm that Joe felt he could share anything with his master. The path twisted and curved through dense patches of trees, sun glaring in patches through gold and red leaves. They crossed a bridge over a little river, then stopped to watch the water pass beneath them as they crossed back on another, smaller bridge. By the time they returned to the house, Joe felt like he’d told the man more secrets than he’d ever told his friends, his family, even his wife. He told the man his whole life story.
Joe quickly forgot about his directive to gather information, forgot about the worm and about all of his worries. It seemed the details of his previous life, the causes of so much stress and anxiety, had run into each other like watercolours under spilled coffee, leaving Joe with the sense he’d awakened from a terrible dream. He was dimly aware that his mind was atrophying, but it was not a matter of any serious consideration. He had no need to think, to plan or worry. He was totally preoccupied with his new family, especially Mr. Veneer. He felt a love for the old man that he’d never believed possible. Nothing mattered more than the well being of his master.
So it was that a few days later when Diller told Joe that Mr. Veneer needed Joe’s help, Joe had agreed before even hearing what was being asked. To refuse to help his master was unthinkable. He rejected it with the ferocity that he’d once rejected thoughts of incest and fecophilia.
“Of course,” he said. “What do I have to do?”
“Well,” said Diller, “This is a very serious thing. It would end your life as you’ve lived it up to now, but it would bring you closer to Mr. Veneer for as long as you both live. Also, it could keep him around for a much longer time.”
“Yes, anything.”
The joining took place just a few days after that. Mr. Veneer and Joe were brought into a sterilized room in the basement and prepped for surgery. The doctor prepared his equipment while Diller spoke to Joe.
“You understand,” he said, “that this whole procedure has never been tested. Your safety is by no means guaranteed. It probably won’t even work.”
“Yeah,” said Joe. “But I have to try.”
“Of course,” Diller agreed. “Absolutely. And should anything go wrong, Mr. Veneer will know that you’ve given up everything for him. He knows how much you care for him”
“He’s my family now. If he…”
“I’ll still be your family, yes.” Diller said, soothingly. The doctor pulled on latex gloves. “This is it, last chance to change your mind.”
“No,” said Joe. His voice was hoarse. He took a deep breath. “No I want to do it. Let’s do it.”

It was early November when the agent, a man whose name Joe had never been able to remember even when his mind was fully functional,, entered the estate. When Diller escorted him into the sitting room, Joe was nested comfortably on Mr. Veneer’s back, the stumped remnants of his legs resting in the leather harness his master wore. He could feel the older man’s blood flowing into his veins, carried by a network of plastic tubes. He knew Mr. Veneer also could feel Joe’s young, fresh blood bringing new vitality to organs and systems that should have failed years ago.
“I’m sorry,” said the man in the door. He looked very upset, especially when he saw Joe. “Oh, Christ, what have they done? What did I do?”
Joe didn’t know who the intruder was, only that he meant harm to his master. The man tugged a small pistol from his coat pocket. Joe could feel Mr. Veneer’s anger and fear, a hormone taint through the piped plasma. Even had he not been nested, Joe’s senses were tuned to the wants and needs of his family. He always knew when something was troubling his master or Diller. It pained him to know they were upset. Joe pried himself from his master’s shoulders, cringing as plastic valves closed, dozens of tubes dangling limp from his chest, neck and arms.
He moved quickly on his arms and the padded stumps of his legs, tubes trailing wetly over the plush carpet. He could tell from the stranger’s expression that he must be a terrifying sight to behold, a scarred and opened creature, wrapped in black leather straps and boasting plastic catheters like tentacles. The man, the agent pointed the gun at Joe, then Mr. Veneer, then back at Joe, compelled by fear and guilt, but unable to act. The man was right to be afraid. Much of Joe’s mass had been removed to reduce his weight, but he still had his arms and teeth. As Joe mounted and tore into the man, his master watched and laughed.
The sensation of loose salty skin and muscle giving way beneath his teeth was among the finest Joe had ever known. It felt more right than revenge, more real than a wet dream. He peeled the man’s throat, his face, his lips, cracking several of his own teeth in the process.
When the struggling had stopped and the carpet was a wet, red mess, Joe rolled in it joyously. Diller rubbed what remained of his belly and said “Good.”

Sleeve

 

My left arm ends in a smooth, pink stump, just below my elbow. My hand was taken nine years ago.  I know that some people who have had limbs removed are very comfortable displaying their “residual limbs”, but for me it’s a source of constant shame and awkwardness. I’m always aware of people staring, then looking away when they see me in public.  When I talk to people I always feel their eyes struggling not to wander back to my stump. I’m always uncomfortably aware of the question they’re afraid to ask and I live in dread of those few who let it out. “How did it happen?” That’s not the worst though.  The phantom limb sensation is the worst part.  How it happened is a close second.

I had been working at Finley’s, a restaurant I couldn’t even afford to walk past, for about three months. I was a busser, doing the shittiest parts of almost every other job in the place, but with none of the benefits. Five or six nights a week I would spend a twelve hour shift running around trying to juggle the demands of kitchen staff, servers, and whoever else happened need anything.  If I wasn’t carrying dishes, cleaning up messes, running linens in the basement, or fixing some miscellaneous disaster, I was being told off for failing in one of those tasks.  The only person lower in the pecking order was Billy, the dishwasher.

Billy was a strange young man. He was huge, six and a half feet tall at least, maybe 250 pounds, and bald with a lazy eye.  He lurked in the steamy dishpit like a troll in a cave, bobbing his head to death metal as he ran rack after rack of plates and wine glasses through a towering stainless steel dishwasher.  He seemed to have one gold earring that moved around his head, from eyebrow one shift to nose the next, followed by his lip a week later.  

The first time I met Billy, my third or fourth shift, the kitchen staff had already told me about him.  Apparently he was stone silent to two thirds of the staff. Not rude, just mute.  He would nod, smile, and obey, just not speak.  To others he was said to be quite vocal, friendly and vulgar. In any case, he worked hard and kept the machinery of our restaurant moving smoothly.  I wandered into the dishpit at the beginning of a brunch shift to grab a mug for the first of many, many coffees.  Billy was leaning against sink. He nodded when I walked in.

“Morning,” I said. He eyed me for a second, his odd eye looking past me on the left, then passed me a mug as if I’d asked him for one.

“Good morning Steve,” he said. My name is actually Kyle, but close enough.

“Thanks,” I said, taking the mug. “Want a coffee?”  He passed me another mug.

“Black. Thanks.”

When I got back, Billy was chewing something. He swallowed whatever it was, wiped his mouth then ripped a stray thread off his tattered, stained, grey apron,  He wrapped the thread around his two index fingers and started to floss with it. I put the coffee on the stainless steel counter.

“Hypothetical question,” Billy said, discarding the improvised floss and picking up the coffee. “What would you rather, if you had to choose: Eat another guy’s shit, or his dick?”

“That’s a weird question,” I said. Still, I thought about it for a minute. “I guess it depends on whose dick or shit it was.”

“Anybody.  Stranger. Not your dad or anything.”

“Then dick. Wait, cooked or raw?”

“Cooked cock,” he said,  “any way you like.”

“Yeah, if I can get it fried, with a bit of hot sauce, I’d definitely have to go with the dick.”

