Making Faces

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I was torn from my sleep by the sound of my daughter’s screams. I rushed across the hall and saw Jessie standing in front of her bedroom window. When I wrapped my arms around her, I noticed her pajamas were soaked with sweat. The screams tapered off and gasping sobs replaced them; her tiny body heaving as it attempted to take in more air than her lungs would allow.

I picked her up and carried her into my room. We sat on the bed and I held her until she’d calmed enough for me to ask what happened. She shook her head. Hot tears spilled down her cheeks.

“Please, sweetheart – I promise it’s okay. What happened?”

Jessie’s wide, blue eyes stared into mine, still leaking away the memory of whatever trauma she’d endured. She pulled my nightgown, beckoning me to come down to her level so she could whisper something in my ear. I obliged.

“There was a big girl in my window making faces at me.”

I lifted my head again to look at Jessie, still feeling the hot condensation from her breath in my ear.

“A big girl?,” I asked, puzzled. Jessie nodded and wiped her eyes on her sweaty pajamas.

“Come on,” I told her, forcing a smile. “Let’s get you in the tub. I’ll let you use my bath bomb.”

For the first time since the ordeal began, a smile flashed across her face. Finally.

As we waited for the tub to fill, Jessie held me around my waist. Her crying had stopped, but she still trembled. I stroked her hair and told her it was okay, over and over, while wondering what could have possibly scared her so badly. This type of episode was entirely unlike her. Quite the contrary; I’d always walk in on her sneaking peeks of scary movies on TV even though I’d told her, in no uncertain terms, that she wasn’t to watch them. But still, even though she’d seen some creepy monsters and murderers, they’d never given her nightmares.

When the tub was filled and the bath bomb was releasing bubbles and glitter and scents that delighted and relaxed Jessie, I helped her out of her pajamas and into the water. She sat there peacefully as her tiredness caught up with her again. Her eyes closed. I continued stroking her hair.

After a little while, knowing she needed to go back to bed, I shook her awake. She opened her eyes and saw me, prompting a smile. But then she stiffened, her eyes widening, and screamed again. I reached into the tub and grabbed her, trying to hold her close, but she pushed and clawed at me, trying to get away.

I cried out to her, “Jessie, what is hap –” and I stopped. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something behind me. Something at the window.

I whirled around, yanking Jessie against my back as I shielded her from something I hadn’t even properly seen. But soon I had. And my own panicked shriek drowned out that of my daughter.

Peering in through the bathroom window was a round, wide face. Pale white with small, jaundiced eyes, it pushed against the window screen until it fell out and clattered on the floor. The face moved toward us on a dowel-thin, articulated neck connected directly to its chin.

“Get out!,” I shouted, mustering up as much violence in my voice as possible.

The neck was blocking our path to the door, and the hideous face turned and stared directly at me before opening its mouth and saying one word: “Jessie.”

A paralyzing wave of incomprehensible terror bloomed inside me. The voice was low and droning, like a normal woman’s voice slowed and pitched down an octave. I felt Jessie stiffen against my back and she pressed her face against my spine, as if trying to hide inside me.

More neck came through the window, the vertebrae bulging against its tight skin as it swayed in the space around us like a long finger with a hundred knuckles.

“Jess……ie.” The voice was even deeper now; I felt it in my chest and bowels.

The face moved toward me and I struck it with my fist. My hand thudded uselessly against its forehead. Before my eyes, the face began to change. Its features elongated, then contracted. Its mouth stretched to its earlobes, then shrank down to a pinhole. The entire topography of its cheekbones and chin and jaw shattered, then reformed. A second later, I was looking at a terribly deformed version of my daughter.

“Jessie.” It exhaled heavily. Hot, stinking breath filled my nostrils.

The strength in my arms vanished. The stability in my legs evaporated. I dropped to the floor, helpless. Jessie was exposed.

“Jess…ie.” The long neck wrapped around my daughter like an anaconda and pulled her toward the window. Jessie, no longer screaming, struggled to breathe against its constricting grasp. Her face reddened. The terrible thing drooled black fluid onto the top of her head. Jessie stopped struggling. She, and the creature, disappeared into the night.

My body regained its strength and I bolted to the window. In the dim light of the crescent moon, I watched the long legs of the thing carry my daughter away into the woods.

I called 911. The police came. They investigated for days. I was the only suspect in her disappearance, but as days turned into weeks and weeks stretched into months, the trail had gone cold. Even if I was still a suspect, they had nothing to even hint at me being the reason for her disappearance. And, in fact, there was evidence to the contrary.

During the initial investigation, when every nook and cranny of the house was looked at, when every piece of furniture was upended, and when every inch of the property was examined, there were only two pieces of evidence; neither of which had anything to do with me, other than to help corroborate my story.

The first morning of the investigation, officers noticed a trail of glitter from the bath bomb stretching from the bathroom window all the way through the yard and high into the trees at the mouth of the forest. When an officer scaled one of the trees, he found glitter stuck to leaves 25 feet up. It was strange, they admitted, but in their words “glitter gets everywhere.”

While they were quick to dismiss that as direct evidence, they couldn’t explain the other thing they found. Smeared across the window in Jessie’s room was the greasy, distorted shape of a woman’s enormous face. When the lab analyzed the cells that’d been left behind, the results were “inconclusive.” The samples were deemed “non-viable.” To me, that meant they wanted to hide what they’d discovered. After a long while, the active investigation was closed.

It’s been six years since Jessie was taken. I live alone in the same house, and every night, I go to bed wishing my daughter would come back to me. Recently, I noticed my bedroom windows had started getting dirty faster than they usually did. I washed them and didn’t think much of it. Not until this morning.

This morning, I woke up to find the outside-facing side of every window covered in grayish, translucent grease. For a while, I struggled to understand what had happened. Then I got to the picture window in the living room. It, too, was filthy. But there was something in that filth. Outlined against the wide piece of glass was the impression of a large face and a thin, articulated neck. The same face I’d seen that night. And next to it, clear as day, was the print of another, smaller face.

Jessie’s face.

Supported by the same, terrible neck.

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My only experience with ASMR

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I’ve been dealing with anxiety my entire life. Whether in social situations, work situations, or even at home by myself, feelings of panic rise to the surface and consume me. Medications don’t work. Therapy doesn’t work. Each day, I wake up knowing at some point before I go back to bed, I will feel like the world is about to collapse around me.

I heard about ASMR online. For those who don’t know, it’s short for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Basically, it’s an induced euphoric response that supposedly causes deep relaxation and a sense of wellbeing. I’ve never been relaxed. I’ve never been well.

Like all “natural” products designed to elicit a positive biological response, the ASMR space on the Internet is full of bullshit. Countless fraudsters and faux-experts tout extraordinary claims, and while scientists have found no direct correlation between ASMR and health, mental or otherwise, those who sell ASMR-related products will tell you it’s the next big thing. The thing “doctors don’t want you to know about.” Needless to say, I was skeptical.

Skepticism, however, in the face of daily panic, can often upshift into something resembling hope. I did my research. I sifted through claims and medical information with my untrained, but nonetheless determined, mind.

Another problem with something like ASMR is that people claim they know what they’re doing, when, in fact, they’re just trying to get hits on their website. YouTube, for example, is full of kids talking seductively into their microphones while dull synthpop plays in the background. Those are the top hits for ASMR. You need to dig deep before you find something you think is legit.

And I did.

Last year, I found an ASMR site run by a university in Ukraine. The cursory listen I gave seemed relaxing enough; a soft voice over gentle electronic pulses and the certain sounds from nature, like running water. The associated imagery was abstract and colorful, reminding me of Easter palates and springtime flowers. The samples were only five minutes long. To access the rest, they needed credit card and shipping information. At least the subscription came with a free Blu-Ray copy 8-10 weeks later.

I plugged in my payment information, name, and address, knowing American Express would cancel any fraudulent charges in the event the Ukrainians wanted to scam me. I wasn’t particularly concerned about that, though. The payment went through, and I was greeted by a “Members Only” page and libraries filled with various ASMR videos. I put on my noise-cancelling headphones, clicked the first video, and set it to fullscreen.

The world melted away. For the first time in my life, I felt relaxation overtake the omnipresent anxiety. Peace washed through my mind and passed in a wave down to my chest and throughout my limbs. My sensation of self vanished. Whatever this university had developed, it was a miracle. Enraptured by the sights and sounds and sensations, I remained in my chair for two straight days.

I awoke to the feeling of my headphones being torn off and a rough hand shaking my shoulder. Panic bloomed within my chest, but agony quickly overtook it. My legs and lower back were searing with hideous pain and I screamed, only to have the same hand clasp over my mouth.

“Shut up,” came a voice with a thick accent. A Ukrainian accent. “Scream again and we’ll take even more. Do you have any money in the house? Any jewelry?”

I tried to shake my head, which was pinned back against the computer chair from the man’s brute strength. “No,” I grumbled behind his hand, tears streaming down my face from the overwhelming pain.

“Good. Now sleep for another hour or so.” He strapped the headphones back on my ears and straightened me up so I was facing the monitor again. Before slipping back beneath the waves of bliss, I realized I’d been strapped in my chair. I didn’t know why.

After an hour, the video ended. The audio cut out. The pain returned. I screamed again, this time alone in my apartment. I was still strapped to the chair. I looked down at my legs, certain they were broken or slashed by the intruders. But my legs were gone. My screaming stopped and everything blurred. I reached for the phone on my desk and managed to dial 911 before passing out, my hand groping at the pain in my back where my left kidney had been.

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Know It All

meat

The hospital I’ve called my home for the last 30 years can only be described as an asylum. While the word has fallen out of favor, the situation inside has remained consistent. Days stretch in interminable swaths of gray and white; gray from the medication in the mornings, white from the medication in the afternoons. Only the blackness of night frees me from the consuming palate of mid-winter rain clouds used to paint my days away.

I am here by my own volition. The fact I used the law to enact that volition is a mere technicality. The fact I stole the volition of someone else to gain use of the law is another. At the end of the bloodbath – at the end of the steaming orgy of crimson and savagery – I’d gotten my wish. I’d never need to harm another living thing for the rest of my life.  

The sights and sounds which etched themselves into my soul on that May morning in 1986 still flash through. Between timed doses, gray melts into red. Red bleeds into white. To any other man, those flashes would be the proof of his madness; the seeping of illness into medicated docility. But I know far more than any other man.

On May 3rd, 1986, I awoke to find my young son in the room with me. We stared at one another for a moment. Then I rolled out of bed and went to the garage. By lunchtime, I had chopped him into 400 pieces. On May 4th, the front page of the newspaper featured a picture of his blonde hair stuck to the blade of my axe.

To those who read the story or saw the news, I was labeled a monster. To those who served the courts and reviewed the evidence, I was labeled insane. To me, however, the person who conversed with the pieces as they were liberated from my son, I was not a monster. I was not insane. I was a man who needed knowledge. My boy held the secrets to it all.

