Still a Family

“Where did they say they’re going again?,” asked Laura.

I sighed. “Dad said he was going to put gas in the car and mom needed to use the bathroom. The one here’s broken.”

I studied Laura’s face, knowing she was close to tears. She never wanted to be too far from our parents. Even though we could see them across the street at the gas station, Laura was worried they’d abandon her and she’d be stuck with her big sister forever.

“Look,” I told her, pointing out the enormous, floor-to-ceiling window. “There’s dad next to the gas pump. And there’s mom running toward the bathroom. I guess she really had to pee.” That got a giggle out of Laura, but I could tell the waterworks were imminent.

“What if they leave us here?,” she whispered, the latter half of the inquiry nearly inaudible under her burgeoning whimpers.

“Laura, it’s okay.” I did my best to sound confident and authoritative; Laura needed to believe with certainty they’d be returning momentarily. Otherwise, I’d be left with a blubbering wreck as we waited for our food in the middle of a crowded diner. “She’s four,” I reminded myself. “You were scared of everything when you were four.”

My sister took a loud, deep breath and exhaled slowly. It’s a technique I taught her for when she felt sad or scared. A tear dripped out of her right eye and slid down her cheek. She wiped it away, but no others came. She stared intently out the large window at our parents, who were getting back in the car.

Our food arrived. All four of us had ordered some variety of grilled cheese. Laura’s was on white bread with American cheese, and she picked it up and started shoveling the thing into her mouth. I didn’t bother to tell her to wait for mom and dad before eating. I was hungry too. I picked up my cheddar on rye and took a bite.

Down the street, a gasoline tanker was making its way in our direction. It appeared to be going much faster than any of the cars I’d seen on that road as we sat there. Mounting dread formed knots in my viscera.

I don’t know what caused me to push my head back against the soft leather of the booth and press my face into its corner, but when the truck careened into the gas station across the street and exploded, shattering the thick glass of the diner windows, I was shielded from the majority of shrapnel and the blast of heat. Laura wasn’t.

By the time I’d collected myself enough to react, I saw the left side of my sister’s head was blistered and encrusted with glass. She stared at me, motionless, in obvious shock. Then her hand rose to touch the side of her face. The touch became a rub. Blood oozed out of her small palm as it was lacerated by the jagged edges. She looked to her right and picked up the grilled cheese that had fallen onto her seat, wiggled it slightly to get the biggest shards of glass off, and began to eat.

The ringing in my ears had drowned out the overture of hysteria playing around us. But, gradually, screams filled my ears. I ignored them. All I could do was look outside at the hellscape of fire and twisted metal. I saw our car. A Subaru station wagon. It was facing in our direction, but upside down and on fire.

I watched a shape crawl out of the driver’s side window. Its clothes and hair were gone. All it looked like was a figure drawn in red and black. Still, I was with it enough to know it was our father. He hobbled over to the other side of the car and pulled another figure from the wreck. Mom. She didn’t move. Dad collapsed to his knees in front of her, and after a few moments, turned toward the diner. I’d noticed Laura’s shock had worn off and she’d begun howling in fear and pain.

I tried to get her to calm down. It was an exercise in futility; even I was crying and near panic. I held her hands and babbled, “it’s okay, it’s okay.” In the corner of my eye, I saw movement. I jerked my head around to see dad moving toward the diner. He couldn’t run, but he was hobbling on what looked like half a left foot. As he got closer, I could see how horrifically injured he was. Laura noticed him coming, too, but didn’t recognize him whatsoever. She screamed.

Dad made his way to us as the wail of sirens grew louder. The details of his injuries became clearer with every awkward step. Despite being burned, he was sopping wet. Fluid dripped from hideous burns on his head, chest, and legs. He made it to our table and reached out, grabbing Laura. Laura twisted in his grasp and scratched his arm, gouging deep tracks in the destroyed flesh. He pulled her out and held her tightly.

I clambered onto the table and through the window and stood, stupidly, not knowing what to do or how to help. Dad’s voice wheezed out of his lipless mouth. Over Laura’s screams, it was hard to make out what he was saying. He clutched my sister against his oozing chest and, suddenly, she realized who he was. She abruptly stopped shrieking and merely whimpered.

