Shadows on the Wall

scaryhand2

Growing up, I was convinced I’d be abducted by aliens. I lived in constant, sleep-deprived fear as every strange shadow and every reflection of light on the wall signified the beginning of what I knew would be my end. Logic told me the shadows were just piles of dirty clothes or my coat rack; that the reflections were just from passing cars on the street below. But logic fails in the face of terror. If it weren’t for my older brother, Jason, with whom I shared the bedroom, there was a very real chance I would’ve lost my mind.

I remember my 13th birthday with the same detached sense of helpless violation as a victim of sexual assault. The day itself had been fine. Pleasant, even. My parents, who were always caring and supportive, did their best to make sure my birthday was enjoyable. They knew I was stressed. They knew I was anxious. I’d never told them why, though. Only Jason knew, and he promised to keep it a secret.

After the festivities, I went up to my room to play video games. I had two hours to play before lights-out. Jason sat on his immaculately-made bed, which was in stark contrast to my messy one, and watched, offering pointers as I died over and over.

Two hours went by quickly, and Dad came in to say it was time to go to sleep. He sat next to Jason on the bed and let me know he was proud of me; how I’d been brave despite having a hard time and that things would get better. He wished me a happy birthday and kissed me goodnight, switching off the light on his way out of the room.

For a little while, I felt pretty good. Like I said, I never told my parents exactly what had been bothering me. They’d ask every so often, but they wouldn’t pry. They could tell I was struggling. I heard them cleaning up downstairs, comforted by the fact they were still awake and alert. With a sense of security I hadn’t felt in a long time, I drifted off to sleep.

After a couple hours, I woke up and glanced at the clock. 11:26. I closed my eyes again. Before I could drift off to sleep, though, I noticed something. The room smelled bad. It wasn’t a scent I could identify in the slightest – it was heavy and medicinal, but organic, too. Strange. Alien.

My eyelids lifted to the sight something shuffling toward my bed. I tried to shout and bolt away, but nothing worked. No movement, no sound. Only my eyes could receive my commands, and they stared, bulging out of my skull, as thing stood over my supine body.

I knew it’d finally come to me; this was the day I’d anticipated and dreaded for years. I tried to make out the features on its face. All I could pick up on was hideousness. Deformity. A head with its upper-left quadrant missing. A mouth with no lower mandible and a shriveled tongue lolling down to its skinny neck.

“Robbie,” it gurgled.

It knew my name. It had been studying me and it knew my name.

“No more me, Robbie. No more me. Time to grow up.”

Its head came down and touched my forehead with the remains of its upper lip. As it tilted, maggots tumbled out of the cratered skull and landed on my face. They squirmed and tumbled onto my pillow. I felt them writhing against my ears and the sides of my neck.

“I’ll miss you.”

It turned and walked toward Jason’s bed. I tried over and over to scream as panic suffused the entirety of my being; the dark world around me blurred and I knew I was going to pass out. I knew I was going to fail my brother and not be able to warn him before the creature reached him. Before I lost consciousness – before I passed into a dreamless morass of black – I hated myself for being so useless. For being so weak.

My mother’s shrill, panicked shriek catapulted me back into reality. The room was bright. It was morning. Mom stood over Jason’s bed wailing and sobbing and I heard Dad thundering across the hall from their bedroom. He burst into the room and immediately saw what Mom did. I watched his knees tremble, as if he were about to fall.

I didn’t move. Everything from the night was coming back and I knew – I was certain – Jason was dead. My big brother was gone. The certainty was overwhelming and searing tears of leaked down my cheeks onto the pillow. Something wriggled against my neck. I gasped and leapt to my feet.

Everything went slowly for the next few minutes.

I turned and saw the ring of maggots around my head print on the pillow. Dad was crossing the room to take me in his arms when he saw the bugs on my pillow and in my hair and whispered, “oh my God.” He picked me up. He hadn’t done that in years.

I rode out of the room in his strong arms. “Don’t look at your brother’s bed,” he ordered. I couldn’t help myself. I looked as we exited. One glance was all I needed.