I discussed what lay beyond our universe with Aaron’s left foot. The foot laughed. It was Aaron’s small voice. It told me to ask the shin. More blows of the axe brought the shin into our discussion. But it could tell me very little; only that the knee had much more information.

And so it went.

The leftmost quadrant of Aaron’s lower mandible informed me I was close, and his upper-right incisor screamed with delirious laughter while it spoke of the secrets I’d learn from the uvula and tonsils. When the axe would no longer suffice – its blunt brutality too clumsy to properly extricate the tiny pieces with whom I needed to converse – my pocket knife and its keen precision continued the work. Three hours later, with 400 pieces of child organized around me by order of their knowledge, we began our formal chat. And I learned everything.

I write this today as a prisoner. As a patient. As a father. In this unmedicated interstice between gray and white, I can reflect on the red. Not the red of blood, but the red of It All: the rich, vermillion expanse of flesh and organs on which this universe is a scab.

On the last night of his life, an emissary from It All visited Aaron as he slept. It whispered its secrets into every part of him, and my son, who was the most caring, generous person I’d ever met, knew he had to share it with me. So he waited, patiently, for me to wake.

On the morning of May 3rd, 1986, I lifted my sleep mask to see Aaron floating above my bed, watching me. Bright sunlight streamed across us. The dancing reflection of light against the shiny crimson of his sclera dazzled me. Enthralled me. He opened his mouth, but remained silent. He tried again, but it was no use; It All was inside him. His mouth contained no cavity – only solid red streaked with veins. He brought his pinky finger to my ear and placed it inside, and the fingertip told me what I needed to do. Four hours later, I’d brought It All out of Aaron and into my mind. And now into yours.

Daily fogs of grays and whites desaturate what I’ve seen, but they cannot hide the presence of what I know is there. I am not insane. The red which courses through the arterial network of multiversal organs and flesh is beyond sanity. Beyond mind. But not beyond body. At the end of my life, whenever that is, I know I’ll get to touch Aaron again.

Even now, through It All, I feel him pressing against the walls, reaching for me, and speaking to me; each part of him singing choruses of thanks and praise. It’s the praise which gives me the most comfort as I sit, day after day, year after year, and wait. I wait knowing I am loved and appreciated. That’s more than enough. It’s the dream of every father to give It All to his son.

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The Perils of Live TV

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One of the biggest misconceptions about live television is that it’s actually live. Let me tell you a secret: nothing is live. Everything has a built-in delay, just in case something unexpected happens. It’s not so much out of concern for the viewers, but for the advertisers. The last thing Pampers wants to deal with is some British actor saying “c**t” on a talk show or an NFL quarterback getting paralyzed after a big hit. It’s bad for the brand.

I work for the Food Network. Over the last ten years, we’ve moved from basic cooking instruction to a more “reality TV” style; lots of competitions, celebrity cameos, that whole thing. Lots of people didn’t like the change, but we got a big uptick in the younger demographics as a result.

One of the problems with capturing a younger demographic is holding onto them as they transition into an older one. Let’s say, for example, when we started with the reality TV shows, we got a viewer named Jenny. Jenny was 22 when she first saw Ace of Cakes and became a regular viewer of the network since then. She was fresh out of college, had few responsibilities, and was enjoying being a kid.

Fast-forward nine years. Jenny’s 31 and a stay-at-home mom. Her priorities are far different than they were when she was 22. She has two children, and, on weekdays, she babysits her brother’s twins as well. Instead of eating out all the time like she did at 22, Jenny’s responsible for feeding a household. She doesn’t have time for reality shows anymore and she wishes her cable company offered the Cooking Channel – the sister station to the Food Network that offers more how-to programming.

There are hundreds of thousands of Jennys across the country – first generation captures from the reality-TV era who yearn for more instructional programming. But it’s a balancing act. If the Food Network goes back to their original format, they lose the potential for new, younger viewers. If they stay with primarily reality-based programming, they lose all the Jennys out there.

Our goal, and by “our,” I mean: me and my team at the network, was to create a show to bridge that gap. After the success of The Kitchen, a Saturday morning program featuring four of the network’s biggest stars as they cook exciting recipes and give tips and techniques, we were tasked to make something for the weekday morning viewers.

We ended up creating a show that featured two of the network’s top chefs, a live studio audience, and Q&A from online viewers. It was going to be as interactive a show as we’d ever made, and the twist was, it would be “live.” Now, remember what I said about “live” TV. Sure, the audience would be there watching the chefs cook and asking them questions while they did, but the online questions would be from emails. The delay would be 30 minutes.

It was a huge success in the various test markets. We had one show to go with the stand-in chefs before the show went national, this time in Oklahoma, but there was a problem. There had been a tornado warning in the county. It had since expired, but the audience was about half of what it should’ve been. We decided to go with it anyway, since we figured a lot of the at-home audience would still be inside after the storms. They’d be watching.

Right away, there were technical issues. Even though the tornado warning had passed, there were still frequent lightning strikes and other atmospheric disturbances all around the station. Things still went on, however, and the chefs started cooking.

The first problem came when the cream wouldn’t whip. The chef made a show out of it, poking fun at the behind-the-scenes staff and trying it again with a new container of cream. Again, nothing. In my ear, one of the producers said it might have been because of the storm. He didn’t sound like he knew what he was talking about.

The chefs gave up on the whipped cream and decided to make a creme anglaise. Those require eggs. Two eggs were cracked into the mixing bowl without incident. The third, though, was bad. It was blood-red, clumpy, and smelled terrible. The odor permeated the studio quickly and I saw the audience members holding their noses. When I held my own, my fingers came back bloody. I hadn’t had a nosebleed since I was a kid. We cut to a commercial.

Neither chef was happy. They agreed to scrap the whole “dessert first” idea and just go directly to the entree. No one would complain about the basic steak-and-potatoes main course, especially in cow country. The kitchen was reset and the show resumed.

The downward spiral continued. As thunder boomed outside, loud enough to be picked up by studio microphones, the mixer for the potatoes started to smoke and emit sparks before the chef yanked the plug out of the wall and threw the whole thing in the sink. “Just goes to show you guys, disasters can happen in any kitchen,” he joked to the audience, still obviously irritated but trying to play it cool.

Potatoes got mixed and mashed by hand and the chefs fielded questions about whether or not milk or cream should be used. There was another thunderclap and the studio lights flickered. I’ve always hated working in these satellite studios – compared to the main studios in New York, these were like living in the dark ages.

The lights stayed on, thankfully, and the half-hour delay caught up to the beginning of the show. All over Oklahoma, people watching the Food Network were about to see the show for the first time.

Problems aside, the potatoes came out great. During a commercial, I had an intern get me a spoonful. I should’ve had him get me a bowl. Didn’t matter – after the broadcast, I’d be able to eat all I wanted.

The studio audience, to their credit, had taken all the technical problems in stride. I hoped the TV audience would do the same, and figured they would, as long as they didn’t turn the TV off in disgust at the sight of that egg.

The chefs moved on to the steak. Each discussed their favorite techniques; one preferring a sous-vide style followed by a blast in a hot pan, while the other advocated grilling it over hardwood charcoal. Both methods would be used and the lucky studio audience would get samples to taste and choose their favorite cooking method.

The cast-iron pan was hot and the grill, despite the powerful fans sucking away the smoke, filled the studio with the savory aroma of burning hardwood. I was starving.

Chef Bob cooked his steak first, then showed the audience the perfect edge-to-edge pinkness that only a sous-vide cooked steak can achieve. The crust on the outside was magnificent. Maillard would have been proud. Wind battered the studio walls and more thunder rolled by. The power went out.

Everyone in the studio groaned, but not as loud as the executive producer. We were in a time slot. Even with the delay, which we could shorten if we had to, there was a hard out a the top of the hour when Chopped! was scheduled to air. The last thing we wanted was to have the show just cut off entirely. If the power didn’t come back on before the delay was used up, it’d look awful. Plus, we’d have to issue refunds to the local advertisers who’d purchased that time.

We waited. And waited. And waited. We had less than a minute of delay left before the power went back on. The whole team was galvanized into action and, with only one second of delay left, we resumed filming.

For the first time in about 20 years, the broadcast was fully live. I thanked God we weren’t in front of a national audience, because if someone screwed up and said a bad word, the FCC fines we’d have to deal with would be crippling.

More thunder rumbled outside as the chef talked about how sous-vide was a nice novelty, but almost everyone, in reality, preferred a grilled steak. He seasoned as he talked, obviously comfortable with the cameras and the audience who hung on every word. The grill, which had to be refilled with more charcoal to bring it back up to temperature after the delay, was screaming hot again. The chef used his laser thermometer to take the temperature of the coals. 733 degrees. Perfect for the initial sear.

Another clap of thunder and the lights flickered again. I felt my stomach leap with panic, but the lights stayed on. We only had 11 minutes left before Chopped! came on.

With the seasoning complete and the audience dying to see the steak get cooked, the chef picked up the rib eye with his tongs and carefully placed it on the searing grill.

The other chef began to scream. Everyone, including the production crew, jumped. With expertise honed by years in television, the camera operators instinctively turned the cameras toward the screaming man. 31 studio audience members and 14,000 households across Oklahoma watched as the chef’s skin blistered and charred.

“What the f**k is going on?,” the executive producer shouted, his voice clearly audible over the screams of pain and panic. Before the cameras could pan away, the chef’s eyes burst in an explosion of boiling lachrymal fluid and blood. The skin on his nose, forehead, and cheeks bubbled and blackened.

As EMTs rushed toward the man, one of them knocked over a carton of eggs and sent the contents splattering across the floor. Behind me, with a sound I will never forget for as long as I live, Dave, the sound engineer, crumpled to the floor with his body in knots of hideously broken bones; his skull caved in and leaking brain matter onto my shoes.

The loudest thunderclap yet drowned out even the panicked shouting and screams of pain. And that was it. When all was said and done – whatever it was that had been said and done – Dave was dead. The chef was dead. The cameras had never stopped rolling. Not until Chopped! came on.

The Food Network settled lawsuits for the better part of a year. Needless to say, our show wasn’t picked up. No one could ever figure out what had happened, but the funerals I attended and the trauma endured by the audiences, both studio and remote, are proof enough that I didn’t imagine it. If you know anyone in Oklahoma who was watching the Food Network on April 11th, 2015 between 10 and 11am, ask them what they saw. They’ll tell you. I’ll bet they haven’t watched a single live broadcast of anything ever since.

And yes, the network got an FCC fine from the producer saying “f**k” on air. They were okay with the burning skin, for some reason.

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Pebbles

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We thought we were having a hell of a hailstorm when we woke up in the middle of the night to a peal of thunder and the sound of our cabin being pelted. It went on for about a minute, then it stopped. There wasn’t any rain, which was strange. We went back to sleep, faintly aware of the smell of something burning. I figured it was probably from a lightning strike somewhere else.

In the morning, we realized how wrong we’d been. Jill was the first to get up, but her yelling ensured I was right on her heels.

Our property was a wreck. Baseball-sized burns covered the lawn as far as we could see, and when I went outside to assess the damage to our cabin, I was dismayed to find similar, albeit smaller, burns all over the roof.