Dad looked up at me and I got closer. He repeated what he said before, over and over, his voice gradually tapering into gurgling nothingness. “We’re still a family. We’re still a family. We’re still a family. We’re still a family.” I looked across the street at the motionless, charred figure next to the Subaru. Then I looked at dad, still cradling Laura despite having slumped over.

I gently took Laura from our father’s lifeless arms. She sobbed into my chest as I ran forward, across the street. I darted between blackened vehicles and unidentifiable wreckage. “Still a family,” I thought to myself, and closed my eyes. The emergency workers managed to restrain me before we could reunite with our parents in the fire.

Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

A Life Worth Living

I’ve always said to anyone who’d listen: “I’ll do whatever it takes to lose weight – even if it kills me.” No one listened. No one really cared. And honestly, I couldn’t blame them. I’ve always been overweight. Overweight by a substantial margin. I just couldn’t stop eating. Everything felt like it was spinning out of control whenever my stomach was empty. It’s been like that for as long as I can remember. And for just as long, I’d hated myself for it.

Diets came and went. Atkins, Weight Watchers, paleo, Zone; just gimmicks. They’d give me a day of hope and then I’d wake up the next morning with a bottomless pit in my stomach. If I didn’t at least try to fill it, I’d want to kill myself. And God, how I wished I could have. But no. That’s not me. That’s a brave person. I’ve never been brave.

The worst part of it all was the utter lack of hope. I’d dream about a future me who’s lean and lithe and happy. But I knew with every fiber of my massive being that it was all a pathetic fantasy. I knew my habits. I knew how I operated. I’d be even bigger in a year. Bigger still in five. At the rate I was going, I wouldn’t be able to walk when I reached my 45th birthday. And I’d still lack the confidence to kill myself. I’d be trapped.

It was the image of myself confined to my bed that catalyzed my last-ditch effort to become the person I’d always wanted to be. I’d never been a sociable person. But still, I knew meeting people would be a step in the right direction. So, with a bit of effort, I started visiting various online fora and chat rooms. After a while, I connected with some people. The relationships were tenuous and fleeting, but I still felt flickers of hope that’d been impossible to experience before I set out on this mission. More time passed. I talked to a few people who could sympathize with my condition. People who actually seemed to care. And then I met Lee.

Lee understood how I felt more than I ever thought anyone could. He even lived in the same city as me. We connected on so many levels and I have to admit, I felt more attached to him than I probably should have. I’d never been in a romantic relationship before. I hadn’t even given thought to whether I was straight, gay, or anything else. Romance and sex were just so far from my mind all my life that it took until I was 37 and talking to Lee before I even considered I might be attracted to another man. The thought filled me with joy and fear. Joy because I felt normal. Normal people fall for other people. My fear, though, was nearly paralyzing. What if he grew to hate me? I am so, so hateable.

Months passed. Lee and I had agreed to meet at my apartment. We’d talked about my diet plans for weeks and I’d finally agreed to try what he’d found so successful for his own weight loss. I remember sitting down on my toilet with the tiny, sharp wire brush and wincing as I used it on myself. When I got up, the bowl was filled with blood. Not enough for me to worry I’d done severe damage, but enough for me to be ready.

Lee came over a couple hours later. He was beautiful. His smile was wide on his thin face which accentuated his protrusive cheekbones even further. When he undressed, I admired the craggy ravine between each of his ribs and the sharp rise of his hipbones. Then we proceeded. I cried before he started and I cried harder during. But after, while I cleaned myself up, I felt a level of hope and optimism that eclipsed anything I’d ever felt in my life. He held me while we slept.

It’s been six years and I’ve finally gotten to a weight where I feel confident enough to walk down the street and look at my reflection in the shop windows as I pass. Lee and I spent a beautiful four years together before he passed. They were the best four years of my life. But I know I’ll be seeing him soon enough. I remember stopping in front of a store this morning and looking at my trim shape in the mirrored glass. I ran my hands up and down my sides, feeling the ribs under the size-small t-shirt that once belonged to Lee. I winced a bit when my fingers knocked against a lesion on my lower back, but the pain was quickly forgotten. The man I’d always wanted to be stared back from the reflective surface. I smiled. Finally, a life worth living.

Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

An Artist’s Canvas

The visual effect of geometry in art can be intoxicating. Symmetry is beauty, and vice versa. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and seeing asymmetry. Chaos. A shape, certainly, but not one of mathematical precision or artistic effort. Rather, one of slothful neglect. The product of a blind, talentless sculptor using mud instead of marble. I decided to change. I could be beautiful, too.

Everywhere I went, I looked for inspiration. After a brief period of searching, Nature Herself provided me with all I needed. I knew what I could become.

I began to lose the extra weight I’d been carrying around. It wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected. The speed at which the pounds came off became an added bonus; I was left with skin that sagged over my beltline and under my chin and under my arms. A happy accident.

With 60 pounds lost and a newfound energy I attributed to better physical health, I began to work on my art. Over the last few months, I’d accumulated thousands of the different tools I’d need for the process. I employed the smallest ones first. One by one, I inserted the thinnest of the pins into the pores under my chin. The pain was surprisingly mild; I’d expected my nerves to put up more of a fight. Knowing my body was so accepting of this change made me smile. I was a blank canvas with unlimited potential.

I slept soundly with the hundreds of metal pieces occupying the saggy flesh. Each one was stretching the pore. Each one was making room for the next tool.

The following day, I swapped the first set of pins for the next, slightly-wider set. Again, there was little pain. I twisted each of the pieces around in lazy circles, allowing the motion to widen the spaces in which they’d been set. When I removed one of them to see if I was making any progress, the little hole stayed open. It was working.

Days went by as I repeated the process with wider and wider pins or needles. I was grateful for the loose skin. There was so much more room to work. After three weeks, the holes were the diameter of a pencil eraser. After two months, they were as wide as my pinky finger is thick. I’d reached the maximum size of my tools. It didn’t matter; I was done. I pulled the skin down to expose the holes. There were hundreds of dark, bloodless pits occupying the pores.

I’d never walked around the house with the holes exposed until that moment. The sensation of air against the nerves inside was indescribable. It was as if I’d grown a whole new body part that was feeling for the first time. How much more of me was trapped beneath the surface, deep in slumber, waiting to be awakened? I would have to wait to find out. There was so much left to do.

Mother Nature, in Her wisdom and beauty, had presented me with a wasp’s nest on the day I sought inspiration. I remember studying its pockmarked surface, each hole a beautiful, hexagonal prism. When I returned to the nest, it’d grown larger. I’d planned for this, though. I used smoke to nullify the majority of the adults as I took their home with me. Once there, I carefully cut the nest in half. The few angry wasps that remained were destroyed. I was after their children.

With great care, I smeared small bits of honey inside each of my new holes. Everything I’d read told me how much they loved it. Once the interiors were coated, I used a tweezers to tease the larval wasps from the papery cavities. They fit inside me so perfectly. Hours later, I was finished. I felt full. Every so often, one of them would wiggle inside. Pressed against the sensitive flesh within the pore, it was like the larvae were tickling me. I sat back and watched myself in the mirror, giggling as I admired the work of functional art I was becoming.

I’d have to wait nearly two weeks for the larvae to start spinning silk for their metamorphoses. I dutifully fed them honey as they grew fatter and more active, feeling them stretching the pores beyond the diameter to which I’d grown accustomed. The pain, while greater than I’d experienced before then, was still hardly a concern. It was all worth it.

While I waited, I studied my body to find the site for my next project. My belly was the most obvious, as it was the largest area and had the most loose skin, so it was what I chose. I didn’t want to use wasps again, though. If I was going to be a true piece of art, I wasn’t going to only use one subject. I found a picture of a beautiful frog that kept its eggs inside holes in its back. When they hatched, left behind a lovely, cratered surface. I was overcome by the beauty of it all and decided the frog would be my next featured piece.

I rushed to create the holes in my belly. In a burst of creative inspiration, I included my chest and the skin under my arms. Because of my excitement, I started with much thicker needles than I’d used on my chin. The pain was intense and blood poured from the sites, but the holes appeared quickly. After weeks spent dealing with complications and having to stretch cavities whose diameter decreased as the swelling and infection surrounding it increased, I felt the little cocoons in my neck start to hum. The larvae had spun their silk and sealed off their little homes many days ago. They were changing. So was I.