Jason’s body was on the bed. He was wearing a stained and dirt-encrusted blue suit. “Oh no,” I thought to myself, as I took in his injuries: the torn lower mandible. The caved-in skull. The desiccated, green-gray skin that was mostly gone.

Mom’s wracking sobs had escalated to hysterical screaming. As Dad and I rounded the corner and headed downstairs, we heard her shouting, “how did you come back? Why are you here? Who did this?”

Dad whispered in my ear as we walked. “It’s okay sweetheart. It’s okay. We don’t know who did it, but it’s going to be all right. It’s not your brother anymore. It’s just the body he doesn’t need. He’s still in heaven, okay? He’s still in heaven.”

I started to shake and Dad’s voice cracked with emotion as he spoke those last words. “He’s in heaven.” It sounded horribly, horribly familiar. I closed my eyes and saw a coffin. I saw my parents standing next to it, sobbing. I saw a large, framed picture of Jason and a room full of friends and family.

But I also saw the toys I was playing with. And I saw Jason sitting next to me. We played while everyone else cried. He grinned and said, “Don’t be upset, Robbie. I’ll be here to help while you grow up. You don’t have to feel sad.”

My aunt, Lindsay, came up to me and stood in the exact same spot where Jason was sitting. I remember thinking it was strange she could do that, and then she knelt down and said, “he’s in heaven” before walking back to my cousins and uncle. Jason winked at my confused face, then we kept playing with our toys.

“Jason died,” I whispered to Dad.

He nodded and I watched as he eyed the muddy footprints from the back door which led up the down the hall and up the stairs to my room.

“You were probably too young to remember, but he loved you so, so much.”

I thought back to all the fun we’d had in our room over the years, all leading up to the video games on my 13th birthday the night before.

“You’re the same age he was now,” Dad said, and tears freely flowed down into his beard. “You’re all grown up.”

Something from the previous night buzzed in my ear. “No more me, Robbie. No more me. Time to grow up.”

And then it clicked. And my screams joined those of my mother in a terrible, dissonant chorus.

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

The Only Thing That Matters

hand

I’m surrounded by corpses. People I knew. People I cared about. For hours, I sat in the stillness of this supermarket-cum-abattoir and waited. The growls and groans outside waxed and waned as each wave passed by. Waves of former friends. Waves of strangers who I never had the opportunity to befriend. Limitless potential gnawed away by the ravages of plague.

After some time, the movement started. Bodies. Body parts. It didn’t matter. That which was once animated got reanimated. A severed head blinked and opened its mouth. A puddle of viscera convulsed in peristaltic spasms. A pile of fingertips and toes wiggled. And corpses, more-or-less whole, stood.

Dylan began to squirm in my lap, still leaking. His bleating, which had been cut off by his father 80 minutes ago, resumed. It was lower. More guttural. The optic nerve protruding from his left eye socket slapped wetly against his soft cheek. My boy was awake, and my last act as his mother would be to feed him. It’s what I was here for, no matter the shape he was in. I put my thumb in his mouth and waited for his few, sharp little teeth to sink in.

His cool tongue prodded at the digit. But his jaw didn’t close. He didn’t bite. I spoke to him, encouraging him to go ahead. He shook his head and tried to spit out my thumb. I persisted. Dylan vomited a pink froth of blood and breast milk onto my hand. Still, nothing.

Three of the reanimated bodies had started lurching toward us. I knew if Dylan wasn’t going to be the one to change me, they would. But they’d tear me to shreds. Just like the others had done to his father while I was locked in the bathroom. I started to panic. I didn’t want to be torn apart and have Dylan left alone to squirm pathetically on the supermarket floor forever.

The three were practically on top of us. I’d failed. Their teeth were coming. An image of Dylan struggling in the dried tangle of my twitching entrails six months from now brought an involuntary sob. I begged him to bite me. He just growled and choked.

The first one moved in to bite. Then he stopped. He stared at me, teeth snapping together over and over, drooling shards of enamel and blood and saliva onto my shoulder. The other two did the same. Then they turned around and walked away. Nothing. They didn’t want me.

A surge of relief combined with confusion and sadness. My boy didn’t want me, either. No one did.