“Had to have been meteorites,” Jill claimed. “I bet that thunder we heard was a big one breaking up.”

I didn’t know enough to disagree, but I thought it was pretty weird. She concurred.

We spent the day doing our best to rake up the marble-sized pieces of rock, which we hauled out and piled in the back of the property by the compost heap. Jill thought they might be worth something to someone, so we were going to bring a jar full back home at the end of the summer.

As she talked, I could tell she was uncomfortable. The work we’d been doing had aggravated the chapped skin around her mouth and under her arms. Something about the time of year always did it to her, and no matter how much she tried to keep the areas moist, they would still crack painfully. I told her I’d finish up for the night if she wanted to go inside. She did.

I made a vague plan to excise the ruined bits of lawn and reseed it, but I soon got frustrated. It was going to be a major project that would take days, if not weeks. There were still whole areas of the yard where we hadn’t picked up the meteorites, but they’d wreck the lawnmower if I tried to go over them just to make the area presentable in the meantime. Such a pain in the a*s.

The next day, to make matters worse, we noticed the well water had acquired a taste. It was briny and flat; almost coppery. Wholly unpleasant. We could drink bottled water for the rest of the vacation, which we’d been doing most of the time anyway, but we still showered and brushed our teeth with the stuff that came out of the well. And for a while, we kept doing it. On the bright side, my gums had stopped bleeding when I flossed. Must’ve been all the extra minerals from the well water that gets filtered out in municipal reservoirs.

After another long day of yard work, I was preparing dinner when I heard Jill shriek from the bathroom. She’d gone in to take a shower a few minutes earlier. When I rushed in to see what was wrong, she was coughing and swearing and working to wipe away clear, viscous something that had pooled on her face. I could see the shower head oozing the same stuff, clogging the drain and puddling like syrup on the bottom of the bathtub. If she hadn’t leapt out the second she felt it hit her face, she would’ve been covered from head to toe.

I helped Jill towel off as much of the stuff as I could, and a minute or two later, the shower head had started spitting out water again. It took a bit of coaxing, but she eventually held her head under its flow so she could wash her hair of the residue of whatever the hell had gotten on her.

Once Jill was as clean as she was going to get, I called the guy in charge of well maintenance for the county. The only guy in charge of well maintenance for the county. He answered right away, but gave the reply I knew was coming: I’d be at least three weeks before he could get out here and take a look. I pleaded with him to make some time to come earlier, and offered him way too much money, but the best he could do was move the appointment ahead by two days.

He told me that he’d seen algae blooms in a few of the local wells. The only suggestion he had was to run the water until it looked normal, which is what we’d done during our subsequent showers. I hated having to wait, but it was good to know he’d seen something like this before.

Over dinner, Jill and I tried to come to an agreement about what to do. I wanted to go home. There wasn’t any reason why we needed to keep putting up with the weird water and the yard work when we could go home, be comfortable, and hire people to take care of it all.

Jill wanted to stay. She’d been looking forward to this trip for months, and the chapped skin on her mouth was feeling much better. The cabin had belonged to her parents and she’d spent many summers here. No matter how unpleasant the circumstances might have gotten for us, they were still less stressful than all the work she had waiting for her when we were scheduled to return home in two months.

I caved.

Yesterday morning, we woke up to a remarkably pleasant surprise. In the parts of the yard where we hadn’t carted away the meteorites, the burned parts had disappeared. When I went outside to look, I saw the burns were covered in the same viscous stuff that would occasionally come from our pipes. Underneath the ooze was healthy, green grass. When I looked closer, I saw ants – ants almost too small to see – were crawling up and down the blades and carrying away dried pieces of the slime to bring back to their homes.

I headed back inside and told Jill. She acted happy to hear it, but I could tell she was deeply uncomfortable. The chapped skin around her mouth and nose had gotten bad again. I offered to take her to the clinic in town, but she didn’t want to sit in the car for four hours just to have the doctor give her the same cream she’d been using on herself for the last week. While she spoke, the left corner of her mouth cracked open and spilled a thin rivulet of blood down her chin.

Sighing with exasperation, she grabbed a paper towel, turned on the sink to wet it, and put the paper against her wound. When she sat back down, I saw the faucet was drooling the sticky algal slime that’d caused her the problem in the first place. But it was too late. She’d already pressed it to the crack in her skin.

Before I could mention this to her, Jill’s eyes had brightened. She pulled the paper towel away, a string of syrupy fluid still connecting the towel to her face. The cut was gone.

“Don’t,” I told her.

Jill didn’t listen. She went back to the sink and turned it on. Sticky, clear stuff flowed. She filled her hands and brought the contents to her face. She rubbed for a moment, then turned back toward me.

Behind the sheen around her mouth and nose was new, healthy skin.

“Pretty cool!,” Jill exclaimed, and wiped the residue away. I didn’t know what to think, let alone say. I figured some homeopathic doctor who minored in algae studies would find it completely normal.

We went to bed and slept. In the morning, Jill’s mouth and nose, while much better than they’d been at their worst, were still not as perfect as they were right after she’d applied the slime. I told her I was going to go out in the yard and do some more work.

Before I could get out of bed, though, she kissed me. Now, we’re in our late 50s. We’re affectionate with one another, don’t get me wrong, but most of the time we just cuddle on the couch and share a pizza. It’s easier that way. Requires fewer blue pills, too. That’s not to say we don’t have a sex life, because we do, but it’s more of a once-every-two-months kind of thing.

Jill’s rapturous kiss was less like one from the woman to whom I’d been married for 35 years and more like that of the teenager she was when we first started dating. I didn’t bother concerning myself with that particular difference, though. I followed her lead and we did what apparently needed to be done. No blue pills required, thank you very much.

Afterward, while I got dressed, I told Jill I was going to start raking up the meteorites we’d left the other day. She didn’t pay attention. She wanted me back in bed. I laughed and reminded her that even when we were kids I still had the refractory period of a climate cycle. She nodded and told me to be safe outside, then made an obvious show of slipping her hands under the blankets. She looked amazing. To my surprise, I felt renewed stirring below my belt. Before I could say “f**k it” and jump back into bed, though, I shook my head. I really needed to get going on that yard work. It was starting to cloud up and I didn’t want to have to put it off because of rain. I told Jill to have fun, then went outside.

In the untouched area of the yard, the grass was ankle-high. All the burns were gone. Clumps of slime still sat in the grass. The ants that’d been going crazy for the stuff were nowhere to be found.

I raked and raked and raked. The pebbles piled up and I shoveled them into the wheelbarrow and brought them to the main pile by the compost heap. I was a little surprised there were no ants at all. I could see their anthills bored into the ground all over the place, but not a single one was out and about.

I’d been working for about two hours nonstop, so during a break, while I chugged from my bottle of water, I bent down to get a closer look at the spots where the ants had swarmed the other day. Something was there that I hadn’t noticed while I was raking. Something definitely not there when I looked the previous day.

There were infinitesimal white dots coating the same blades of grass that’d been crawling with ants less than 24 hours ago. I plucked a few blades from the ground and held them in front of my face, hoping to get a better view. The dots were slightly ovoid in shape. Something clicked. Eggs. The ants must’ve had such a massive meal of that slime stuff that it drove them to reproduce like crazy. Or something. I have no idea how they make ants.

I heard raindrops impacting the trees on the other side of the property, and ten seconds later, they reached me. A distant bolt of lightning streaked the sky, and thunder boomed a moment later. Sighing, I put the rake and shovel in the wheelbarrow and wheeled it all back to the shed. More lightning and thunder. I figured I wouldn’t be getting anything else done around the yard until the storm passed.

I headed back into the cabin, banged my boots against the doorway to get the mud off, and stepped inside.

“Charlie,” Jill called. I heard water running in the bathroom.

From the kitchen where I stood, spooning last night’s fruit salad into a bowl, I called back, “what’s up?”

“Come take a bath with me!”

I laughed to myself. That bathtub could barely fit 110 pound Jill, let alone 250 pound me. I brought my bowl of fruit salad with me down the hall and into the bedroom. Before I turned the corner to the bathroom, the water was turned off and Jill shouted out again, “Charlie, are you coming?” Her voice sounded a little different. Crisper, somehow.

I stepped into the candle-lit bathroom. Jill was in the tub, leaning back against its curved shape. She was resting her head on a folded towel. She glanced over at me and smiled. Her hands roamed up and down her body.

Even in the dim light, she looked incredible. I didn’t know whether it was the prospect of repeating our fun from that morning or just the sight of her touching herself, but it was remarkably enjoyable. I placed my bowl on the sink and started to undress.

A nearby bolt of lightning immediately followed by an explosion of thunder made me jump. As my surprise faded and I continued to take off my clothes, I realized I’d seen something different in the harsh illumination of the lightning.

On the other side of the bathroom, Jill continued her teasing. “Come here and touch me,” she whispered. Again, I noticed the unusual quality of her voice. Another clap of thunder shook the house, and that time, the associated burst of lightning showed me exactly what I had trouble identifying after the first strike.

With a gasp, I turned on the light. In the harsh, overhead fluorescence, everything was revealed.

The tub in which Jill bathed was filled to the brim with clear slime. As I watched, she slid beneath the surface, coating her face and head, and came back up. When she breached the surface, she spoke.

“Please, Charlie, I can’t even tell you how good this feels.”

Again, the different vocal quality. Now, though, in the harsh light, I saw another change. Her hair. Jill’s hair had been gray since her late 40s. It was light brown now.

Jill manipulated herself with her right hand and reached for me with her left. Clear fluid oozed from her hand and arm and puddled on the floor like heavy syrup. “Come feel this with me, Charlie.”

I didn’t move. Part of me wanted to pull her from the tub, but another part, as the rain pounded against the roof and thunder rattled the windowpanes, was too frightened to touch her. I moved closer, but stayed out of her reach. Standing at the foot of the tub, I stared at my wife as she bucked her hips against her hand and mouthed my name over and over. Ripples in the slime caused it to slosh against the sides of the tub.

“Jill, please get out. Please.” My voice trembled and was barely audible over the pouring rain.

She reached for me with both hands and smiled, then spoke. “Don’t you want to be young with me again? To start fresh? Don’t you remember how good it felt?”

Jill slid down, and I thought she was going to dip under the slime again. But she stopped at her mouth. She opened it and let the slime pool inside. She closed her lips and I saw her throat work as she swallowed the mouthful.

“It feels so right. So perfect. I want to share this with you, sweetheart.”

My mind reeled. I thought about every ache and pain I’d accumulated over my 56 years. Every pockmark and hemorrhoid and scaly patch that’d come along over those long decades throbbed, as if wanting to be noticed. Before me was a way to make it stop. I remembered how Jill and I were as teenagers. Full of life and energy and libido; all things that, over the years, had just started to evaporate. I stared at my wife, who looked exactly like she had when she was 25.