Over the next few weeks I learned that this was a typical conversation with Billy. It would get old sometimes, but it broke up the monotony of a dreary job, so\I generally went along with it. He would throw out bizarre, usually vile or disturbing, ideas to open conversation. I guess he just hated talking about the weather and wanted to take a different route to small talk.  

Sometimes Billy would present a random piece of trivia or a scientific theory or a strange scrap from history. I’m sure they were at least half bullshit, but I never called him on anything. “You know there’s a parasite,” he’d say,  “toxoplasmosis, that needs to infect a cat’s brain to finish its life cycle. Mice infected with it lose their fear response to the smell of cats, and they even move towards the smell in a maze.  It’s harmless in humans, has no side effects unless you have immunodeficiency problems. So, given that one in three people are infected with toxoplasmosis, and one in three people identify as cat people, ask yourself this: Why do you really like cats?”

Other times it was questions, or more hypothetical situations. “Hey Steve, what would you rather, if you had to do one?  Either kill a kitten, with your bare hands, or fuck a little kid.”

“Why in the name God would I have to do either of those things?”

“Gun to your head, do one or die.”

“Who’s putting a gun to my head to make me kill a helpless kitten?”

“Me.”

“I’d kill the kitten.”

“You’re disgusting.”

“Really? Really?”

There were even some rare occasions when he would share personal experiences, though at the time I was sure these were also certainly made up. He told me one night about a brief affair he’d had with a handicapped girl.  She’d been confined to a wheelchair, had limited use of her limbs, difficulty speaking, but mentally she was razor sharp.  Billy had provided graphic details about their sexual congress and the complicated physics involved in the various positions when one of the participants couldn’t use their arms or legs.  The whole thing ended with her making fun of his lazy eye.  The sad part was that she had to repeat “cock-eyed chameleon” three times before he understood it.  It sounds stupid, I know, but he did a great impression. Nevermind.

Billy had been delivering this kind of shit on a daily basis for months, so I didn’t think twice when he asked me. It was towards the end of a long and busy night, and I’d been run ragged. I stepped into the dishpit to sit on one of the empty milk crates for a second and sip some coffee.

“Hey Stevie,” said Billy.

“Kyle,” I corrected.

“Question for ya.  If you cut someone’s hand off, right at the watch strap, and removed the bones up the elbow, think you could fuck the bone-hole?”

“No,” I said after pausing a moment to show I’d put adequate thought into the concept. “It would be too floppy, like trying to fuck a meaty sock.”

“Too bad. Meat-sock, though…Good name for a band.”

“Yeah, probably taken though.

“Most likely,”  said Billy. Then he turned back to his dishes and continued loading one of his battered plastic racks with plates, spraying them as he went with the hanging, metal hose over his sink. He moved with impressive speed.

The night went on as had many others before it.  A blur of orders, frantic motion, a mad dance of food turning to waste, drinks to poor judgement.  The restaurant was a show, a performance by the cooks and wait staff, and I was running behind the scenes for all of it. The patrons in turn were putting on shows of their own, selling their wit, their wealth or their love.  It was all as rotten and vile as the forgotten bucket mussels in the back of the cooler, the one everybody pretended they couldn’t smell so they wouldn’t have to deal with it. Of course, when it was finally discovered they just made me deal with it.

At the end of the shift, a little after one in the morning, I was exhausted. Under my expensive new clothes, I was sticky with cheap grease and stale sweat. I considered getting a cab, but I figured the cool night air would make for a relaxing walk.  There was also a little bar along the way that I figured deserved a chance to tempt me.

I was almost there, taking my usual shortcut through a filthy alley behind a cheap bakery. Flour dusted the ground beneath the fans and door and talentless graffiti covered the wall like a rash. It smelled like bread, yeast and piss.

“Hey Steve,” Billy’s voice came from behind me. I turned rapidly, ready to swear at him for scaring the shit out of me, but was silenced by the wooden mallet that landed on my temple. I tried to step away, but the flour covered floor was jumping up at me, hitting hard enough to knock my breath from me. I struggled to get back to my feet but my limbs flopped uselessly like a complex marionette piloted by a child. My strings were already hopelessly tangled when the second blow cracked the back of my head and sent my mind spiralling out and down into the black beneath the earth.

The first thing I was aware of as I emerged from the groggy black void of unconsciousness was a desperate want to sink back into it. This was immediately followed by a thump and a crack and the most profound pain I’ve ever felt. I opened my eyes just in time to see another crushing blow smashing my left elbow to pulp. I tried to scream, but my mouth was covered by tape. Billy was kneeling on my chest and my other arm.

I tried to roll, but Billy’s weight was more than my weakened body could shift.  As I struggled, he used his legs to control my limbs and inhibit my movements. He dropped the wooden mallet and pulled an enormous wood handled cleaver from his jacket.  I recognised the knife from the kitchen.  It normally hung over the range, more an ornament than a tool because it was too heavy to be much use.  They called it “Daddy”.  It could have taken my hand off in a clean swing, but Billy had more elaborate ideas.

The broad blade bit into the flesh of my wrist in short, controlled chops. Billy cut the skin, the veins and nerves, the tendons and ligaments, but not the bone.  My fingers scrabbled and danced and scraped against the gritty floor of the alley for as long as they could, until I lost the ability to move them.

When he seemed satisfied that he’d thoroughly disconnected my hand, Billy gripped it with both of his and pulled. As I watched the two slim bones slid out of my forearm, my face went numb and I felt a deep cold spreading through my body. I felt like I was watching the scene unfold from somewhere far inside myself, and the deeper I slid into this state the safer I felt. I was aware of what he was doing, aware of the pain, and aware of the disgust as I felt him struggling to stuff his cock into the furiously bleeding stump, but it was an abstract and distant awareness.  It was as if I was watching the atrocity being done to somebody else.

It was the eye that brought me back to my senses.  I was aware that he was looking at me, and wondering if it was his good eye or the dead, wandering one.  I could never remember which was which until the dead one was rolling off into space. This strange but familiar feeling of unsureness was all it took to snap me back into the present. Billy, whether he was looking at my face or not, was awkwardly fucking wht was left of my arm, sliding his bloodied cock in and out of the ever-widening orifice he’d created.  He was holding the arm together with both hands. I realized his weight was no longer holding me down.  Next to my head was my hand, trailing two seven inch lengths of jagged, splintered bone.

I looked at Billy’s face, at the one eye in my line of sight.  It was empty and rolling.  I grabbed my dead left hand in my right and stabbed my own radius and ulna into the sightless, unhinged eye.  Blood exploded from his cheek and orbital, his eyeball collapsed and vomited its pulp over his face as Billy shrieked and tumbled off of me. As he fell I stabbed again, but the bones barely penetrated. The flexible bones of my wrist made my makeshift weapon too wobbly, and I stupidly worried about spraining it. I regripped my own hand and stabbed again, catching his throat just as he was reaching for “Daddy”. The bones crushed his trachea and tore deep into the muscle of his neck. As I straddled him, forcing a grotesque reversal of our previous position, he looked up at me, one eye staring, the other a gaping cavern of blood and goo.

“Sorry man,” he said, gurgling a little. “I just wanted to see if it would work.”

I picked up “Daddy” and bifurcated his head, peeling half of it away from the rest like a melon. Then I continued to hack away at his face, neck and chest until I eventually passed out again.