More days flew by as I grappled with the reality of how I wouldn’t be able to find the frogs in time before the new holes swelled to the point of being nearly shut. I was depressed for a day or so, but its curtain was lifted whenever the babies inside my throat hummed to me. During a particularly dark period of sadness, I noticed flies were landing in the areas of my body that’d been overcome by putrefaction. I’d given up my hope of featuring another piece of beautiful art and was taking consolation in the fact my throat and neck looked so lovely. So fertile.

As the flies gathered, though, I realized what they were doing. I pushed my fingers into the holes and pried them open. Deep within, writhing in the sludge at the bottom of each cavity, were tiny maggots. As tears ran down my eyes, I rushed to the mirror. The openings, while ugly, were still in a clean, symmetrical pattern. Was it all exactly what I’d intended? No. But was it better? There was no doubt. Not all art has to be perfect.

While I stared at my reflection, wondering what I could do next, I felt one of the cocoons hatching in my neck. Then another. And another. Joy overwhelmed me. I was giving birth. It was then I realized I wasn’t only an artist, but a parent. A true contributor of beauty to the world. My art hadn’t only imitated life – my art had created it.

Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

I always worried my strange habit would keep people away from me.

I’ve always been self-conscious about my thumb sucking problem. And it is a problem. Most kids either grow out of it or have the habit gently coaxed away by attentive parents or counselors. My upbringing was different, though. I never grew out of it. I never saw my parents for more than a couple hours every week. They’d be so busy with work that the only people I’d see on a regular basis were the servants and housekeepers. God knows they weren’t going to correct the habits of their employer’s only son. The heir to the family fortune.

Maybe if I had friends or family members around, I would’ve matured normally. That opportunity is long gone, though. I think my habit is a plea for security; having no real comfort or warmth in my life probably leads me to engage in such an infantile practice. I’m 20 – way too old to be doing something as immature as thumb sucking, but here I am. I never expected anything to change for the better.

When my parents died in that car fire, I was the only one left. I was 15 years old, wealthy beyond my comprehension, and aside from the servants, the only one in a home that would be better referred to as a palace. The servants doted on me like they’d been taught to. My tutors came and left on schedule. No one dared to tell me to get a social life or interact with the world around me. They left me in peace with my laptop and video games. For all they knew – for all I knew – I’d be browsing and playing alone until the day I died.

Like I said before, I’m 20 now. Until recently, my life continued the way I’d expected. Then I met Aria. Aria is the daughter of one of the servants. She’s younger than me, probably 16 or 17. But she’s the first person who ever took interest in me on a personal level, rather than just going through the motions of servant-to-master interaction. When her mother, whose name I don’t even know, found out, she was very angry with her daughter and apologized to me profusely. I was assured Aria wouldn’t bother me again. I said it was okay. I allowed Aria to visit as frequently as she wished.

We quickly grew close, and it didn’t take long before Aria brought up my habit. I was mortified. I didn’t realize I’d been doing it while she talked to me. I slid the wrinkled, saliva drenched thumb out of my mouth and clenched my fist around it in some halfhearted attempt to hide my shame. Aria told me not to be embarrassed. She took my hand in her own and gently unballed my fist. As I watched in disbelief, my heart pounding so powerfully I worried she’d hear it, Aria took the still-wet thumb in her own mouth.

You have to realize something: I’d never even hugged a person aside from my mother when I was a child. This was a level of intimacy I’d never expected to see in person, let alone participate in. I shuddered with nervous excitement. Aria stopped what she was doing and asked if I was okay. I nodded and told her I just needed to get some air. I left her on the couch.

I stood on the balcony and gazed at the city below. I realized it was the first time I’d been outside in months. While the fresh air loosened my tension and helped clear my head, I felt Aria come up behind me and wrap an arm around my waist. I jumped a little at the contact.

“Shhh,” Aria told me. “It’s okay.” She knew I was nervous, but the feeling was dissipating. I felt comfortable with her. Comfortable enough to engage in my habit without feeling like a baby.

I brought my hand to my mouth. My head spun when I tasted the remains of her saliva on the wrinkled digit. I sucked with purpose, wanting to swallow what had been inside her mere minutes ago. I sucked harder. I felt the nail come off and stick to the roof of my mouth but I didn’t care. My tongue sought out the virgin flesh underneath. Aria turned me around to face her, and our eyes locked.