Despite my fear, a pang of desire shot through me. Desire and arousal. I wanted Jill. I wanted to be with her in every way imaginable. We could grow old together again – or never grow old at all. Our happiness could last forever if we wanted. All I had to do was join her in the bathtub.

I took a step forward and resumed taking off my clothes. Jill purred and lapped up more of the slime. Some she swallowed, some she drooled from the corners of her mouth. She absentmindedly played with herself while she watched me, apparently delighted I was going to join her in this new, impossible youth.

As I struggled to bend over and take off my socks, something that’d been a pain in my a*s since I passed the 225 mark on the scale, I noticed something that caused me to stop. Jill’s breasts were shrinking. Before my eyes, her hips slimmed and her pubic hair disappeared. Her feet no longer came to the edge of the tub, but instead barely touched it.

“Come bathe with me, honey.” Jill’s voice was high and childlike. I recoiled. Whatever was happening to her was going faster. She looked 4 or 5.

“It’s incredible,” she chirped, again reaching for me with one hand and rubbing herself with the other in an act so obscene in her new, young context, that I turned away, nauseated.

“Charlie,” came the tiny voice behind me. I didn’t turn around.

“Sweetheart?”

The last word was practically babbled, but still carried with it an element of inquisitiveness, and, no matter how much I try to tell myself otherwise, dejection. She didn’t speak again.

A moment later, I turned around. Floating in the tub was a red shape, approximately the size of of a lemon. Tears filled my eyes as it shrank to the size of a cherry, then a pea, then a grain of rice. When I blinked, it was gone. A ribbon of white fluid hung motionless in the slime.

“I’m so sorry, my love,” I whispered to it. Distant thunder rolled across the forest.

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Licks From a Bear

trepan

August 1, 2015, 9:00am

It’s been exactly one year since Jen left. That means it’s been one year and one day since I was fired. I haven’t worked since. I used to like the idea of being on disability; free money and all the time in the world to spend with her. I guess she didn’t think of it that way. She was always ambitious. I shouldn’t say “was.” Every day I see Facebook updates detailing her constant successes. The most recent one was her engagement. I’d never seen her look so happy.

I guess I knew things with us were going downhill when I looked forward to our fights. She’d always say something about how I’m so smart – that I was smarter than she, in fact – but that I had no ambition. It felt so good to hear that someone as brilliant as Jen thought I was smart, even though she yelled it at me in frustration. She claimed she understood my depression and my anxiety and how they were terrible roadblocks on the path to my happiness. I thought that meant she could empathize and still wanted to be with me anyway. Apparently I was wrong.

Getting disability benefits for my depression wasn’t too hard. The money isn’t great, but it pays the rent and keeps me fed. The only pain is that I have to go to therapy every week. I also need to go to monthly appointments to pick up prescriptions to help combat my depression, ADHD, and anxiety. It’s all so procedural and detached from anything resembling real care. So I’m a lonely, unemployable loser who apparently has this “great mind” that’s utterly useless. But I won’t stay like this forever. I’ve discovered a something new. Well, something old, actually.

Today begins my new life. The medication never worked, the therapy never worked, the behavior changes never worked. Medicine failed me. Or maybe I failed medicine. Either way, I’m taking control of myself again. I’m not going to be a victim of the barriers my body’s put up for me. No more attention problems. No more depression. No more anxiety. For the first time in what may be decades, I’m filled with hope.

August 1, 2015, 3:00pm

All my tools are cleaned and ready. In about an hour, I’ll start. I need to keep a pretty comprehensive journal of the procedure to make sure I’m not harming myself. I figure a running account of my experiences will give evidence of the positive (or negative) changes in both my mood and cognitive abilities.

August 1, 2015, 4:05pm

After I traced a dime-sized circle on the upper-right part of my forehead, I used an Exacto knife to carve through the skin. I wasn’t prepared for how much this was going to hurt. I stopped a couple times to wipe away the tears so I could see well enough to continue. The skin lifted off from the bone without too much trouble once I’d finished cutting. I flushed it down the toilet. Now I’m waiting for the bleeding to stop – it seems to be slowing already. It’s so weird to see my skull exposed like this.

I’m going to write a sentence or two before and after each of the next steps so I can get as good a description as possible if this all works as well as I’m hoping.

I opted to use a tiny drill bit over a single large one. A ring of tiny holes is going to take a hell of a lot longer, but I think the need for precision dwarfs time consumption in this case. I’m about to do the first hole.

The first hole is done. Imagine the feeling of biting down on a fist-sized piece of tinfoil as hard as you possibly can while your head hums like it’s filled with buzzing hornets. The vibration was so excruciating that I’m only now feeling the pain of the drill site itself. I’m going to do the next ten or so holes now before I lose my nerve.

The vibrations became less intense with each hole. The bone pain got much worse, though. I’ve never had migraines, but I assume they must feel something like this.

I’m shining a light at the ring of tiny bores and doing my best to inspect what’s behind them in the mirror. It’s not very useful. The remaining structural elements between the holes are extremely thin and brittle-looking. I’m going to cut them away with the wirecutters.

I just dropped a circle of my skull into the sink. Now I’m looking at the bright red membrane that’s covering my brain. I’m a little surprised by how many blood vessels are in there. I’m going to put out a couple more towels. Cutting away the membrane is the part I’m most scared of.

It’s done and the hole is bleeding a lot. I’m taking extra care to not put too much pressure on the organ itself when I’m working to soak up the blood. I’m feeling a little dizzy so while I hold the towel to the hole, I’m sitting and eating the piece of steak and drinking the orange juice I’d put out just in case this happened. The wound is slowly starting to clot while I wait here. The whole area hurts, but the pain is second to the strong pulsing sensation around the hole. It’s almost like I have a second heart beating there.

The blood stopped pouring out and I’m cleaning the area with water and rubbing alcohol. Now I can see my brain. It’s gray. It doesn’t look like it even belongs to me; I don’t know why it all feels so surreal. It’s almost like I’m watching all this happen to someone else. On the plus side, I’m not dizzy anymore, but I’m exhausted. I’m going to bandage everything and go to bed. I’ll clean up tomorrow.

August 2, 2015, 6:30am

I woke up this morning with more energy and drive than I’ve ever felt. Even sitting here writing this feels like a joy; I’m not struggling to find words, I’m not dreading how I’ll reread what I’ve written and think it’s stupid and pointless – everything just….works. The accounts I’d read about people who shared their experiences with trepanation made similar claims, but even as I drilled the holes I never allowed myself to truly believe it would work for me. Even now, I’m worried it’s all just a placebo effect. The pulsating feeling is real, though, and it’s as strong as ever. That was something else my fellow trepanned mentioned. They said it was because the body is letting the brain grow again; something the skull had prevented after it hardened following infancy. I don’t know if I buy the explanation, but I can’t deny what’s happening here.

August 2, 2015, 2:00pm

My day’s been spent cleaning the apartment. Over the last year, I’d let things pile up and grow increasingly filthy as my depression festered. Today, it’s like a veil has been lifted and light is pouring over everything I lay my eyes on. The place needed to be cleaned, so I just set to work and cleaned it. It looks better now than it did when Jen and I moved in. My therapist recommended that I clean quite a while ago, suggesting that a nice, open area would really help me see my home as a place for potential, rather than stagnation. Now I know what he meant. This is what potential feels like.

The hole in my head still hurts and it looks terrible, but I expected as much. If I go out, I can wear a hat and no one will notice anything amiss. I’m not ready to do that, though. I’m mildly concerned about how badly the site is beginning to itch as it heals. I’m being extremely assiduous in cleaning and caring for the wound as it heals, but I guess part of that process is that damn itch. I’m doing my best not to think about it.

August 2, 2015, 11:30pm

The first full day of my experiment is about to end. I’m about to go to sleep, and I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot today. My home is spotless, I’ve finished a short story I’d been working on for the last couple months, I’ve gotten up to date with my internet and utility bills, and I even did a couple sets of push-ups. I had to remind myself to eat, though. For whatever reason, I wasn’t hungry at all until I realized it was nearly 9pm and I hadn’t eaten all day. I’m chalking it up to my excitement. It’s been hard to contain. But, now I’m all showered and pajamaed and ready to end my day. I can’t wait for tomorrow.

August 3, 2015, 5:45am

I was up before my alarm this morning to watch the sun rise from the roof of the apartment. Last night I slept like a log and didn’t wake up once. I noticed some blood on my pillow and under my fingernails, though, and I think I may have scratched underneath the bandage while I slept. I made a beeline to the bathroom to inspect the hole and, thankfully, I didn’t seem to do any damage. Everything appears to be healing well.

August 3, 2015, 1:15pm

I don’t know if it’s endorphins wearing off or just an artefact of my depression, but my euphoric feeling has diminished quite a bit since this morning. I’m thinking it might be both; maybe I need to have a good meal. There should be something in the fridge.

August 3, 2015, 9:00pm

Whatever I felt this afternoon doesn’t seem to have been a fluke. While my mood elevated for a little while after lunch, I was back to near-baseline for the rest of the day and evening. The pulsing in the hole waxes and wanes with my mood, interestingly enough. When I’m happy and ambitious, it pulses a lot. When I’m depressed, it may pulse once every ten seconds. It may have something to do with my blood pressure, so I’ll keep an eye on that. Before bed, I’ll do some jumping-jacks and see if the pulsing returns. I’m fairly certain a higher pulse rate correlates with a better mindset.

Just did the exercise. The pulsing is the same. My heartrate is up, but my mood is still low. I’m going to bed.

August 4, 2015, 11:00am

I just woke up and I feel terrible. I was scratching the hole again. The pillow is soaked with blood and there are remnants of scabs under my fingernails. Tonight I’ll wear gloves. That aside, my mood is still right near where it was before I started this process. I’m worried the surface area of my brain that’s exposed isn’t large enough to allow long-lasting effects. I don’t trust myself to widen the hole that’s already there, but I’m prepared to do another one an inch or so away.

August 4, 2015, 12:30pm

There was a problem with the second hole. I did everything just like the last time, but on the last tiny borehole a crack formed in the skull between the original hole and the new site. I had to peel back the skin I’d left to make sure, but it was definitely there. I was forced to decide whether or not I should leave the broken piece, and I opted against it. Now I have an oval that’s about 3 inches long and 1 inch wide. Removing the membrane from this part was difficult and I had a minor issue with the blade slipping deeper than I’d wanted. Thankfully, the brain has no pain receptors. It couldn’t have gone more than half an inch inside and nothing weird happened to my body so I lucked out and hit part of the 90% they say we don’t use. I know people are saying that’s a myth, but with what just happened to me there must be some truth to it.

August 5, 2015, 8:00am

No scratching overnight. The pulsing is there but it’s nowhere near as strong as it was the first time. My mood is still low. I have to be honest with myself here: I feel like a failure. This whole experiment is another example of me setting out to do something with good intentions and having it all blow up in my face. But, but, I’m not going to be defeated by it. In the past, I would’ve stopped, Jen would’ve started a fight with me, and I’d just add it to the never ending cascade of fuckups that form my identity. Not this time, though. The increase in my ambition from this treatment must still be going strong, because I’m determined to see it all through.