So yes, I hate my stump.  I don’t call it a nubby or a terminus or a residual limb.  I’m not proud or brave. Like I said, I can feel people looking at it and wanting to ask me about it.  But worse than that by far, are the phantom limb sensations.  Apparently more than half of us get it. The ghost nerves of our lost parts keep itching and twitching and hurting.  Other people don’t get them like I do.  I feel my own arm and hand, itching or aching or clutching, but I feel him too. I still feel his cock stabbing away under my skin, between the muscle, filling the gaping cavern where my bones should be.  I wonder if he will ever stop.

Hold Me, Kiss Me, Squeeze Me Tight

It’s the little details you miss the most.  When it all falls apart, when the shit hits the fan and the blood hits the wall, it’s the details that really matter.  They say your life will flash before your eyes before you die, but when your teeth touch steel, there are no major events, no headliners, just tiny heartbreaking details.  That’s how it was for me anyway. “Hold me, kiss me, squeeze me tight.” That’s what she used to say at the end of our calls. That’s what I remembered.

Life has never been kind to me, but I tried not to be a bitch about it. I’ve always been tough enough to get through life’s bumps and scrapes, and I learned early not to get my hopes up.  I never expected to be rich, never thought I’d be a rock star, and never held out for true love. Follow your dreams? Fuck that, follow a plan. Looking back, I guess that’s where I messed up.  I got caught in the dream. When I met Susan, I got pulled in.  I swore the world would never catch me off guard, but damn, it suckered me good.

Susan wasn’t just physically beautiful, she was a beautiful person in every way.  She saw something in me that nobody ever had before, not even me.  She told me I could be more than what I was, and I actually believed it.  She was right too.  I stopped drinking, started working harder.  I wanted to make her as happy as she’d made me, so I had to improve my station in life to give her the life she deserved.  I worked overtime, quit the band, went back to school.  While I was away for one semester, we talked every night on the phone. Every call ended the same way: “Hold me, kiss me, squeeze me tight.”

Life was different, but it was better. There was less excitement, but less drama as well.  We were comfortable.  Of course I missed my old friends, but they were all too crazy.  I had to keep my distance from the old lifestyle.  The call of those past ways- the bars, the girls, the drugs- would always be strong, and could destroy everything if I wasn’t careful.  But I walked the line and I busted my ass for six years.

With Suzie’s help, I lifted myself to a better life.  From my humble beginnings being raised by a single, drunk mom in a series of subsidized apartments and slums, after a childhood of abuse and neglect, after almost dropping out of highschool and after several brushes with the law, after years of wasted nights in filthy bars and on friends’ couches, after all of the bad decisions and missed opportunities I’d finally got it right. I had a beautiful fiance, a good home, and a real job.

After six years, it was Susan’s turn to spend a semester abroad.  She’d been studying art history and after a year of enthusiastic fundraising she was heading to a sister campus in rural England. I made sure to be at home every night when she called.  With my history, I didn’t want to give her any reason to worry or doubt.  And every night at the end of the call she’d say “Hold me, kiss me, squeeze me tight.”

Until she didn’t.  It started slowly with missed calls, excuses about late classes and time difference.  There was a gradual change of tone, a shift from excited but tired to bored and exasperated. I got paranoid, asked her what was going on. I couldn’t stop picturing her sucking a huge, uncircumcised European dick. She told me again and again that everything was fine, that nothing had changed.  She insisted we were fine right up until the day before she came home, then she told me to pack my shit and get out of her house.  Her new boyfriend, some guy from her class, was moving in, but she’d stay at his house until I had time to find a new place.

I haven’t left.  I sat on the bed, leaning back against the headboard, with a pistol in my lap.  It was an RIA m200 .38 and it was beautiful.  It offered me a way out.  The world had lifted me up only to throw back lower than I’d ever been.  I could not go back to the way my life had once been, but I couldn’t follow this path anymore either.  I was lost, and all of my old demons were creeping back with years of hunger on their shoulders. I looked at the gun. Hold  me, said the handle. Kiss me, said the barrel. Squeeze me tight, said the trigger. Finally, I did.

The last thing to go through my head, other than fragments of my teeth, was a series of those tiny details:  The small, disapproving glances Susan would always give me whenever I farted or even laughed when somebody else did. The way we spent all our time with her friends doing shit she wanted. The fact that she’d never altered her life in any way for me, when I’d wrapped my existence around her.  The sudden, terrible knowledge that when she’d said hold me, kiss me, squeeze me tight it was because she couldn’t think of anything else, anything meaningful.

My brain hit the wall, shards of skull, curls of hair, scraps of skin blanketing the beige paint. I felt it.  That was a shock. Then I felt myself dripping, spreading, part of me sliding down and seeping into and under the carpet.  I expected to dissolve or fade, but my thoughts, my feelings, me Self simply fountained up, splashed down and stayed there. Is it like this for everyone? I wondered, and still wonder.  I’m settled in like mildew now, months after my stain was wiped away and painted over, listening to Susan fuck her new boyfriend. Then she says to him what she always said to me. “Hold me, kiss me, squeeze me tight.”

Wolf

Dylan looked at the looming clouds, knowing the full moon would be rising in just a couple of hours.  He shuddered inwardly at the cliche.  This is ridiculous, he thought.  I can’t fucking believe I’m doing this. He considered, for the thirtieth time in the past half hour, the possibility of backing out.  He could just drive away.  But then he thought of Paul, grabbed the bag and stepped out of his car.  

He walked the gravel path to the little bungalow.  Mountainous masses of wind-warped pines loomed on each side. He’d been warned the man who lived here, Kelly, was two steps past crazy.  That had been two nights before, at the Red Shed, where he’d been drinking all night.  It had taken weeks just to get that far, the typical “I know a guy who knows a guy” bullshit.  But now, here he was at the door of a reclusive psychopathic reputed to be a killer for hire.  Well fuck.

He climbed up the rotting old steps and stood in front of the door.  There were three drop-shaped windows in the door, but they were blocked from behind by what looked like garbage bags.  He paused, still far from convinced that he wanted to follow through with this.  Next to the door were two bow saws, an axe, and a spade, leaning against decaying clapboard.  Identical tools could be found in any number of porches and sheds all over this area, but they took on a sinister quality outside Kelly’s door.  Dylan hoisted the bag, adjusted his jeans and knocked on the door.

There was a rustling inside, and after a few minutes the door opened.  Kelly looked like he’d just been roused from a long nap.  His clothes were wrinkled and his long, greying hair was a chaotic knot.  The were heavy bags under his eyes and he hadn’t shaved in days.

“You Dylan?”

“Yeah,” he answered. “Dylan Martin.  You’re Kelly, right?”

“Yeah.”  The man spoke softly, but his voice was still gravelly. He looked, sounded and smelled like a two-packs-a-day kind of guy.  He was in his late forties, maybe even over the fifty line.  However, his substantial height and breadth made him an imposing figure.  He wore a red and black flannel shirt over a tattered black tee.  The sleeves were rolled up to show muscle-corded forearms lined with crisscrossing scars.  When Dylan saw them he thought again of Paul and he suddenly felt like hugging the massive man in front of him.  This is crazy, he thought.  It’s crazy, but it’s right.