“Please let me help you,” she whispered. Before I could oblige, the door opened on the other side of the room. A servant came in, pushing a cart with a tray on it. She kept her head down, apologizing for interrupting me.

“I’m sorry sir,” she muttered, “but perhaps you’d prefer a fresh one?” The servant removed the cloche from the tray and revealed 10 severed thumbs, neatly arranged in order of skin color. I dragged the old thumb from my mouth. I’d used it for over a day and the skin was beginning to slough from the bone. Aria looked at the tray with excitement. “Can we share these?,” she asked. I grinned at her, then noticed the bandage on the servant’s left hand. She quickly hid it behind her back.

“We had trouble finding a tenth one, sir,” the servant informed me. “I’m sorry, truly, if mine is not good enough.”

“Which one is it?,” I asked. She pointed to the third one from the end. I picked it up and handed it to Aria. She looked at it for a moment, then slid it into her mouth. Her lips formed a smile around the dark digit.

I dismissed the servant. Aria and I stood on the balcony, quietly sucking our thumbs. I felt her hand wrap around mine and she leaned her head against my shoulder. I beamed with happiness. Finally, a chance to live a normal life.

Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

A Very Bad Place to Hide

I was always good at hide and seek. While being small for my age sucked most of the time, it was one of my biggest assets when hiding. Combine that with my flexibility I’d developed from being in gymnastics classes since I was four, everyone wanted me on their team when we played. Keep in mind this was before kids had video games and cell phones; if it sounds like we played a lot of hide and seek and that seems weird, well, maybe now it is. Back then, though, we didn’t have anything else to do.

Maggie’s family didn’t have much money and they lived a few blocks away from the junkyard. When the wind blew in a certain direction, their house smelled pretty bad. We got used to it, though, and we still liked hanging out there. Her parents were nice and always gave us chips and soda. I think they were happy Maggie had friends and wanted to make sure we kept visiting her. That didn’t cross my mind at the time, though. All I cared about were the chips and soda. I liked Maggie; don’t get me wrong, but chips and soda were chips and soda.

During the summer months, despite being told not to, our small group would hop the fence of the junkyard and play hide and seek amidst the piles of old cars and dishwashers and microwave ovens. The one guy who worked there, Luis, didn’t seem to care. “Don’t do anything stupid,” he’d tell us, before retreating back to the little shed that housed his television and beer.

On Maggie’s birthday in August, her parents threw a surprise party. All in all, about 20 kids showed up. She had a great time and I was pleased that the wind wasn’t blowing the smell of garbage into the party. A lot of the kids hadn’t been there before and I didn’t want them to be mean to Maggie or her parents if the place stunk. After cake and an impromptu water fight, a few kids left but about 14 of us remained to play hide and seek. For such a big game, we split into two teams – creatively named the Hiders and the Seekers. I was a Hider.

The whole neighborhood was fair game. The only catch was we weren’t allowed to hide in someone’s house. The Hiders would have ten minutes to hide before the Seekers would come out of Maggie’s living room and go looking for them. The penalty for being found was a water balloon to the face. If the Seekers couldn’t find everyone from the other team in an hour, all the Seekers would get water ballooned. I didn’t want to be found. I really, really wanted to be the one to throw a water balloon in Javier’s face. Javier was a dick.

The moment our team was told to go hide, I took off like a shot for the junkyard. The other day when we were hanging around in there, I saw the perfect hiding spot for the next time we were going to play. As I ran, I saw a few kids jumping in bushes or climbing way up into trees. I remember thinking how great the trees were for hiding. The leaves were so thick you couldn’t even see the individual branches. I was really excited for my team to win, even if I ended up getting found.

Once I hopped the fence to the junkyard, I made a beeline for that perfect hiding spot. An old refrigerator. I was moderately dismayed when I opened the door and there was still some gross, rotting food in there. I pulled it out as quick as I could, hid the stuff on the other side of a crumpled car, and jumped inside. Now, keep in mind even though I was young, I wasn’t completely stupid. The fridge had a couple holes in the side that were probably from whatever piece of machinery had moved it. I knew I’d be able to breathe without a problem. So, I situated myself at the bottom of the compartment, tucked my legs to my chest, and closed myself in using the shelf in the door.