August 5, 2015, 8:00pm

There are four more holes in my head. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it. Toward the end of the last one, I almost passed out. I’m glad I had the foresight to keep a few sugar packets nearby so I could regain the strength to finish up.

Besides the issue with my dizziness, these four went better than the prior two. I used the left and right sides of my head this time, right above my ears. The skull was far thinner than on my forehead, so the vibration of the drill wasn’t as excruciating. The blood-loss was significantly greater, though, which explains the desire to pass out. I have hand towels wrapped around my head so I won’t get blood all over the place. Lucky for me, I’m a pretty quick clotter. That’s a funny word. Clotter.

August 6, 2015, 6:10am

I slept sitting up and awoke to major pulsing not just in the new holes, but in the old ones as well. A small problem’s developed with the second hole, though. I think it might be getting infected. The itching is unbearable and I think it might be starting to smell. I poured rubbing alcohol on all the sides and pressed it in with clean towels, so hopefully that’ll stop whatever’s breeding in there.

My mood was pretty high. Still not as good as the first day, but much better than the days after. I’ve been thinking about Jen a lot. We had so many things in common. We loved talking about animals and used to go off on tangents where we’d discuss all the exotic ones we’d have when we were rich. Her favorite ones were rhinos. Mine were hippos. I used to tell her about the lake we’d have in our backyard where my pygmy hippo would play with her baby rhino. After they’d gotten tired out, we’d invite them up to the patio where they’d curl up next to one another while we gazed adoringly at them and at each other. I wonder how she’d feel knowing I’ve been doing all this work to better myself. She’d probably tell me to do more.

August 7, 2015, 12:35pm

I did more. All day yesterday, I drilled. I drilled and cut and pulled and peeled. I feel like I can take on the world; it’s almost like that one time I did cocaine in college, but the effect has lasted far longer. I’ll update again today if I have to, but for now, I’m going to work on some of my stories.

August 9, 2015, 9:00am

Where have I been? Writing. Since the other day, I’ve gotten down 100 pages of a story I never even knew I had in me. Reading it over is like I’m looking at the work of someone else. Someone far, far better. A stranger, I guess.

On a slightly less pleasant note, there’s definitely an infection in a few holes. One of them is weeping a gray liquid that smells terrible and all of them itch. When I rub them with the towel to try to scratch, they break open and start either bleeding or leaking clear fluid. I figure it’s like a cold that has to run its course, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t becoming a problem nearly as bad as the depression was.

August 10, 2015, 7:40am

I scratched in my sleep. I don’t know what else to say other than it was bad. It’s hard to tell from what I see in the mirror, but I might have damaged some of my brain in the holes of my forehead and left side. A small piece is hanging by a thread that looks like a tiny blood vessel. I tried to tuck it back under the lip of skull, but I had to press pretty hard to do it and I’m worried I messed it up even worse.

At least I saw a bear today.

August 15, 2015, 4:15pm

More holes for me. Shaved my head. No more hair, lots more holes. Remember those wiffle balls from when we were kids? One day I’ll tell Jen how I thought my head looked like a wiffle ball. She always liked baseball and playing with my hair. My head infection was getting real bad before the bear came. Now he licks my head while I sleep and keeps the gross stuff out. Jen loves bears. Bears and rhinos.

Every morning I have to clean under my fingernails a lot. Petting the bear gets them real dirty. It’s nice the bear shaved when I did so I didn’t have to feel like the odd man out. Those pulses in my head are nice and strong all the time. It feels good. The bear licks me a lot when I sleep.

Augs 16, 2015 5000

Scratch the bear by his ears andhe licks lots and lots. Lots of licks means a lot less itching. Jen would scratch my back when it was itchy. One time she saw me triing to scratch between my shoulders using the door frame. She called me a bear because that’s what bears do when there back itches. 60 holes, going to cut out the spaces in between. Make my bear proud if Jen cant be.

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I Dream of Names and Cancer

cancer-cell

When I was four, I killed my first ant. It didn’t have a name. Of that, I was absolutely certain.

My own name isn’t important to you right now, although it’s likely you’ll learn some version of it soon. I think you’ll end up learning a lot about me in the coming days; some will be true, most will be false. There is a crucial element that will be missed, simply because it’s unknowable to anyone else. Anyone but me.

But I’m going to share it with you.

At the age of 19, as a soldier, I killed my first person. He had a name. Of that, too, I was absolutely certain. And he changed me.

My act of violence led me to learn who he was and what he meant to others. And, at the same time, I learned something essential about myself. Something I was unprepared for. I recoiled in profound, uncomprehending terror.

Today, I work in a hospice. No one there knows what I’ve done. No one there knows who I really am. They think I’m there to work, which is technically true. But I have more tasks than those given to me by supervisors. One particular task – one I’ve prepared for and dreamed about – is to be done today.

Today is when I learn whether or not I’m going to die.

Today is my 522nd birthday. Believe it, don’t believe it; it doesn’t matter to me. When I killed my first person the age of 19, I did more than take his life. I assumed parts of him. He was a left-handed blacksmith’s apprentice named Pierre Gaultier. The moment he breathed his final breath, my left hand lost its sinister clumsiness. I instantaneously understood the basics of metalworking. And I learned his name. I felt his name. It was as familiar to me as my own.

It was the most horrifying moment of my life. The most disorienting. And that night, using my newly dextrous left hand, I tried to cut my own throat. The blade passed over my skin as if it were iron. I later hanged myself from a beam in an abandoned abbey, only to dangle uselessly for three days before I was found and cut down by a local derelict. I begged him to help me take my life, but I didn’t have enough money to make it worth his while. When I killed him in a rage of frightened and confused desperation, I absorbed his alcoholism.

The following centuries were a haze of blood and drink. I’ve absorbed countless talents. Countless traits. Countless vices. But the names – the names aren’t countless. There are 7,339 names inside me now. 7,339 clusters of memories to haunt me.

This all leads to today. For 500 years, I’ve stayed under the radar. I’ve hidden in the shadows and killed and killed and killed, hoping to absorb any knowledge someone might have of another man like me. Another man who shares my curse. But I’m unique. No one is like me. Every open throat and subsequent transfer of name and ability has yielded nothing useful.

Nothing useful, that is, until last month. He was a man called Gustav Brennerson and along with his name, he transferred to me his influenza. It was the first time I’ve ever been sick.

The hospice here has 44 beds. 41 are filled.

41 opportunities.

I dream of names and cancer every night while I’m taunted by the false death of sleep. Tonight, wherever it is I lay my head as it seethes with 41 new names, I pray it seethes with something new. Something malignant. Something terminal. Something that will end these centuries of hideous wandering.

I dream of being eaten alive.

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The Day I Started Believing in Ghosts

ghost

Our family home is famously haunted. By famously, I mean it’s mentioned in the town’s historical records and kids under a certain age won’t ring the doorbell on Halloween. That kind of thing. I’m 24 and I’ve lived here all my life, aside from college. Over the course of those years, I’d never seen anything out of the ordinary. My mom lived here for almost 70, though, and Dad for 50, and they claimed they saw actual ghosts many times. Their parents, too. And so on.

The house was built in 1729. Like most houses nearing their 300th birthdays, it’s had its share of problems. Still does. Obviously, it’s undergone a ton of maintenance over the course of its life, but it was always patch ups rather than overhauls. Therefore, it’s drafty. Everything sags. The electrical system is awful. The plumbing system is even worse. To top it off, all those things make some type of noise: whistling, creaking, humming, groaning, etc. To a superstitious person, it would be easy for them to associate any number of those things with the paranormal. Members of my family, for example, simply think all those natural explanations aren’t good enough.

Unlike most hauntings, the “ghost” we have isn’t a single, recurring entity. The best Mom was able to explain from what she’d seen was this: she’d be doing stuff around the house and something would catch her eye. She’d turn and look, and there’d be the ghostly image of someone who used to live in the house. Sometimes she knew who it was, sometimes she didn’t. They’d be going about their daily routines, entirely oblivious to the fact Mom was watching. One time when Mom was getting out of the shower, she saw the ghost of her grandfather sitting on the toilet, reading the newspaper, while her grandmother brushed her teeth. The moment she yelped with surprise, they disappeared.

I was home during my summer break after my first year in college when Dad died. It was as devastating to Mom and me as anyone would expect. After I returned to school, I started getting emails from Mom talking about how she’d seen Dad around the house. All the sightings were in line with the kind of thing she’d told me about in the past, but I started to worry about the frequency of the reports from her. She was claiming to see him a couple times a week. Before his death, they’d only seen previous residents of the house once every few years. To make matters worse, it seemed like he was scaring her.

Over Christmas break, I convinced her to see a therapist. She began having weekly sessions, which did very little to help with her stress. Her sightings of Dad occurred as frequently as ever. This went on for years.

Following graduation, I moved back home. I got a job at a local accounting firm and started paying off my student loans. Living rent free with Mom was going to make that process go by much faster. I had another reason for living there, too. Mom’s health was in decline. She’d get sick often and spent most of her time wandering aimlessly around the house or sitting in Dad’s old recliner, watching television. I worried about her being alone, so when I wasn’t at work, I made it a point to stay at home. I figured it was the least I could do.

That said, I didn’t want to spend all my time sitting around. I figured since I’d be inheriting the house at some point, I could get some work done to make it feel a little less, well, ancient. There was plenty of old stuff in rooms no one visited that could be brought up to the attic and potentially sold, so I took my time after work and on weekends to deal with it. I hauled lamps and record players and shoeboxes filled with knickknacks up the narrow steps.

Ever since I was old enough to climb the stairs to reach the attic, I’d hated it. It was always hot and stuffy and incredibly dusty, and now that I was filling it with more and more junk, the stuffiness only intensified. I’d been claustrophobic for as long as I could remember. No one else in the family suffered from it, so it appeared to be my own special cross to bear. I did my best to ignore it during my frequent trips up there to drop stuff off, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go as fast as I could to get back down those steps to the cool and spacious second floor.

On the morning of Mom’s 70th birthday, I got up early to make her breakfast in bed. French toast, fried eggs, and spicy sausage. I tiptoed up the stairs with the tray, carefully opened the door, and walked in. She was staring at the ceiling with a look of terror on her face. Her breathing was labored. I left the tray on the dresser and rushed over, asking her what was wrong.

She didn’t answer. Her wide eyes locked on mine. I reached in my pocket for my phone to call 911, but she grabbed my arm in a grip tighter than I thought her frail body could produce.

“Jeanette, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. I stretched my other arm to get my phone from my jeans pocket, but Mom grabbed that one, too. I struggled to get loose while asking over and over what happened and what was wrong. She just kept talking over me.

“We needed money. He made me, Jeanette.”

The grip on my arms loosened and Mom’s labored breathing slowed. Then stopped. I finally dialled 911, but it was too late. I checked her pulse. Nothing. I performed what I knew was a useless attempt at CPR. I stared at her and cried until the ambulance arrived.