“Better come in,” said Kelly.  He stepped aside and ushered Dylan into a small and cluttered kitchen.  Fake wood panelling lined the walls, jackets and shirts were hanging from both chairs.  The table was covered with bottles, mostly empty, a half eaten loaf of wonder bread and, curiously, three raw potatoes.  Kelly gestured to one of the chairs and sat in the other.  Dylan sat too.  They looked at each other for a moment.  Dylan felt like he needed to say something, but what do you say?  How do you ask a stranger to kill somebody for you?  

“I don’t know how this works,” he finally said.

“No,” said Kelly in his coarse but gentle voice. “No reason why you should. I know why you’re here, know what you need.  But you’re gonna have to tell me why.  How much you been told about me?”

“Well,” said Dylan.  He hesitated.  He didn’t know what he was supposed to have been told, but he was sure phrases like fuckin’ loony and wannabe wolfman were not what Kelly wanted to hear. “I was told that, under certain circumstances, you could…take care of people. Get rid of them.”  He cleared his throat. It would have to be said at some point, so he continued. “Kill them.”

“What else?  They tell you I’m crazy?”

“Yeah.” Dylan smiled apologetically. “Yeah, they did. Sorry.”

“No worries, man.”  Kelly smiled.  He looked down at the table, his pale blue eyes half hidden under bushy brows. “I do have an affliction.  I wasn’t born with it.  It was given to me.  I was attacked.  Ever since, I have had urges.  I’ve been turned, like so many men are, into a predator.  I’m not proud of what I’ve become, but I’m not ashamed of how I handle it.”

“That’s why you do this?”

“Yes,” answered Kelly.  “I hurt people who hurt people.  Not for justice, but because I need to hurt people.  I have a wolf inside me, and it is hungry all the time.  I need to feed it, I need to let it go and have its way, or I can’t control it.  But I don’t choose to be an evil person.  I’ll die before I start to prey on women or children”

“I respect that.”

“Thank you…I understand that somebody hurt your boy.”

“Yes.”

“Before we go any further, I need you to understand something.  The wolf is in charge tonight, not me.  The wolf is not justice.  The wolf is revenge. It will hunt its prey, track it down, tear it apart.  The wolf does not teach a lesson.  It kills. It eats. It leaves. This will not make things better. Not for your boy, and not for you either.  It’s something that you will have to live with for the rest of your life.  So, if you want closure, if you want healing, fuck off and see a shrink.  But if you want revenge, then open the bag and let’s see what you brought me.”

Dylan nodded and put the bag on the table.  He opened it, took out the whiskey, followed by the lock of Paul’s hair and his shirt.  Then he took out the battered red hat he’d stolen from Carter’s pickup truck.

“I have money too,” he said.  “I didn’t know if…”

“No,” answered Kelly.  He reached over to the counter behind him without standing and grabbed two glass tumblers. “No money. Open the drink.”

Then they started.  They drank the whiskey straight, but Dylan drank most of it.  Within a few minutes his ears were warm and his tongue felt thick.  At first Kelly asked him questions, guiding him through the painful conversation, but as the story gained momentum and the glow turned to drunkenness, the words started to fall out of him in a torrent.  He told Kelly all about Paul, how much he’d loved soccer, and the way he used to take care of his sister.  The way they used to wrestle, all three of them, on the bed on saturday mornings.  Then, over the past few years, Paul had started to turn sullen and violent.  He’d beat the shit out of his sister, trash the house, had even tried to fight Dylan, his own father.  There were fights at school, his grades dropped.  He started to shut the world out, especially his family.  At first they’d thought it was just a phase, typical teen angst shit.  Then, a little over a year ago, they’d seen the cuts. They lined the inside of his leg, from knee to ankle in a regular pattern like a train track. They tried not to force him, “you can tell us, you can talk to us” and all the usual bullshit.  Looking back, he knew he’d sounded like a sad made-for-tv movie.  But then, eventually, the truth found its way to them. The worst part was, it had nothing to do with Dylan or Paul when it did.  One of Paul’s friends had told his own parents what Carter had been doing to him, and then Paul got pulled into the investigation.  He denied it at first, then went silent and then, finally, like a dam bursting, it flooded out in a rage of screaming and tears.  This bastard Carter, their neighbour for longer than Paul had been alive, had been raping children for years.  

Paul was starting to put the pieces together, trying to get back to a normal life.  But things were different now, and they would never go back to normal.  Dylan lived in constant fear of what his future might hold: drugs, depression, suicide?  And then there was Carter.  He got off with nothing.  Only Paul and one other kid had pressed charges, and the other kid had apparently made up a bunch of shit and his charges were dropped.  Carter was sentenced to 18 months, was released in six.  Just when Paul was starting to open up again, there was this fucking pervert just a few blocks down the road.  Free to do whatever he wanted, as long as he didn’t stray into playgrounds or near schools.  Paul would be paying for this shit for the rest of his life, while Carter had already moved on.

Dylan got drunker and drunker, told Kelly things he’d never told anybody else.  He cried and allowed himself to fully feel the guilt and despair he’d been trying to control for so many months.  He had the feeling that Kelly was taking it on for him, absorbing it somehow, and was going to bring it with him when he left.  The more he drank, the faster time seemed to move, fragments of conversation began to overlap and melt together.  Then Kelly gave him a cup of bitter tea to drink, and he alternated between that and the whiskey.  His intoxication went from a cloud over his mind to an explosion, a violent blast of fragmented imagery and emotion that snuffed coherent thought.  

When the convulsions started, Kelly helped Dylan out of his chair and eased him gently to the floor.  For a moment, Dylan was aware of nothing in the room except for his own shaking and, directly in front of him, a small tear in the linoleum floor.  Dirt was caked into the split.  He stared vacantly at the crusted grime.

In his head, he saw his son’s face, heard his voice.  He could feel, in addition to his own rage and shame, the feelings of all those he loved. “The wolf knows his pack,” said Kelly, as if reading Dylan’s mind. Dylan could feel his wife trying not to blame him, trying to forgive both him and herself; he could feel Paul’s shame too, and worse: he could feel Paul pitying him.  How could Paul, the victim in all this, be feeling sorry for his father?  Had Dylan let him see to much of his own pain? He could also feel Carter’s guilt and shame, a sensation he struggled to reject. Part of Dylan knew the experience must be hallucinatory, his mind projecting these emotions onto other people, but that made them no less convincing or painful.  

Dylan became aware of Kelly’s feelings too.  A sad, slow dread crept into him.  He felt Kelly’s compassion for him, and he felt Kelly’s pain too.  It was a pain like Paul’s but older, harder and uglier.  Then, the pain started to slide away, replaced by a rage and a hunger beyond anything Dylan had ever known.  He felt a hatred for all life, an all consuming savage desire to hurt.  Not just to hurt- to destroy. Dylan felt as if the anger was absorbing him, that he was becoming part of it, joined to it by his own anger.  He realised he was still looking at the torn linoleum and, at the same time, at his own trembling body lying prone beneath him.  He was seeing two things at once.

One of the two perspectives bolted away through the house and out the back door.  He could smell the forest calling him, but the natural, healthy draw of the dark between the trees was overruled by the perverse desires that had become the Wolf’s reason for existence.  The part of Dylan that could still see the dirt under the linoleum was overwhelmed by regret.   He didn’t want to see this.