It was dark, smelly, and hot. None of it mattered, though. I was giddy with the anticipation of potentially being the only one left unfound; the one who’d win the Hiders the opportunity to give the Seekers a good soaking. Especially Javier. Time went by and I started getting a little sleepy. I might have dozed off for a minute or two, but I awoke with a start to the sound of a loud clattering. Before I could register concern or fear, something smashed into the back of the refrigerator, pitching it down on its front side. I smacked my head hard as it fell and might have lost consciousness for a little while.

When I came to my senses, I panicked. Whatever had fallen from the pile of junk to knock over my hiding spot must’ve ended up partially resting on the fridge. It wouldn’t budge. I screamed and yelled for Luis, hoping he’d hear me. I thrashed around in the confined space, my limbs getting tangled in the wire racks of the remaining shelves which had been dislodged in the fall. I tried to straighten my legs, but they were too cramped against the sides and tangled in the racks to move more than a few inches. I was face down against the immovable door of the refrigerator.

I noticed an intensely putrid smell coming from the area of the freezer near the top of my head. Something wet was spreading around my head and neck. Whatever had been in the freezer must’ve gotten broken or unsealed by the impact. Then I felt something pinch my right earlobe. Hard. I yelped and tried to smack away whatever was biting me, but my arm was too tangled up. I pushed my shoulder up to my ear and hear a loud crunch as I killed it. It took me a second before I remembered what it was; I’d seen a couple earwigs in the fridge before I hid inside. I thought I’d gotten them out when I threw out the food, but apparently I’d missed one.

I kept yelling and trying to get someone’s attention. Another pinch, this time on the other side of my head. There was nothing I could do about it. Not from the position I was in. I felt it again on the top of my head. I pushed my legs against the sides of the fridge hard and forced my head against the plastic in front of me. As I felt the bug crunch against my scalp, a rush of the foul liquid escaped the cracked freezer compartment. I realized pushing my head against the freezer had only made the crack worse, and I gagged as the stuff touched my lips.

The odor and nausea was forgotten quickly, though, as I felt pinches on my head, face, and neck. I felt the earwigs crawling on me, making their way down my shirt and toward my legs. I exploded with as much motion as I could muster, cutting my arms and legs on the wire racks that were trapping them and doing anything I could to slap the biting, pinching things off me.

In the distance, I heard sirens. They were getting closer. Part of me was hoping they’d be coming to my rescue, but I knew there was no way they could’ve known I was trapped. If Luis hadn’t noticed, no one would notice. As the insects crawled over my trapped, contorted body and I struggled and screamed with no effect, I realized for the first time that I might die in there if no one found me. My hope was resting on Luis hearing me scream and the Seekers, even stupid Javier, thinking I might be hiding somewhere in the junkyard.

The sirens kept getting closer. It almost sounded like they were right across the street. I screamed as loud as my already-damaged vocal cords would allow. Then one of the insects crawled directly into my right ear.

I made a sound I never knew could come out of my mouth. I tried to jam my shoulder against my ear again, praying I could kill the thing before it went any deeper. I was unsuccessful. I heard, with terrifying volume, its hard body squeezing through the warm, tight canal. The scratching sound was worse than the countless sets of pincers still sinking into me as I flailed. I heard and felt the thing going deeper – so deep its mere presence was causing pain deep in my head – and with a violent scratching sound so loud it drowned out my screams, I knew it was up against my eardrum.

The sirens had stopped, but my screaming had not. More of the earwigs were seeking a warm, safe place where they could hide. As the one inside my head continued scratching at my eardrum, I felt at least two moving up the leg of my shorts. In any other situation, that would’ve been enough to get me to strip out of my clothes, no matter where I was or who was around. At that point, though, I was just grateful they weren’t biting.

I’d been trapped for about a half hour. My voice was raspy and my throat hurt worse than it had when I caught strep in the winter. The shriek of the sirens started up again and I jumped, sending the earwigs into attack mode again. I felt their pincers lock on my scalp, back, neck, and perineum. The one inside my ear pinched the wall of the canal. It sounded like the loudest “click” you can imagine and stars exploded in my vision from the pain. More sounds of abject terror and misery escaped my mouth.