I went through the funeral preparations, service, and burial in a fog of misery and confusion. Months went by, and while my mourning period had tapered off, what Mom told me as she died hung like a low cloud over my day-to-day activities. Even though I’d started therapy to help cope with everything I was dealing with, those few sentences plagued me. I’d sit in the house alone while the words danced in my head. I realized I had to move away. I had to sell the house and go away if I wanted to get the closure I so desperately needed.

All the stuff I’d brought to the attic needed to go. When Mom was alive, I kept it because I thought we could have a tag sale at some point and she could tell me what to sell and what should be kept for sentimental purposes. Nothing had sentiment anymore. It all had to go. I rented a dumpster, had it delivered to the front yard, and I got to work bringing it all down.

It was an unbearably-hot August. The attic must have been 120 degrees and the process of moving all the junk was kicking up a lot of the dust. I cursed myself for not having a mask or anything, but I was on autopilot to get it all down and out as quickly as possible. I ignored my claustrophobia as best as I could, and in the space of three days, got the vast majority of the stuff from the attic into the dumpster.

Around noon on the fourth day, sweat was pouring down my dusty, filthy body as I worked to take the last few boxes out. I’d gotten into old stuff that’d been there for as long as I could remember. Lots of Dad’s winter clothes and high school yearbooks and stuff. It was by far the dustiest part of the attic. My chest burned and clumps of fuzz floated through the air like volcanic ash. I became acutely aware of my breathing and started to feel dizzy. I felt consumed by the dry heat and could swear the room was getting smaller as I stumbled toward the last of the boxes.

I lost my footing and fell face-first into a pile of boxes in the corner. They crashed to the floor and one split open, spilling its contents. My head hit the ground and I gasped, gulping dust into my throat. I coughed and hacked up gobs of dust-loaded snot. The walls felt like they were squeezing my shoulders and I felt the ceiling, despite being six feet above my head, pushing me into the dusty floor.

Something flashed in the corner of my eye. I whirled around, the thick string of saliva hanging from my lips whipping around and slapping the side of my face. The ghostly figure of a woman stood in the middle of the room with a camcorder on her shoulder. It looked like she was crying. I shrieked and scrambled like a crab to get away.

The figure didn’t respond to my noise and movements. It just kept sobbing and pointing the camcorder. I realized it was my young mother. While the walls and ceiling spun ever closer to me and dust furred my tongue and the back of my throat, I turned around and looked in the direction the camera was recording.

My young father was lying on his belly on the filthy floor. Pinned underneath him, open-mouthed, struggling with all her might, and gasping in lungful after lungful of dust, was a girl no older than four. I blinked three times in rapid succession as disbelief, horror, and revulsion swept through me. The images disappeared. In their place were the contents of the box that had split open. VHS tapes and a broken camcorder.

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An Unlucky Samaritan

When I was 17, I was in a head-on collision with another driver. I think I was unconscious for a minute or two after the impact. When I came to, I was confused and couldn’t feel any pain. I couldn’t move much, though. Something was pinning me. A downward glance showed me what it was. There was a metal rod impaling directly under my knee, through what the doctors later told me was my patellar tendon. It had pushed through the tendon, lifted my kneecap, and driven itself up the length of my thigh. It wasn’t too deep inside; I could see it bulging under my skin.

A minute later, I felt everything. I screamed and screamed, thrashing for a bit before realizing any movement only intensified the pain in my knee and thigh. Then I looked out the cracked windshield and saw the other driver. His devastated skull sat on his neck like a mashed fruit. I could see his tongue lolling out of his ruined mouth. Without a lower jawbone to hold it in place, it hung down to his Adam’s apple. The remaining eye stared, unblinking, at the damage its owner had caused.

Another wave of impossibly acute agony surged through me, blurring my vision and forcing me to bite down on my own teeth until I felt at least one molar crack. Some part of my consciousness registered the fact I was hyperventilating and worked to calm my breathing. A couple moments later, the wave had passed. I realized no cars had come upon our accident yet. I tried to reach into the back pocket of my shorts for my cell phone, but there was no way the rod in my knee would allow that much movement. In exchange for my attempt, the unbearable pain resumed.

Once I’d regained my senses, I looked again at the remains of the other driver. There wasn’t much I could make out. It looked he he’d had a beard; hair was puffing out from the skin of what might have been his cheeks. Even though he was the one who’d caused me all this pain, I felt bad he was dead. No one deserved to have that happen to them. While I studied the gore with morbid fascination, the man’s neck jerked and sent the fleshy wreckage of his face flopping back and forth. He jerked again. This time, his shoulders and torso moved as well. I gagged as the movement forced his head downward and bits of his crushed brain oozed from the hole that was once his face.

The man continued moving as if he was enduring a terrible seizure. My pain came back. Unable to bear the sensation, I blacked out. It couldn’t have been very long. When I came to, there was something wrong with the man’s body. Something I couldn’t understand. The hole where his face had connected to his throat was stuffed with something. It slid out in a thick, wet mass onto the twisted steering wheel and dashboard. From my vantage point, about six feet away, I could only describe it as a worm or snake. Still, it was unlike either of those things. The body was grayish-white and oozed heavy, milky yellow discharge from gaping pores which covered the entirety of its length. That length increased as I watched with growing horror.

The return of the pain in my knee was unable to overcome the fear sweeping over me at the sight of the monster. Over ten feet had unfurled from the carcass and had draped itself along the dashboard. It was lying on surfaces coated with pulverized glass from the windshield, and I could see chunks of it sticking in its pores as it moved. The thing didn’t seem to mind. Once another few feet came out, I saw its tail end finally discharge itself from the man. The parasite squirmed off the dashboard and onto the crumpled union of car hoods. The viscous, milky slime clung to every surface it touched and kept the creature connected to the contacted surfaces by thin ropes. It uncoiled completely and its full length lay wetly on our cars. The smell coming from its body was thick and putrescent with a revolting, cloying sweetness. I struggled not to retch, not wanting it to hear me.

The pores stopped oozing. An unsettling, peristaltic ripple passed through the thing’s body. Ugly flatulent sounds leaked from each pore, and I saw something moving inside them. With an explosive jolt that caused me to jump in shock, bright red tendrils burst out of its pores. Each one was about as thick as a pencil and every pore contained at least 20 of them. They grew and grew in length, some laying flaccidly on the cars and some erecting themselves and flopping around like severed electrical cables.

I screamed when a couple of the tendrils brushed against me as they grew. But seconds later, every one of them pushed downward and dragged the main body onto the surface of the road. An 18-wheeler was driving toward us. It screeched to a halt and I watched an overweight trucker stumble out of the cab and run toward us. First he looked over and saw the dead man was far beyond help. Then he saw me and my look of pain and terror. He opened his mouth, presumably to say he’d call 911, but the tendrils leapt into his mouth and throat before he could get a word out.

The trucker grasped the thick cord of tendrils invading him and tried to pull. More shot out from the thing in the road and wrapped themselves around his fat form. Over the course of a minute, the main body had been pulled over to the trucker. Gradually, the tendrils retracted from the man’s mouth while the body forced itself into his throat. The putrid seminal fluid again began to leak from the creature as it pushed deeper and deeper. A little while later, it was inside. The man was soaked from head to toe with the vile substance. But he no longer looked afraid. He just looked calm. He turned around and walked back to his truck, leaving a trail of milky-yellow slime. I heard the engine start and the truck drove away.

Another car noticed us soon after. The paramedics were called and I was brought to the hospital. I never told anyone what happened. I assume everyone was confused about what the slime was, but I didn’t hear them talk about it. All they were concerned about was the wound in my leg, which required two years to recover. I never saw the parasite, or any hint of it, again. It was another five years before I’d conquered my fear of driving. I’ve done my best to forget about what I saw. No matter how hard I try, though, I still shudder when a truck passes me and I see the driver through his open window. I know that thing is still in one of them. At least one.

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My dad was a safety officer at Chernobyl during the meltdown. Before he died last year, he told me about something he saw that night. I can’t keep it to myself.

chernobyl

I won’t give a long backstory because it doesn’t matter. Basically, he got the job through a former schoolmate of his who worked in some mid-level Party position. Dad was down on his luck at the time and Egor happened to see him at a local tavern. They got to talking, and Egor pulled some strings and gave him the position. Didn’t matter that he wasn’t qualified. “Half the guys aren’t,” he was told.

Anyway, dad started working there in 1984 and did a pretty good job. He did what he was told; most of it was just checking dial readouts and making sure pipes were sealed and whatnot. In late 1985 and early 1986, he started noticing far more Party representatives coming in and out of the plant. Usually the visits were limited to compliance officers and hazardous materials supervisors when radioactive material was moved in or out. But these weren’t plant specialists. They looked like they were Politburo. He told me he recognized a couple of them from televised speeches, but he didn’t remember the names. He just knew they were high ranking.

On the night of the meltdown, Dad was doing his usual valve and dial checks when Politburo members, accompanied by soldiers with kalashnikovs, streamed down the hall toward the reactor area. The soldiers were wearing radiation suits. The Party members weren’t. He tagged along a few tens of meters away and went up on a high catwalk where he could see all of them. They crowded around the cooling pools. Dad made an effort to act as if he was staring at the pressure readouts in front of him, vaguely noticing they were rising as he watched.

This was around the point when the lights cut out. Apparently this wasn’t abnormal for the plant; the electrical systems were under maintained and all the electricians on staff were tasked with more critical work. Even with the lights not working, Cherenkov radiation cast its characteristic blue glow over the group and illuminated the politicians and soldiers. The water in the pool started moving.

Now, dad wasn’t a nuclear engineer. Still, he knew whatever was happening in the pool was abnormal. He’d been by the area plenty of times and never once did the water move like it did right then. It sloshed with turbidity and looked like it was coming to a rolling boil. He glanced at the dials in front of him and saw the temperature and pressure in the loop system was dramatically higher than it should’ve been. As he was beginning to sprint across the catwalk toward the nearest alarm station, he saw something that made him stop.

What he told me didn’t make much sense at first. You have to figure someone running at a dead sprint to pull an emergency alarm at a nuclear power plant wouldn’t stop for anything. But he stopped. And he stared. Something had floated to the top of the boiling water. The way he described it, it was dark, grayish red, almost shaped like a person, but much bigger and dreadfully deformed. It floated, facedown, in the pool. The Party members didn’t react but the soldiers raised their rifles at the thing until one of the politicians barked an order at them to stand down.

A moment or two later, the thing crawled out of the pool and raised itself on thick legs to stand before the gathered crowd. What dad said he remembered most about the thing was its head. It sat directly on its lopsided shoulders and it had no eyes, no nose, no ears. All that was there was a gaping hole. Not even a mouth, but a hole. And inside, the same blue glow from the pool shone out onto the faces of the people surrounding it.

Someone else in the plant must’ve noticed the temperature and pressure abnormalities and pulled the alarm, because sirens began to blare and diesel generators were galvanized into action to force the cooling cycle into overdrive. None of that mattered to dad, though. He said the thing approached the soldiers, one by one, and without any of them putting up a fight, it pressed the hole in its face against the top of each of their heads and they started to dissolve. First their suits melted, then their skin began to blister and char. The thing moved its maw downward until it nearly reached their legs, which dropped to the ground in a smoldering heap.