The scenes seen through the alien view moved impossibly fast, passing over roads and through patches of woods, then past buildings and down alleys.  It was near the city and Dylan knew the area.  Dylan felt the horror of one perspective and the excitement of the other mounting in unison as the house came into view.  For a moment there was a similar duality of frustration and relief when the hungry view was blocked by the closed door, but neither lasted.  The Wolf knew its business and it would not be stopped.

Dylan sniffed.  He could smell what he wanted: a cat.  He darted around the house, under a hedge and in a moment he had the feline in his mouth.  His teeth bit into its shoulders, but not enough to kill it.  It flailed wildly, scratching at his face and eyes with its hind legs and trying to scramble away with its front.  Dylan held it firm and carried it back to the door.  The pitiful cat could barely break the skin of his face and the pain was so minimal it scarcely registered. He gave the cat a small flick and adjusted his grip, sinking his teeth deep into its back hip.  There was a delicious crack under its muscle, but it was not dead. Dylan could taste the blood in his mouth and swallowed with  deep satisfaction.  Meanwhile, he was dimly aware that another part of him, miles away on the floor of a stranger’s house, was disgusted by this.  

The cat let out a terrible moan.  Dylan knew it would be loud enough to bring his prey to the door.  It was.  The door opened and a fat man appeared.  He muttered something, displayed the familiar alarm that Dylan loved so much.  Then, when his quarry saw him, the alarm gave way to panic.  The man tried to retreat, to slam the door but he was too slow.  Dylan was through and had the man by the ankle.  The quivering tower of meat toppled as it tried to run.  Dylan had his teeth locked under the man’s jaw before he could even scream.  This was when the control became essential:  just enough pressure, and the man would go limp, but too much and he would go cold.  The horrified and trembling part of Dylan, the part still lying on the floor, was aware that Carter’s brain was being deprived of blood and that in a few moments he would stop struggling.  The rest of him just knew that he wanted Carter to stay alive for a while longer.

When the man went still, Dylan bit into his ankle again and dragged him away from the door.  In the center of another room Dylan dropped the man and stood on his chest, staring into his face.  He was close enough to feel the sour breath that came in ragged gasps as the man slowly resurfaced.  There it was again: alarm giving way to panic.  The fat man began to sob, too afraid to struggle.  Dylan leaned forward and lapped the salty tears from the pudgy cheeks.  Then, starting with a small nip at the lips, the feeding began.  So did the screaming.

The wolf knew how to prolong the life.  It was suffering and fear more than blood and meat that sustained it.  First the lips were torn away and swallowed.  The human half of Dylan thought of the fat lining cheap pork chops and then of the way his wife used to bite his lip when they fucked.  He threw up on the floor without lifting his head, while his other perspective continued to eat the fat and screaming face of a pedophile.

The cheeks were next, then the ears, but careful not to harm the eyes.  Dylan wanted the pitiful man to see what was happening to him, to see the creature shredding him.  In the middle of a particularly violent scream, Dylan snapped at the fat man’s tongue, biting off the tip. All was swallowed, nothing wasted; the skin, the cartilage, the muscle and fat and blood. The Wolf did what it came to do and Dylan saw, heard, tasted and felt every detail, every emotion.  

Minutes passed.  The screaming and the struggling stopped, but Carter kept breathing.  Blood sputtered on each exhalation.  His hands, both missing fingers and trailing flaps of shredded skin, moved shakilily as if looking for a position that didn’t hurt or do further harm.  Dylan could feel the wet weight of skin and fat rolling in his gut, and craved a mass of muscle to pile on top of it.  

Carter was mapped with superficial wounds.  Patches of skin, a nipple and sections of his face had been removed.  Fingers had been crushed and devoured.  His collarbone had been snapped.  His genitals, had been pulped between powerful jagged teeth, but not torn away entirely.  They hung like grapes crushed on the vine, with clumps dropping away here and there, but mostly clinging wetly together.

It was then that the other Dylan, the human half lying on the floor, felt something new. From the moment he’d started, he’d felt disgust and horror, fear and regret.  But as he felt the softness of the helpless pervert’s penis and testicles giving way between his jaws, he felt something he could never have anticipated: compassion.  Somehow, he actually felt sorry for the bastard.  He knew that if he’d simply heard about the carnage, even seen it, that he would have been pleased, but to experience the act himself, to smell the man’s fear and to know that he’d given up, that Carter knew he was going to die and had stopped fighting: it was enough to make him sorry.  

In the Wolf though, there was no mercy.  The feast continued in earnest: massive strips of muscle were ripped away from bone, heavy splashes of blood washed every surface, and the torso was fully opened.  Ribs were exposed, crushed and moved aside.  Organs were bitten into, savoured and swallowed.  Dylan, inside the Wolf, chewed so deeply into Carter’s torso that he felt his face brushing the ribs and spine from the inside. Carter was dead.  The Wolf ate its fill and then pulled the limbs apart with violent shakes of its shoulders and neck.  When nothing remained but a spattered mess of broken bones and dismembered limbs, the Wolf threw itself, shoulder first, into the gore and rolled gleefully in the pile.  The friction, as well as the knowledge that he would be coated with the blood and inherit the smell of the kill, was intensely satisfying to this half of Dylan.  The other half wept in the knowledge that he would never forget what he’d done, and would never forgive himself.

Eventually the wolf left, sauntering casually back through the streets and suburbs, through the trees to where Dylan lay.  As the fractured halves of his mind came closer together, the trembling slowly stopped.  Soon he was whole again, staring blankly at the torn linoleum floor, now buried under a pool of vomit.  

Lying prone, Dylan wept.  He cried deeply for his son, for Carter, and for Kelly.  He cried for himself.  He had never had much faith, and he didn’t believe in God or the Devil, or Heaven and Hell.  He did believe in good and evil though, and whether there was a hell or not, Dylan knew he was damned.  He’d been a part of something evil.  He would never be the same person he was before- that man was dead.  Paul’s father, Pam’s husband, his father’s son: tonight Dylan had murdered those people the same as he’d murdered Carter.  The wolf had devoured him too, and he didn’t know who was left.

Kelly was making coffee.  Dylan sat up on the floor.  He was still sick, but no longer drunk.  He lifted himself to the chair and stopped crying.  They silently drank coffee together.  Dylan looked at Kelly’s face.  This was the reality that Kelly had lived with for years.  Eventually Dylan looked up at Kelly and spoke.

“Am I going to be like you now?”

“That’s up to you, Dylan.”

 

At the Deli Counter

The man behind the meat counter, tall, stooped and old, was Dilbert Cunningham.  I’d been seeing him behind the Elton’s Grocery meat counter for almost ten years.  Dilbert was grey and pasty, a perfect match for the tubes of deli meat he was always sliding across the meat slicer. He was a dull, flat person who never offered anything interesting to notice until the day I saw him cut open young girl’s face.  

 

I was behind her in the line, which was parallel to the counter, so I was able to see the event clearly.  She looked to be about twelve, but who can tell with kids?   She seemed normal enough, messy blond hair and a sunburn, purple shirt, a face where her face should be and the normal number and proper placement of limbs and eyes.The waddling woman ahead of her shuffled off with her slices of mulched flesh and the girl stepped to the curved glass display.  She stretched up onto her toes to see over it.

 

“Sir,” she said in a flat voice, “can I please have four ounces of your finest mortadella.”