More time went by. The fluid coating my body had begun to dry and turn tacky. Whenever I tried to lift my face from the surface it was resting on, my skin stuck to it. I had to jerk my head to free it, which only aggravated the earwigs. I wailed and sobbed for a while, knowing I’d be found dead in a month with my body as rotten as the food I’d pulled out to fit myself in the fridge.

An enormous crash made me jump and set off the bugs again. This time, I heard another person yelling. It was Luis. He was trying to get me to talk and say I was still okay. He’d heard me. I screamed that I was trapped and stuck and I needed help. Another crash – this time the world spun as the refrigerator was flipped onto its back and the doors were flung open. The light of the late afternoon blinded me and I felt strong hands pulling me up by my shirt. My eyes adjusted and I saw the face of Luis studying me before he started slapping me all over, crushing or pushing off the bugs covering me. I looked down at myself – there were hundreds of them coating my sticky clothes and skin. They covered me in a reddish brown mosaic, all of them attacking me with their long pincers as they panicked at the violence and light they’d been introduced to.

I pulled off my shirt and threw it on the ground and joined Luis in brushing the remaining earwigs off me. In my head, the one by my eardrum squirmed and pinched over and over. I screamed and Luis, concerned for my safety, picked me up under his arm and ran toward Maggie’s house. He’d seen me coming from there earlier before getting involved in whatever afternoon television he was watching. Apparently after realizing he hadn’t seen me leave, he decided to look around to make sure I was okay. And I wasn’t.

When we got to the house, Luis just said “call 911” to Maggie’s parents and left to go back to work. I wondered where all the kids were, but only for about five seconds – that was the amount of time the earwig gave me before it started moving and pinching inside my ear.

Ten minutes and countless inner-ear pinches later, a paramedic was using a pair of forceps to pull the thing out of my head. He showed it to me as it writhed the metal that was squeezing it. It was so much smaller than it felt. Welts had started to rise from a few of the parts of me that had been bitten multiple times. Mom arrived right around then, and at the request of the EMT, she was going to drive me to the hospital to get checked out. While we were walking out to the car, Maggie told me Ron had fallen out of the tree where he was hiding and broke his leg really badly. Those were the sirens I’d heard.

As I gingerly eased my shirtless, sore, and sticky body in the car, praying the earwig hadn’t laid eggs inside my head, I was drenched by an explosion of water that soaked not only me, but the inside of Mom’s car. One of the balloons. “Nice nipples, asshole!,” Javier yelled over his shoulder as he ran away with Mom screaming at him. Such a dick.

Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

Amy’s Wish

When Amy was four, I taught her the eyelash game. You know the one. Find an eyelash, close your eyes, make a wish, take a deeeeeeeep breath, and blow it into the air. “If you’re lucky,” I told her, “your wish will come true.” Amy considered it for a moment, then announced it was a stupid game. I laughed and asked her not to say “stupid” anymore. I remember being glad she didn’t think Santa and the Easter Bunny were stupid. That would’ve been a problem.

Right around Amy’s 7th birthday, she got a very special present: a new baby brother named Michael. Amy adored Michael from day one. She’d always ask to hold him, which we allowed once we were sure she’d be gentle. She was. Michael was fond of his sister and if Dawn or I couldn’t get him to stop crying, we’d put him in Amy’s arms and he’d calm right down. Needless to say, we were grateful.

When Michael was a year old, he developed a high fever. We rushed him to the emergency room where they successfully brought down his temperature, but something else was wrong. Tests revealed the worst possible scenario: leukemia. He’d have to begin treatments as soon as possible.

We didn’t tell Amy the full story about her brother’s illness, but she was able to figure out it was serious. I did my best to put on a brave face so Amy wouldn’t get more upset than was necessary. For a little while, it worked. But a few months in, the emotions caught up with her. She descended into a sadness I’d never seen in her young life. One night, over dinner, Amy started crying. “Michael doesn’t think I love him anymore,” she informed me, as tears streamed down her face. It wasn’t a question. She was certain.

I felt like a terrible father. Caught up in the day-to-day living hell of my son’s illness, I’d neglected to help Amy cope with the feelings she’d been forced to endure. At 39, I was having a horrible time dealing with it all; I couldn’t imagine what it must’ve been like for someone as young as Amy.