It then did the same to the assembled Politburo. All but one. She stood in the middle of a pile of steaming legs and hips and crotches and stared at the atrocity. Then, she screamed at it. It’s something dad said he’s repeated to himself every day since. “залить соль на почве.” Salt the earth. As the words left her mouth, the geiger counter dad was forced to carry with him at all times exploded into life at the same instant the politician burst into flames. He could swear she smiled as she burned.

All this was finally enough for dad to make a break for it. He knew he’d been irradiated badly, but he took some solace in the fact the ticks from the counter slowed quickly as he left the pool area. Right before he was clear of the room, he took one last glimpse at the thing. It had begun to melt. As soon as its body began pouring through the metal grate, the water below erupted into a mass of superheated steam. Dad avoided being scalded to death by about half a second when he turned the corner and slammed the door behind him.

The rest of the meltdown played out more or less like it was eventually reported. Dad was able to get out before the main explosion. He lived with the profound guilt of running by his colleagues who still didn’t know something truly catastrophic was about to happen. He believed his thyroid cancer was payback for his indifference toward them during his escape.

The iconic photograph of the radioactive “elephant’s foot” in the basement of the power plant stood, framed, on his dresser for the rest of his life. As he told me this story, he confessed he kept it to remind him of the implications of the politician’s words before she was devoured by flames. “That thing will render the area around it uninhabitable for a hundred years,” he sighed. “And it’s melting through the ground, even today. If it hits groundwater, it’ll explode like a dirty bomb and make the disaster in ‘86 look like a firecracker. Russia, Europe, North Africa. All irradiated.”

He died a couple days after he shared his experience with me. I just have no idea what to do with it all. Obviously, he could’ve made the whole thing up. But I don’t know why he would. He doesn’t have anything to gain now that he’s dead. Maybe some of the other survivors or their kids can corroborate parts of what he said, maybe they can’t. Either way, if it’s true, there is so much more going on with that disaster than we’ve been told. Even now, as that radioactive slag melts into the ground, dad’s story almost makes it sound like the meltdown was just a precursor to something far worse. Something plotted. Please, if anyone can give some advice or insight, it would be appreciated. I don’t want what he told me to be true, but “залить соль на почве” terrifies me more than I can bear.

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I’ll be dead soon, so my doctors asked that I tell my story as a cautionary tale. I don’t want other girls to be sick like I am.

cesium

Teeny Tiny

When I was little, Mom used to hold me and say stuff like, “Oh Katie, you fit so perfectly on my lap! You’re so teeny-tiny!” I loved it. She’d keep me warm and hug me and I felt so great. I’d always go to Mom if I felt sad or scared and she’d just scoop me up, saying “what’s wrong, my teeny-tiny girl?” and I’d tell her what was making me upset and she’d always always always make it all better.

The most vivid memory I have was the day I turned 10. It wasn’t of my party, which I vaguely remember being great, it wasn’t the presents, some of which I still have, but it was when Mom had me in her lap that night and had tears in her eyes and said to Dad, “Katie’s getting to be a big girl, huh?” I don’t remember what my dad said, but there was no denying it: I wasn’t her teeny-tiny girl anymore.

At 10 years old, I was about 4’10”, maybe 100 pounds. I was growing fast. Both my parents are tall. I remember being scared. The scale kept going up, and by the time I was 11 I was 5’2”, 120 pounds and I started getting b***s. At that point, when I was sad, mom would hug me tight and say the right things, but it all felt different. She never cradled me. She never had me in her lap. I felt cold and lonely even though I was never really cold or lonely. I just wanted to be closer to her like I was when I was little. So I decided to get little again.

Mom started to notice when I pushed around my food on the plate, trying to pile it up on one side to make it look like I ate more than I really did. “You’re a growing girl,” she said, kindly but firmly. “You need to eat.” I couldn’t leave the table until I was done.

That night after dinner, I remember lying on my back on the bed, staring at the ceiling and feeling the food in my stomach. Mom’s words “you’re a growing girl” echoed in my mind and I felt so sick that I ran into the bathroom and threw up. I was really glad I had my own bathroom so they couldn’t hear me puking. After I was done, I felt so much better. Lighter and smaller, even.

Mom was so happy to see me eating normally again. She worried aloud that I might be getting the flu, so seeing me chowing down like my old self pushed those worries right out of her head. What she didn’t see was how I went to bed afterward and while the bathwater ran I was throwing it all up. I did this every day for years.

One of the sad truths about throwing up your meals is you don’t lose all that much weight. I actually gained more. Sure, I’d get rid of what I’d eaten, but probably twice a week I’d be lying in bed, wide awake, fingering my collar bones, hip bones, and ribs, and obsessing over food. Something inside me would snap, and I’d run to the fridge or the cabinets and eat until I felt like I was bursting. Then, exhausted, I’d go back upstairs and pass out on my bed. Calorie-for-calorie, after those twice-weekly binges I was eating more than I would if I was healthy. Except I really, really wasn’t healthy. And nobody knew.

All this built up to the last few months after I graduated high school. I was 5’11, 175 pounds. 17 years old. There was absolutely nothing I hated more than my body. I was constantly lonely and wanted to try to take my mind off it all. I decided to get a job. When I told Mom I found a position at a place that recycles old medical gear, she was really proud of me for taking the initiative. It was bittersweet; I knew she was starting to see me as an adult. Not her teeny-tiny girl. I felt like a complete and utter failure.

The recycling place where I worked dismantled big machines that hospitals used and sold the parts. I was the receptionist. I took phone calls and helped set up deliveries. The people I worked with were really nice and after a few weeks they gave me a key so I could get there early and have coffee ready and work orders printed out. One night, after everyone left, I went back there and let myself in. I still feel bad about breaking their trust.

A couple days earlier my coworkers were bringing in an old machine. They all were wearing heavy gloves and had on breathing gear like scuba divers. When they were done, I asked what it was. Apparently it was something hospitals use to give radiation therapy to cancer patients. I didn’t know too much about that, so when I got home I went on Wikipedia and did a lot of research and then I got my idea.

When I let myself in that night, the place was empty. I made a beeline for where they had that radiation therapy machine and I investigated it. Most of it was completely dismantled. What I was looking for was conveniently labeled and brightly marked in a massive lead container. It took me a while to get the cover off. Lead’s so heavy! But after I did, I saw a round metal part that looked like a wheel. I picked it up, rotated the mechanism, and it opened a little window in the front. A faint blue light was inside. I held it up to my eye and looked in. Nothing but that light. I thought it was probably what I was looking for.

I brought the object home with me and locked the door of my bedroom. I worked to pry the thing open with a screwdriver but it seemed locked from the inside. Eventually I got frustrated and I turned the wheel again to open the window and pushed my screwdriver into the blue stuff and tried scooping it out. It turned out to be pretty soft. A lot of it broke as I poked it with the screwdriver, and when I turned the wheel upside down, the pieces tumbled out onto my desk. Now I could see how pretty it was. It was like chunks of glowing blue clay and sand. I gathered it up as best I could and put it away, save for the little bit I was going to use tonight.

One of the things I’d read about radiation therapy was that it made the poor people with cancer really skinny. They just totally lost their appetites. I couldn’t believe it was true. I’d always had such a big appetite. I kept telling myself I need to be really careful when I take this stuff because if I get too much of the radiation I could get cancer myself. I took a pinch of the blue clay, put it in my mouth, and swallowed it with a gulp of water. It felt warm going down even though the water was cold. Since I’d gotten home from the recycling place I’d been pretty warm, in fact. Cozy. Like a little puppy under a blanket.

That night I woke up sweating worse than I’d ever sweated in my life. The bed was totally soaked. Gross. Water weight wasn’t really what I wanted to lose, but it was better than nothing. I took a shower and changed the sheets and went back to bed. My stomach ached a little.

When I woke up the next morning, my stomach hurt and I threw up a couple times. But, I wasn’t even remotely hungry. That alone made the pain in my tummy pretty much go away. I didn’t need to eat! Mom asked if I was bringing leftovers to work from last night’s dinner and I lied and said we were going to get a pizza. I hate lying to Mom, but I didn’t want her to worry. There was no need to tell her I wasn’t hungry. At work, they’d finished disassembling the machine and started sending it out to wherever they send those things. I’d been really careful to put the canister back exactly as I left it. No one checked to see if the little wheel was still there.

The next few days were uneventful, aside from my stomach ache getting worse and having to puke once or twice. I’d barely eaten anything since I started taking the radiation medicine. Whenever I got woozy from lack of food I ate an apple or a fat-free yogurt and I was fine. I was still sweating a lot. When I got on the scale, it said 168.

After a week of eating nearly nothing and faithfully taking my radiation medicine nightly, my stomach ache got really, really bad. I’d stopped throwing up, but this time it felt like I needed to go to the bathroom. I went, and it was awful. There was so much – I was shocked. I’d apparently eaten and kept down more than I thought. I got on the scale after, though, and that helped me feel a lot better. 161.

Over the next couple days, one or two people told me how pretty I looked. They asked me if I lost weight and I said yeah, maybe a few pounds. I beamed. Over my whole adolescence I’d done nothing but get bigger. Now, finally, I was shrinking and on the way to teeny-tiny. I didn’t feel too great, though. My tummy was constantly having me run to the bathroom and it still hurt afterwards. I figured I was getting rid of all the extra fat. 158.

I was in the shower about 10 days after I started taking the medicine and I was horrified to see some of my hair coming out. That was bad. Really, really, really bad. I stopped washing it immediately and let just the water rinse away the remainder of the shampoo. I got out of the shower and took like an hour blow drying my hair because I was too scared to use a towel that might pull more out. When the mirror was unfogged and my hair was dry, I checked to see how noticeable it was. There was a good-sized patch of bare, red scalp about 2” wide above my left ear. I pushed the hair around it to cover the patch. Some more fell out. It had to be a nutritional deficiency from all the meals I’d been missing. I put on my Titans hat and got dressed. When I brushed my teeth I noticed a little blood in the sink. I made a note to get some multivitamins after work.

I didn’t shower the next day because when I woke up that morning, there was more hair on my pillow. My scalp was getting pretty visible. It looked prickly and raw but it didn’t hurt. Since I was off work I stayed at home and looked online for all the nutritional deficiencies that might cause my hair to fall out and my gums to bleed. Most of the ones were covered by my multivitamin, so I tripled the amount I took just to be on the safe side. I had to go to the bathroom five times during the 15 hours I was awake. By the last time I was incredibly light-headed and so thirsty. I weighed myself before I started downing water and my radiation medicine. 150. The medicine helped me lose 25 pounds in less than two weeks.