Dilbert squinted his eyes, tilted his head and looked at her. He leaned forward until they were eye to eye then plucked a long curved knife from under his apron. Dilbert swung the knife around in a wild haymaker arc and it crossed the girl’s face, bifurcating her cheek and opening her left eye.  Rather than the blood and gelatinous goo I’d expect to flow from a young girl’s cut open eyeball, there was a dry eruption of tiny black spiders.

“I knew it!” Cunningham roared as he vaulted over the low section of the counter, flipping the knife to a backhand grip in mid-air. “I knew it!”

 

By the time he landed, her mouth had already stretched down to her chest, her chin and neck utterly collapsed inward. She sprayed a fountain of the spiders up in a spout that spread and flowed weightlessly.  They engulfed Mr. Cunningham, swarming over him and floating ethereally around him on strands of web. In seconds his gangly body looked like a dense cloud of twitching darkness. As the black mass crumpled and folded, he was still screaming “I knew it! I knew it!”

Having voided herself, the empty shell of humanity that had been the girl crumpled like a dry, dying skeksi. The spiders streamed away from the wet remains of Dilbert Cunningham seeming almost to evaporate.  What was left of the corpse was puffy and red, slick with web and a thin sheen of blood and sweat.

 

I walked forward, carefully avoiding the spiders as I stepped over Dilbert.  I gingerly made my way to the display counter and looked hopelessly into the depths of the meat department. There was nobody else back there, just stainless steel counters and machines, a filthy yellow bucket, bottles of cleaner and cardboard boxes.
“Shit,” I said, “Who’s gonna get my boudin now?”

Ingrown

Harold leaned close to the mirror, eyeing his jawline.  He held tweezers to his skin, edged it under a coarse hair, squeezed and pulled.  All the hair on the underside of his jaw grew flat against his skin, almost parallel, and the razor never caught them all.  His shirt hung open, waiting to be buttoned.  His tie hung on the bathroom door, already tied.  He’d slip it over the collar, last thing before he left.  He was still getting used to this new job and the expected clothing that came with it.

Last year, when he’d applied, Harold had been ready for the job and all it entailed. After the interview, he’d told Gail that he was sure he’d got it. He’d bought the suit, the shirts, two ties. He’d bought new shoes.  Then, when the job was given to somebody else, the new clothes sulked in his closet for six months.  Gail had been understanding and supportive.  She’d helped him scour the job banks online, looking for anything he could get.  He finally got a job working in a cabinet shop, using unsafe tools to furnish kitchens he could never afford himself.  

Still standing in front of the mirror, bent over the filthy sink, he plucked another hair.  This one pulled with it a thick black and red root.  A flat spot of blood formed where he’d ripped up the hair.  He peered closer at his face, steam obscuring his mouth and nose where his breath hit.  The glass surface seemed to ripple softly, but he ignored it. Yes, there was definitely an ingrown hair just under his nostril.  Fucker’s going to make his nose itch and run all morning, he thought. He dug at the black thread just under the surface.

It had been Gail who answered the phone a few weeks back, when they called.  Apparently the guy who’d taken his job hadn’t worked out, had had some kind of meltdown at the office. Something about a girl in a suitcase. They wanted to know if he was still available and when he could start.  That night Gail had taken him to the Lucky Dragon to celebrate.  It was, they agreed, going to be a turning point in their lives.

The hair he was trying to dig out was deeper than he’d thought.  Blood kept filling the small hole he torn in the skin, but he could see the dark black spot when he wiped it.  He tried again, but blood flowed back in before he could grip it.  He blindly stabbed into the skin with his tweezers.  Their tips were wet and red. His back was hurting from leaning so long.  He was getting frustrated.

Harold straightened and looked at himself.  The mirror swelled and shivered. His scalp was smooth, but bloody.  He’d had no real trouble getting rid of those hairs, he’d just had to take some of the skin as well.  Blood had soaked his collar though.  He was going to have to change his shirt.  The hair on his face was different.  It was thick and deep, and once the blood started, it was impossible to tell where the hair stopped and the flash started.  Streaks of red ran down over his chin from half a dozen places.  This one under his nose was the worst. It seemed like it moved deeper retreating further into his lip, as he tried to pluck it out.  Harold sighed.  He picked up the scissors and gripped his upper lip.  He knew it would hurt, but what choice did he have?  He couldn’t go to his new job with this hair tunneling through his face.  He closed the scissors, opened them, closed them again.  It took almost a minute before he managed to pull the lip clean away from his nose.  His naked teeth and gums, slick with blood and spit, glared in the liquid surface of the mirror.

“Now,” whispered Harold to himself, “where should I put this?”  It was surprisingly easy to speak, the “P” sound in “put” being the only problem.  He was looking around for a suitable place to store his upper lip when the door opened. Gail walked in. Harold looked at her, but her face seemed wrong.  He couldn’t understand her expression, and her voice was so loud.  Then he realised, her whole scalp was covered in long, brown hair.  That must be the problem. He thought. It must be growing straight through her entire skull. He would help her. He gripped the scissors and tackled her.  As he went to work on her neck, he could still feel the mirror pulsing behind him.

Albert at School

Albert Cohen sat at an empty section of a long cafeteria table and opened a pale grey plastic grocery bag.  Around him, in a chaos of shrill laughter and shouts, the normal children traded snacks and insults. In Albert’s bag was a scrap of paper and a sandwich bag. The sandwich bag contained a fat slice of cheddar cheese. It was dark, dry and cracked with drips of clear oil sweating from it, smearing the plastic.

Albert put the cheese bag down and pulled out the paper. It read: “This is all we have. Try to trade with your friends. Love Mummy”  It was written in a pretty, looping scrawl.

At the end of the table, two teachers stood, trying hard not to see the hideous children they were surrounded by.  They were too clean, scoured and stripped of dirt and humanity. One of them, the taller of the two, was speaking. Her voice, though she was pretending to whisper, was loud enough for all the students to hear.

“The girls were playing this morning,” she said, “and Ashlyn was pinching the others. I asked her why and she told me there’s an evil spider in her brain that tells her what to do.”

“What did you do?” asked the other. She was pink and fat and looked like a poorly shaved aquatic mammal stuffed in a flowery dress.

“I made her eat a fly.” She shrugged.  “If the spider wasn’t hungry, it would be making her pinch people.”

“Did she stop pinching people?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Hey, look, the Cohen kid is muttering to himself again.”

Albert took a stubby pencil from his pocket and wrote on the note. But I don’t have any friends. Kids don’t want to hang out with kids who bring old, stinky cheese for lunch. He looked around the room, trying to establish patterns of behaviour that might help him understand the rules.  He couldn’t find anything.

“Oh, God, I fucking hate that kid,” said the fat pink woman. “He always smells bad. He’s so weird.”

“The parents,” explained the skinny one. She seemed to be slowly turning into a bird under her skin.

“The parents,” Confirmed the gelatinous, patchy elephant seal woman.

Albert looked back at the note. His mother’s loopy script continued.  “No. Children don’t like to hang out with little boys who don’t shower and who talk to themselves.”

Albert put his pencil to the paper, took a breath and thought. His frustration didn’t fit into the confines of his words. They don’t like me anyway, he wrote. I don’t know how to be like them.

“They don’t like little boys,” wrote his mother with his tiny, blunt pencil, “who cut up their mothers and put them in the freezer.”

Albert sighed and wiped his nose on his sleeve.  He stared at the cheese and waited for the bell. Around him, the others students tried to resist learning, tried to enjoy existence, tried to pretend to be human and failed.