After she went to bed, I called Dawn at the hospital and we tried to come up with something that might help. We decided she should visit Michael just to see that he was still okay and that the doctors and nurses were doing their best to make him better. We’d been reluctant to take her to the hospital because Michael was in such bad shape. We didn’t know how she’d handle the sight of him stuffed with tubes and hooked up to monitors, but we also knew too much time had passed. It was important for Amy to see her brother.

When we arrived, Amy was only allowed to look at Michael through the window. To our surprise, she perked up right away. She waved and talked to him, knowing he couldn’t hear her but still wanting to make the effort. I caught her smiling for the first time in a while.

I noticed two eyelashes stuck to Amy’s cheek. Hoping to add to her renewed sense of positivity and not caring if she thought it was stupid, I brushed them from her cheek onto my thumb. Then I asked her to make a wish, half expecting her to roll her eyes and go back to talking to Michael. To my surprise, she smiled again. She closed her eyes, thought for a moment, then blew the lashes away as hard as she could. Then she looked at her brother and grinned. I didn’t need to ask what she wished for.

A couple weeks went by and Michael’s condition improved. It was entirely unexpected and inexplicable; he just started getting better. But the relief brought by the improvement was short-lived. His condition deteriorated soon after. It was what Dawn and I knew would happen but were still unprepared for. Our beautiful son passed away on May 3rd, 2015.

Dawn and I were devastated. Obviously. But Amy was inconsolable. When she learned about Michael’s brief improvement, she got it into her head that he’d continue getting better. She refused to believe he’d taken a turn for the worse. Then, when we explained to her that he had died, all she did was scream. She screamed and cried for days.

Over a month later, when the reality of life without Michael had finally sunk in and the three of us were gradually returning to our normal routines, I made it my goal to be more active in Amy’s life. I’d been neither absent nor distant, but I wanted to be a force of positivity and support for my daughter. After such a trauma, it was what she needed. I made sure she was seeing the psychologist at school and I scheduled a family therapy session for the following week. I was determined to not let our family tragedy scar Amy any more than it had to.

The night before our therapy session, long after I’d fallen asleep, I awoke to Amy standing next to the bed. I could hear her crying. I asked if she wanted to sleep with us for the night, but she didn’t answer. Between her sobs, she was making a blowing sound. I could feel her breath on my face and bare chest. The crying continued.

“Are you okay, hon?,” I asked, fumbling for the lightswitch on the old lamp next to the bed. The crying and blowing sounds intensified. Finally, I found the switch and clicked it on. I gasped.

Amy’s face was drenched with blood. She glared at me with her eyes wide with a combination of terror and rage. She had her hand up to her mouth and was blowing into it. As my eyes adjusted to the brightness of the lamp, I shouted. Dawn awoke with a start and screamed. In Amy’s hand were two, bloody pieces of skin with hair bristling out of them. She kept glaring at me as she sobbed. No, not glaring, I realized. Panic bloomed inside my chest and I struggled to breathe. Ragged flesh dripped blood into Amy’s eyes as she blew hot, panicked breaths onto the amputated eyelids in her palm. The lashes swayed in the humid wind.

“I keep wishing Michael would come back,” she sobbed. “But I’m no good at it.”

“Can you help me wish? Please?”

Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

After 20 years, my wife finally allowed me to tell this story.

A man screaming

Like all good scary stories, this one begins with a testicle self-examination. Or, as its colloquially known: jerking off. It was my last day in Guatemala and I was sitting in the hotel, waiting to go to the airport, and abusing myself to help pass the time. Things were going as well as could be expected. Until they weren’t. My left middle finger brushed against a lump on my right testicle. My erection wilted like a primrose at Chernobyl.

I did a cursory examination, hoping it might be an ingrown hair. But I knew it wasn’t. It didn’t have the itchy pain of an ingrown hair. No pain at all, actually. It had all the telltale signs of a growth I absolutely did not want anywhere on my body, especially not on my balls. Within 20 minutes, I’d cancelled my flight, phoned Renee to tell her the flight was delayed, and called an emergency clinic to tell them I was on my way.

Fast forward eight hours. Interesting fact about Guatemala: great medical care! I was examined, given an ultrasound, and told, to my enormous relief, the growth was benign. Just a cluster of fatty deposits. It’d go away on its own in a few weeks. I was on the next flight home. Continue reading “After 20 years, my wife finally allowed me to tell this story.”