Mom hugged me the next morning before I went to work. She ran her hands up and down my back and she made a remark about how skinny I’d gotten. Then, she said it: “remember when I used to call you my teeny-tiny girl? I miss those days but I love you just as much as a grown up.” Then she let me go. Pain, nausea, and despair washed over me. Without warning, my lightheadedness came back with a vengeance and I stumbled and fell on the kitchen floor. My hat fell off. With my head spinning, I vaguely remember Mom gasping, “Katie what happened to your hair?!” before I violently threw up on the floor and myself. It was all blood. I passed out to the sound of Mom screaming.

I don’t know how much time went by at the hospital. I wasn’t completely unconscious, but all I remember up until recently when they used drugs to wake me up were images of doctors in the same scuba gear as the guys at work and saying meaningless words like “cesium” and “sloughed” and “gray” that didn’t mean the color.

Today, I can’t move or talk and I’m writing this using a cool keyboard that can pick out letters using the movements of my remaining eye. Like I said in the beginning, I’ll be dead soon. I’m not too fun to look at anymore. My hair’s gone. And my lower jaw. And my skin. The nice doctors are giving me medication that helps me manage the pain and keep me alert. They asked if they could do tests and experiments on me to help understand what ingestion of the radiation medicine does to the human body. Apparently there was a Japanese man a few years ago named Hiroshi Ouchi who got a similar level of exposure and the same stuff happened to him. They said it would help other people in the future if they could compare our two cases. Of course I let them.

I can’t eat food anymore. My esophagus got cooked away. Same with my stomach. The doctors are keeping me hydrated with a tube in my butt. I don’t really like to think about it. I guess all the excitement I get as I wait here is when they weigh me every six hours to see if I’m able to retain the fluids they give me or if it all seeps out into the sheets. They hoist me onto a pad and a little machine voice says a number. This morning it said 72. The next time it was 69.

Mom and Dad have to wear those scuba suits when they come visit. Mom’s always crying because she’s not allowed to touch me. Dad just stares. Right before I started writing this, Mom bent down and started whispering to me some of the stuff I remember her saying when I was small. I closed my eye and imagined being warm and safe on her lap. “I love you, my teeny-tiny girl,” she sobbed. I would have smiled if I had a mouth.

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Something horrible is happening to me on Pokemon Go.

pokemon

Pokemon Go is a fun game when you don’t live in an area devastated by industrial contamination and toxic waste. Pokemon Go is a fun game when the Poke Stops aren’t at local landmarks steeped in mercury and lead. Pokemon Go is a fun game when innocent gamers don’t congregate in areas where the grass no longer grows because of carbon tetrachloride and dioxin and radionuclides in the soil.

For the kids in this city – and even for the adults in this city – Pokemon Go should be the kind of game to help them through the hell of their day-to-day lives. It should be a distraction from the omnipresent horror of living in a place that’s no longer on anyone’s map – a place that the outside world thinks is better off forgotten. If only playing it wasn’t killing them.

At the community hospital where I work, we’ve had a substantial increase in the number of patients displaying some effect of being poisoned: skin deterioration, pregnancy complications, respiratory distress, etc. – all consistent with the various environmental pollutants in different parts of town. Nearly all of those admitted have been Pokemon Go players.

Our city council had a meeting with officials from the police and fire departments, hoping figure out a way to keep those dangerous locations off limits to visitors. Lots of ideas were floated, but they all got shot down. The city has no money to erect barriers or police the areas. There’s simply far too many of them.

Signs started to go up. That was the one thing everyone on the council could agree on. The signs explicitly mentioned Pokemon Go and featured the frightening biohazard and radiation warning symbols.

No one was deterred. The poisonings continued.

I’d never played Pokemon in my life. I didn’t know anything about it. As more and more people started to show up at the hospital, though, I got the impression I should get at least a basic grasp on what everyone was obsessed with. So, when I got home, I downloaded the app.

Right away, three of them showed up in my living room. I tapped a turtle-looking one and threw a ball at it. It was mine. Pretty cool, actually. Simple mechanics. There was a radar thing on the bottom right and three pawprints under silhouettes of other Pokemon I hadn’t seen yet. I didn’t have any idea where the things were in relation to me, and it seemed stupid that the radar was so worthless, but as I walked around, I’d eventually run into one. Not one on the radar, mind you, but still one I hadn’t seen before.

I started to understand why people enjoyed the game so much. I found myself wishing the residential areas had more Pokemon to catch. When I zoomed my map all the way out, in the distance, I could see those spinning blue towers – many of which were shooting out pink confetti. From what I’d read online, that’s where all the good Pokemon were.

It’s also where all the industrial contamination was.

When I got to work the next day, I was shocked to find one of those blue towers in the hospital. When I clicked it, the little blurb said it was in the children’s wing. I never go on that side of the building, but I figured “what the hell” and walked over. Once I was in range, I spun the wheel and all this stuff popped out: balls, potions, and even an egg! It said 10km on it. I threw the thing in my incubator, knowing it’d probably hatch at some point on my shift. I do tons of walking.

Halfway through my day of walking up and down the labyrinthine halls, I checked my phone. Less than .4km. God damn it. A familiar alarm sounded and I rushed to the ER. Before I saw what had happened, I could smell it.

A group of teenagers had jumped the fence of the old battery factory. Apparently there are three Poke Stops inside, two of which are overlapping. The third, though, is inaccessible unless you go through the basement. The spot is a memorial for the company founder, and is located in the viewing area above a group of vats. As the factory deteriorated, the catwalk leading to the memorial had fallen. To reach the Poke Stop, the kids had traversed the profoundly toxic basement. They reached the Poke Stop without incident, but then one of them saw something called a Lapras on his radar.

One kid, David, headed in one direction, while his friends went in others. Whoever found the Lapras was going to yell and his friends could come catch it for themselves. It was David who found the Lapras. But it was also David who, in the process of yelling and gesturing to his friends, slipped.

When David slipped, he crashed into an unlabeled, rusty container. His friends saw the whole thing. The container, filled with contents that had corroded it over the years, burst. From the waist down, David was completely covered with a viscous, caustic combination of concentrated acid and various, unknown industrial toxins.

The friends received severe burns on their hands and arms when they hauled David out of the building and into the car. After they pulled the car up to the ER doors, a very kind, but very dumb, samaritan, who’d been nearby, rushed to help. He made the mistake of grabbing David by his foot and ankle. He degloved David’s leg all the way to his crotch. The sloughed skin splashed onto the pavement as the samaritan screamed with horror, and then pain, as steam began to rise from his own hands.

Long, terrible story short: surgeons had to amputate everything below David’s ribcage. The rest of his skin was damaged beyond repair, leaving him covered with an otherworldly patchwork of hard, gray burns. His friends, as well as the dumb samaritan, lost their hands. Two of the ER rooms needed to be closed for 48 hours so they could be decontaminated. Of all the Pokemon Go accidents we’d had in the short time following its release, it was the worst.

One might think the accident would deter other people from going to the industrial zones. Quite the contrary. Once people learned they could catch a Lapras near that factory, despite warnings and promises to arrest trespassers, trainers swarmed. They knew no one would be there to arrest them. Cops had better things to do.

Two days later, we had a handful of patients with burned lungs, a few with debilitating fatigue, and two pregnancy complications, both of which ended in miscarriages. The remains of the fetuses were indescribably deformed. How such deformities could occur in such a short period of time was beyond anyone’s guess.

I needed to take my mind off everything I’d seen, so what did I do? I played Pokemon Go. I used the Poke Stop at the hospital frequently. Whenever I had a spare moment, I’d go into the parking lot and catch pidgeys and ratattas. I yearned for the bigger, better Pokemon that I knew could be obtained from the old factories. I even drove up to the fence outside one and saw something huge on my radar, but I was too afraid for my own safety to get out and investigate. In the brief period I was sitting in my car out front, I watched six people hop the fence and run into the factory. I admit, I felt a little jealous. I forced myself to get over it.

Last night started like all the other nights since the game had been released, but turned into a tragedy felt hospital-wide. Lenisha Davis, who’d undergone successful fertility treatments a few months prior, was expecting sextuplets – a first for our hospital. She was in excellent health and only a month away from her due date. She’d never played a second of Pokemon in her life, but her husband and son had. Lenisha never knew they’d frequented an abandoned factory that once made herbicides. Over the few days they’d gone and come back, Lenisha was walking barefoot on the toxins they’d tracked into the house.

The pain and bleeding that caused her to come to the hospital ended the same way as it had for the other pregnant women exposed to the toxins. The deformities of her miscarried sextuplets were hideous. Their complexions were albino and their limbs were gone. All that remained were round, hard blobs containing lidless, glaring eyes and fully-toothed, gaping mouths. Lenisha had to be sedated. She wouldn’t stop screaming.

The image of the sextuplets stuck with me. I was scheduled for an overnight shift, and there was a free bunk where I could’ve slept, but that was out of the question. I wandered the halls aimlessly, watching for Pokemon, and gathering supplies whenever I passed the Poke Stop.

Around 3 this morning, I saw a shape on my radar. It was a big one, and I think it was nearby. Two other, smaller ones, were also showing up. I speed-walked in all directions until I finally saw them appear on my map. I felt pretty lucky to have them all come at once. Seven balls later, I’d captured all three. A horsea, a kakuna, and the big one was an exeggcute.

I looked around. I’d walked without paying attention to my location in the hospital. When I realized where I’d gone, I shuddered. It was where abnormal specimens were dissected and tested. Dr. Ahad was working on one of the deformed miscarriages from the day before. To his side, about to go into the refrigeration unit, was a large biohazard bag containing Lenisha’s sextuplets.

Sorrow suffused through me as the scenario played out again in my head. As I stared, a feeling I can’t explain pricked the hair on the back of my neck. My phone vibrated in my pocket. There was a Pokemon nearby. I checked the radar. It was the silhouette of a big round thing with two arms. I remember seeing that online when I was learning about the game. A geodude.

I did my best to shake off my misery as I trawled the halls until the geodude showed up. I caught it, had a little moment of excitement from adding another entry to my Pokedex, then returned to my weariness and sorrow. I checked where I was. I was right in front of David’s room. He was on a ventilator and he was covered in bandages. Fluid kept seeping through his gray, cracked skin. A nurse was getting ready to change his gauze. I felt such sympathy for the kid. My eyes blurred with tears.

While my eyes welled up, I stared at the shape of David on the bed. Gray, with a round, hipless torso and two long arms. My breath caught in my throat. Before I knew it, I was running back to where Dr. Ahad had been working. The room was dark. He’d gone home for the night.

I scanned my keycard and let myself in. I opened the refrigeration units and removed the two bags of the miscarriages from the days before. One was shaped like a seahorse. Another looked like a cocoon. I thought back to the three I’d caught right outside the room.

My hands shook as I opened the larger cold box housing the remains of Lenisha’s sextuplets. The inside of the bag was coated with grayish-red slime and I couldn’t see the contents. I put on gloves and made the sign of the cross. As tears ran down my face, I took out each horrifically-deformed fetus and arranged them on sample trays. My weeping turned to wracking sobs as I examined their features. Pink. Limbless. Wide eyed.

Egg shaped.

Six in a row.

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