 

Slugs

She lived in his stomach.  He suspected that he’d swallowed her weeks before the changes, but he didn’t know when.  She may have been there all along, all his life inside him, biding her time like a hibernating frog, waiting for these curious days.  She’d awakened, uncoiling and pulsing in his guts first and then in his thoughts.  

He’d had a fever, a wet night of hallucinations and sweat.  His whole body had been clenched, wracked, and clenched again in repeating cycles of cramp and vomit.  His limbs tore at the bathroom floor like fingernails scratching an itch.

Then, in a sudden still moment, came a whisper.

Andrew.

It was not what he would have expected.  He didn’t look around, he wasn’t confused or startled.  He knew right away exactly who and where she was.  He found himself at home and at ease, having been lost his entire life without fully understanding it.  There was meaning to the world. Under the thin skin of chaos and misery and hopelessness, there was purpose and beauty and meaning.  It was the first time he’d ever felt peace.

Her legs caressed his inner walls as they unfolded and expanded. He felt his anatomy changing as it shifted to accommodate her presence.  His identity eroded as she became part of his mind.  His memories blurred and faded.  All of his thoughts were slowed, tangled in webs of slime and fear.  Everything was dulled except his hunger.

Andrew… She taught him to live like a spider.  He crept, carrying his sacred passenger inside through the dark and narrow spaces most people avoided.  Passages of dust-dry shadows, wet corners, cramped crevices: in the grey underbelly of a decaying world, he watched for his prey. Their prey.

While he waited, he prepared. He picked slugs, the writhing seeds of life, from beneath wet, rotting leaves.  He swallowed them, pouring one after another through his dark tubes to her.  He buried her in a cold, heavy mass of slug flesh.  She hungered for them, just like he did.  They entered her and she bathed them in her magic.  Then, when they were ready, basted and marinated in the acidic froth of alien lust and native bile, she would whisper to him again.

Andrew.

That was all she ever said.  It was all she needed to say, he always knew what she wanted.  When the bolus of still living slugs was ready, changed just as he’d been by her corrupting touch, she moved him on to the next stage.  Back to the rainslicked streets, the gutters clogged with dead leaves, the alleys littered with picked over corpses, looking for larger prey.

As he got closer, the slow churning in his stomach got faster, slugs warm and twitching.   His gullet was a heavy,  tumbling wad of acidic gastropods, swollen and deformed. Their arousal was hers and his. He waited silently until the right moment, then pounced.

His victim, a frightened young man, fell under his weight.  The eyes were too clear, too human.  They both tumbled into a tangled knot of fighting limbs, and then, when he’d established a dominant position, he voided the gorge of slugs. The clump broke apart on the victim’s face, dozens of knuckled, finger long slugs bubbling and tumbling over cheeks and eyes.  In a thick medium of slime and acid, the writhing slugs blanketed the screaming man’s skull, buried his features, flooded his gaping mouth.  

The slugs began to work.  They clung to the struggling man’s skin, gripping with suction and slime, and started to penetrate every available opening.  The howling mouth was silenced and filled. They worked their way into ears and nostrils, under eyelids.  The struggling man’s face bulged as they forced themselves under his skin, mangling and suffocating him. Gradually, as the struggling stopped, they all disappeared into the depths of their new home.  The ruined flesh sagged on his skull, but still he breathed.

Andrew…

Walking away, he wondered what that one word meant.  He’d known once, he was sure.  Now, just syllables in a familiar voice.  But he knew what she wanted.

Headless and Hungry

I awoke in the middle of the night, headless and hungry.  Of course, I knew I was having a nightmare- not only because my head was gone, but also because I could see myself. I had the curious mix of deep dread and flat calm that only comes with dreams and psychedelic drugs.  I was lying on the bed, filling the depression around me with blood.  My head had been ripped away from my chest like a rotted tooth from the gum. It had left a vertical trench that stretched to my abdomen.

I was looking down on the dark room from above, from all sides at once, without one specific point of view.  My wife was gone.  She’s probably taken my head, I thought.  That bitch has hated me for years.  

My body stood up, wondering vaguely where my head was, but was distracted by the vulture’s hunger that screeched in my guts.  It moved mechanically, responding to my will even though I was no longer connected to it.

Finally, I noticed my wife just before my body left the room.  She was  standing in the corner, facing into the closet. Her arm was swinging in a fast underhand arc, again and again. She was holding my head, her fingers clenched tight through my hair, and was battering my skull against the back wall of the closet as if she would dig a tunnel through with it.  I knew she had it.

The shambling bundle of limbs turned and left, walking into the hallway.  My daughter, Angie, was awake. She was leaning on the banister, staring forward with no expression.  She was dangling a thick, glistening cord through the railing, jigging it as if toying with a kitten.  Below, my son was waving his arms at the bouncing end of what I realized was Angie’s intestine.  He caught it, grasped it with both hands as if trying to climb, but it slid through his grip, squeezing mucus and feces onto the floor.  Though I could hear nothing and their faces were expressionless, I knew in the logic of dreams that they were laughing. I knew that I was laughing too.

I made my way downstairs, a disembodied perspective following above an automatonic body, and opened the refrigerator.  I started to press raw ground beef, cheese and an onion into the gaping cavity at the top of my chest.  I felt my body pull the calcium and protein from them, restructuring them.  Organ and muscle tissue shifted and changed.  The edges of flesh that flapped like an undone zipper from just over my navel to my collar bones started to itch.  Protrusions of jagged bone erupted like teeth.  My ribs parted as new muscle pulled my core open in a vertical maw, forming an inverted, toothy vagina.  I shovelled in the leftover cake from Angie’s birthday, poured in the milk and wedged a pack of frozen pork chops inside. It didn’t help.  I needed meat, raw and bleeding, ripe with the stench of dying thoughts, last regrets and sad memories.

As I stepped through the door, I realized I was seeing myself from a layer of micro organisms that coated the walls, the ceiling, the changing flesh that was my body.  I still knew I was having a terrible dream in which I was about to eat Ward, my neighbour, but I also knew I wasn’t ever going to wake up.

Vivarium

Nicholas returned to his cubicle, wheezed his way into his squeaking chair, and looked at his computer.  It took a moment to register, but even when he saw it he did not respond the way they wanted him to.  While he’d been in the bathroom, one of his coworkers had changed the background of his desktop to a pornographic picture.  It was a blond girl wrapped so tightly in ropes that the flesh around them was swollen, dark and bruised. Behind her, a fat man with a black leather mask held a whip poised to strike.  A caption read “How Nick spends his weekends”. He knew what he was supposed to do.  He was meant to be frantically scrabbling to hide the picture, terrified that his boss would see it and fire him for being a pervert.  Or, even better, they’d love it if he was overwhelmed with lust and started tugging himself right then and there.

“Very funny,” he said loudly, without looking away from the screen.  He could feel the flush heating his neck and face, the itchy tickle of new sweat under his shirt, but ignored it.  He cleared his throat, adjusted his glasses and leaned closer to the screen so he could see what he was doing as he removed and deleted the picture.  When it was gone he continued to stare blankly at the screen for a minute.  Even as he went through the motions of removing the prank, even with the anticipation of his plans for the afternoon, his thoughts were still elsewhere.  His mind was in the small, glass-contained world of his throbbing, writhing, pulsating friends. He was at peace there.