Time went by and waves of fresh dead entered the supermarket. They inspected me, and, like the others, rejected me. I gave up on trying to make Dylan bite. He’d never eaten anything that solid before in his life. I knew it was useless. He seemed content to thrash and flail and leak and cool.

During the quiet moments between waves, I heard soft crying. I knew who it was. As I was running out of the bathroom after the initial attack to check on Dylan and my husband, I saw a young store employee shutting herself in a small closet near the floral department.

Dylan drooled and moved his jaw as the sounds of the teenager met his ears. It had been hours since he’d eaten. It was then I realized what I had to do. It’s what any mom would do for her son.

A couple minutes later, I had control of her. She was easy enough to knock unconscious. Easy enough to tie up. But I knew if she changed, Dylan wouldn’t want to eat any more.

She yelled very loudly as I cut off a piece of her calf. I placed it in Dylan’s mouth. He tried to chew, but it was just too cumbersome. He wasn’t used to something that solid. I sighed and gazed into my son’s eye. I took the chunk from his mouth and cut off a fresh piece.

After I’d chewed and spit it into his mouth, I could swear he smiled at me. And that was when I knew our mom/son connection wasn’t broken. Even though the rest of the world didn’t want me, Dylan still did. That’s the only thing that matters.

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

I’ll never eat exotic food again.

I spent three years as an IT contractor at the US military base, Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti. Our firm had been hired to perform a massive upgrade to all the information systems on the base. It was only supposed to take a year and a half. As these things usually go, it went enormously over budget and took twice as long as we’d estimated. I didn’t mind. One of my dreams growing up was to travel to Africa, so when I was presented with the opportunity, I jumped at it. Since I don’t have much family and wasn’t in a relationship at the time, I had no strings attached when I boarded that plane with my colleagues.

The base offered free basic housing and other facilities to their visiting contractors, which some of us took, but I wanted to live in town and embrace the culture. Djibouti City was nearby, extremely inexpensive, and replete with all the cultural experiences I ever wanted. I met wonderful people, learned a little French and Arabic, and discovered their local cuisine is not only some of the best on Earth, but far less fattening than American food. I must’ve lost 25 pounds while still eating like a king. As our IT project dragged on, I almost wished it would take forever. I just didn’t want to leave.

But, of course, all good things must come to an end. In April of 2005, with our task complete, we were on a plane back to Burlington via a New York layover. The team was given a month off to reconnect with everything back home. Those of us who didn’t have homes or families to come back to were put up in hotels until we could find places of our own. The hotel room was so much bigger and nicer than the tiny apartment in Djibouti to which I’d grown accustomed. It felt downright decadent to get to sprawl out and get comfortable. And as much as I loved the Djiboutian food, knowing a bacon cheeseburger could be room-serviced up to me 24 hours a day was a damn good feeling. I took advantage of it many, many times.


After being home for three days, though, a rather unpleasant situation arose. I’m not going to get graphic because we all have our own intimate knowledge of such a thing, but I’ll just say I was terribly constipated. Three days stretched into four, then five. I was extraordinarily uncomfortable at that point. Most of the advice online said to wait it out and make sure I was staying hydrated. I drank bottle after bottle of water, but, to my chagrin, my desired result continued its elusion.

Day number six was a repeat performance of the previous five. On the seventh day, I didn’t rest. I hauled my bloated self over to the drug store and bought some laxatives. Just the thought of the things grossed me out, but the promise of their efficacy did great work to quell my emotional misgivings. I went back to the hotel, read the directions, swallowed the suggested dose, and waited.

The medication acted quickly. Again, in an effort to avoid the all-too-familiar details, I’ll simply say the pressure and discomfort ended abruptly. The only pain, as I’d expected, was located on the, well, exit. Unfortunately, here is where I must start a period of elaboration. I assure you, it is not scatological. It is, however, profoundly disturbing.

As I went to clean myself, I noticed an obstruction in the area. It was not what I, or likely you, are thinking. No, as I learned rather quickly, it was far, far worse. I peered down between my legs and saw the most horrifying sight in my 42 years of life. Dangling into the the bowl was a thick rope of tangled, grayish-white worms. I screamed with such terrific ferocity that I immediately damaged my vocal cords, causing the outburst to sound as if it were produced by a dilapidated chainsaw. I flexed the muscle through which the creatures were hanging, hoping to dislodge them. Nothing.