It was most likely Scott who’d put the picture there.  Scott had been giving Nicholas a hard time since he’d started this shitty job.  Every day Nicholas showed up and trudged through eight hours of beige and lifeless hell punctuated only by the brief interludes of humiliation and fear when Scott- the others were bad too, but Scott was the cruelest- decided to break their own monotony by playing with him.  His only comfort was knowing that at the end of the day he’d be going home to see the tiny paradise he’d created.  

Since early childhood it had been the same.  Nicholas had hated school and everyone there: students, teachers, parents.  He didn’t look like the other children, didn’t think or act or play like them.  Every day, once they’d noticed him, the other children dedicated their time to making his life more unbearable.  He’d always hated them, but quickly he learned to feared them too.  They beat him, mocked him, made him the centre of elaborate and vicious games.  The more they tormented him, the deeper into himself he’d spiralled.  Nicholas shrank away from society, driven by their savage sadism, into a world of sour, rank hatred.  His thoughts wandered into an abyss of loneliness, exploring imagined worlds of darkness and revenge.  Deeper and deeper he delved, calling into the darkest recesses of his own mind until, waiting in the shadows, something answered.

This day at the office was no different from every other day, at work, at school, and everywhere else he ever went.  With every step, from grade school to highschool, high school to university, university to the office, he’d expected people to stop being so cruel.  He’d been disappointed again and again.  In fact, other than the social and legal restrictions of adulthood, Scott was one of the worst he’d ever encountered.  There was no physical violence anymore, but the humiliation was worse than ever. Nicholas didn’t doubt for a second that, if Scott thought he could get away with it, Nicholas would once again find himself with his face forced into an unflushed toilet while his feeble legs kicked helplessly behind him.

Things had changed though.  Yes, he stilled feared his coworkers, and of course the humiliation and rejection still burned.  He was no longer powerless though.  He was no longer hopeless. So he would grind through the day, doing the bare minimum.  He worked as little as he thought he could get away with, but not because he was lazy.  He had been very hard working, dedicated and studious in his other endeavours.  Through the various online courses he’s taken from a variety of universities, he probably had enough education to make a second degree on top of his business BA.  However, scattered as they were across biology, chemistry, occultist anthropology, they would seem entirely incohesive to anybody who didn’t know about the vivarium. But after all the work, he’d succeeded where even the Russians had failed. The work of Dr. Brukhonenko had been greatly inspirational for Nicholas, but the doctor had been channeling most of his efforts in the wrong direction entirely. As far as he knew, Nicholas was the only person to have ever succeeded.

Hours dragged by.  He imagined he was sitting in front of the vivarium, watching his slugs crawl and eat. He always kept the lights off in the vivarium room, except for those in the tank, so that he could block out all other surroundings. Usually he would also play baroque music.  He didn’t know if his slugs were even aware of it, but he liked to think they enjoyed it.

Today though, the vivarium would have to wait. This was a special day. He had a different plan, which was very unusual for Nicholas.  It was time for a new acquisition.  He’d prepared the van, and at home, the solution was waiting for him.

 

It was almost seven o’clock. Nicholas gripped the wheel of the van with tight, sweaty hands.  Into the back, Aaron was still screaming.  Nicholas listened to the thumps of his struggling prisoner.  He’d awakened only moments earlier, and it was not part of the plan.  He should have been drugged until they were safe in the garage.  It didn’t matter though, they were almost there now.  Nobody would hear them this far outside of town.

Moments later he was guiding the van into the garage.  The electric door lowered behind him.  At the far side of the cavernous room, resting in a bowl on a table, was the solution.  Nicholas stepped from the van and walked to the sliding side door, picking up a hammer on the way.  It was quick.  He was not a sadist.  The door opened, three quick blows to the skull and the commotion was over.  Nicholas dropped the hammer, pulled a box cutter from his pocket and extended the blade.  He rested it next the Aaron’s body, then went to get the broad wooden bowl that contained the solution.

The solution was the result of cellular biology, chemistry and obscure occultism coming together.  It contained bone marrow of an infant, which provided stem cells and also satisfied certain sacrificial ritual elements that the procedure entailed. The ones he’d come to think of as The Outsiders had demands which must be met.  The formula also contained Nicholas’s own tears and gravedirt from his mother’s plot,  also to please the Outsiders.  One of the most important ingredients was an isolation of a protein taken from cancerous human cells. Something in the genetic material found within this protein interfered with cellular breakdown, which was what caused the cancer in the first place.  Once introduced to the formula and under the influence of the Outsiders, these cells became the building blocks of a new form of life.  Not only did the tissue not die, it continued to live. to grow, to metabolize and change.  It evolved.  

Nicholas cut Aaron’s jeans and boxers away then gripped the small, brownish penis as close to the base as possible.  He pulled it out, stretching it, feeling the skin sliding over the tissue beneath.  Nicholas slid the blade of the boxcutter underneath it and pulled it up through the meager handful of meat, this pound of flesh, he then placed the soft limp thing gently in the wooden bowl where it sank into the solution.  He carefully returned the bowl to its table, recited the brief incantation and then left the formula to work its wonders overnight.

 

Later, upstairs, he sat looking at the vivarium, watching his slugs.  Behind him, in the darkness, a piano adagio, something by Bach, rolled gently through the air. He hunched in his chair, smiling in through the glass. Inside their glowing little world his slugs writhed and rolled over the moss floor, struggling and rolling against the rough little log he’d put in there.  Occasionally, especially when they found their way onto the heat rock, they would expand, sometimes growing fully erect, which was quite shocking given the lack of blood in the erectile tissue. There were three slugs so far, Aaron’s would make four.  Nicholas knew that he would take an extra joy from knowing that Erin, chosen because he was Scott’s brother, would create a void in the life of his tormentor. Each slug had its own personality.  There was a wrinkly, dark brown one, which Nicholas liked to think of as the shy one.  The one he had cut from the asian man still retained a ring of straight black hair around its base. The asian slug, contrary to stereotypes, was not the smallest.  The smallest was a stubby little nub, scarcely more than an undersized glans, which came from a fat man he used to be friends with.  Nicholas spoke softly to them. He cooed, grinned and tapped the glass.  The three slugs crawled around, dripping and rolling in the golden glow of the vivarium.  Bach continued in a stream of comforting notes, cradling him and his slugs in the darkness.  Nicholas was at peace.

 

Later still, the peaceful dark of oblivious sleep was broken by a dream.  A voice was speaking to him.  Nicholas felt as if the voice had been speaking for all his life, for all time, but it was only during this dream he could hear it.  He recognised it as the guiding darkness that had spoken from so deep within his psyche that it was utterly alien to the rest of him.  It was a matrix of interrelated thoughts and concepts that combined to form a  collective awareness that had long ago proclaimed its independence from him.  It was the voice of the Outsiders. Its message was simple: You have squandered what we gave you.  We blessed you with a black miracle, the power to take unspeakable revenge, to shake humanity to its knees. You’ve repaid us with a childish collection of abominations.  You disappoint us.  He tried to answer, to protest, to bed, but found his mouth was full. Something had pressed its way into his mouth and was writhing and pulsating its way into his throat. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t breath. It was too late. He felt his collection of slugs swelling miraculously inside him, blocking his throat, cutting off his air.