Needless to say, I was panicking. I had no idea what to do, but I knew I had to get the things out of me. All my life, I’d been terrified of bugs and insects of all sorts. Having these monsters infesting me was beyond any level of abject horror I could’ve imagined. The next move I made, I would later learn, is not a recommended method of removal.

I reached behind me and grasped the writhing column in my fist. I involuntarily retched as I felt the thickness of the parasitic invaders against my palm. All bunched together, they were the diameter of toilet paper tube. I squeezed the atrocious things and pulled as hard as I could. For a moment, my only respite from the terror was the impossibly acute agony produced by my pulling action. A tearing sensation of pain exploded right below my sternum – practically in my chest. With dawning realization that the creatures were far deeper in my body than I could deal with myself, my panic mixed with deep helplessness.

Remember, this was 2005. Personal cell phones were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are today. While I had one in Africa, I’d turned it in upon my arrival home. It wouldn’t have worked on our network, anyway, and my company had yet to give our group new Blackberry devices. What that meant was I had to get up and walk to the bedside telephone. I distinctly remember the wet slapping of the repulsive rope on my bare thighs as I waddled across the room. I dialed the front desk, not 911 for some idiotic reason I can’t remember, and simply said, “medical emergency in room 1142.” I stood there, naked from the waist down, with a tail of twitching parasites hanging out of me.

The hotel staff who’d been trained in CPR and other basic emergency services arrived first. Without knocking, the used their own key to barge in. Each of the three looked puzzled, and, within a span of ten seconds, realized why they’d been called. One by one, they turned varying shades of white. The largest of the group, a man with a name tag labelling him as “Jeremy,” sat down on the bed and promptly fainted backward. The other two, “Maria” and “Tyshawn,” did their best to maintain composure. They asked me if I was having trouble breathing or experiencing chest pains or blurred vision. As the procedural questions dragged on, the real EMTs arrived.

Hardened as EMTs are, one of the two men who arrived audibly whispered “Jesus f*****g Christ” when he saw why they’d been summoned. Wrapping a towel around my waist, something I hadn’t even thought of in my panic, they helped me onto a stretcher and we went down the elevator and into the waiting ambulance. At the hospital, the ER doctor in charge of me just said, “well that’s a pretty bad case, huh?” I nodded, stupidly.

A few doses of specialized medication and two days later, I expelled the invading creatures. I was told I probably got them from eating contaminated food in Africa. Also, apparently I was lucky that I didn’t have to have surgery. Sometimes when they’re as deep as mine were, surgery’s the only option.

So, it’s almost 11 years later. I had a few scans in the months that followed my hospital stay to make sure I didn’t have anything new growing inside me, but each time I was clean as a whistle. Still, as you might imagine, I’m haunted by the experience. Worst was the feeling of how thick and heavy the tangle of worms felt in my hand. That, and how impossibly long the things were. I swear, I was convinced they’d made their way into my chest and were coiling around my heart, ready to squeeze the life from me. But all is well, I keep telling myself. Nothing is out of the ordinary.

It’s interesting, too, because the worms themselves don’t scare me anymore. I’m traumatized by the experience and the stress resulting from it, of course, but as the years went by, I could easily study the things online and in textbooks without shrinking away. In fact, I’m almost drawn to them. Today, I’d venture to guess I know more about that genus and species than even some experts in that field. It’s strange how our experiences can shape our interests, isn’t it?

A couple years ago, I quit my job in technology. Using the money I’d been saving, I started a food truck. The customer base started off small, but it grew pretty quickly thanks to word of mouth and social media. My customers love the cuisine and regulars line up every day to enjoy the outstanding Djiboutian food made by the quirky white American. As the business flourished and customers came in droves, all the diners were happy to report to me how they finally found a diet food that works. Even though hearing that warms my heart, I still experience a pang of jealousy that makes me feel a little empty inside.

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.