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.
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 am a nurse at the elementary school where my daughter, Allison, was a student. The route to school would take us over a wide river which bisects the town. By necessity, we must use one of two bridges. The main bridge is part of the highway, while the other is a smaller, narrower one for local traffic. We used to take the highway, but constant construction had narrowed the lanes by quite a bit which resulted in awful backups. The timetable for completion was another couple years, so we were stuck taking the local one until that whole mess got taken care of.
Allison was terrified of that bridge. The guardrails are quite low; maybe three feet. Also, there’s no physical divider between the inbound and outbound lanes. Years ago, there was a terrible accident involving a drunk driver who crossed into the other lane, struck another vehicle, and sent them both careening into the river below. Five people died – one of whom was May Dougherty – Allie’s best friend.
There was a bit of an uproar when the bridge was repaired and no new safety measures were implemented. The cost for upgrades, we were told, was simply too high for the town to bear. We were assured the bridge was safe and the accident, while tragic, didn’t indicate an inherent problem with that particular crossing. Basically, we were told to suck it up and take the highway if we didn’t like it.
Following the death of May, Allie changed. Her bubbly, outgoing attitude became sullen and brooding. We did everything we could to help her cope with the devastating loss, but little was accomplished. Her therapist said it would take time. We’d have to be patient and allow Allie to grieve on her own terms. Even Allie’s habit of talking to May over the course of the day was to be seen as a coping mechanism; a child’s way of saying goodbye.
Allie resumed school soon after her May’s funeral, and that was when the trouble started. To drive over that bridge with Allie in the car was to learn what it is like to be a torturer. My heart would break as she sobbed and pleaded with me not to take the bridge. If we were stopped at the light before the crossing, she’d fumble with the door handle and try to get out, only to be stopped by the safety locks. Each day she’d arrive at school a red-eyed, dishevelled mess. No one, especially an innocent and kind nine-year old, should have to start their days like that.
My indignation and dismay didn’t change anything. Those rides to school were some of the worst moments of my life. Allie would sob in the backseat and call out to May, begging her to come back and keep the bridge safe for us and everyone else. When we’d reach the other side, Allie would weep and mumble to May about what was going on at school and how everyone else in their class missed her. The only saving grace was that we could take the highway bridge on the way home; traffic was usually light at that time. I couldn’t imagine having to subject Allie to the local bridge more than once a day. I doubt she’d ever get anything done at school if she had that to look forward to when she left.
On March 12th, 2014, Allie came to the breakfast table with a smile on her face. I almost dropped my coffee mug when I saw her; it was as if the daughter I’d lost had finally come home. She was chipper and talkative. She mentioned a spelling test her class was going to have and how her teacher promised a cupcake to the student with the highest grade. Her friend, Christina, was the best speller in the class and Allie was so excited for her to win the cupcake.
Allie talked and talked while she ate her eggs and I got ready for work. I could scarcely believe the improvement she was exhibiting. We finished up our morning routines and got in the car. Allie always insisted on sitting in the back after May’s accident, but that day she got up front with me. We pulled out of the driveway and headed for the school.
There were no signs of concern on Allie’s face as we got closer to the bridge. She chatted with me most of the time, but began informing May about the spelling test/cupcake event that she’d told me earlier. May had also been close with Christina, so apparently it was very important that Allie fill her in on their friend’s impending good fortune.
We stopped at the light at the intersection ahead of the bridge. The light turned green and I drove forward, waiting for Allie to realize where we were and start crying. The opposite happened. She began to giggle – the gleeful, musical sound I’d missed so much. As she laughed, she talked to May.
“May, look how blue the water is! I’m so glad it’s almost Spring and it feels a lot warmer now, doesn’t it? I bet the water’s still cold though. Is it cold? Does it bother you?”
I glanced over at Allie and saw her staring at the water on the other side of the guardrail. She kept talking.
“I don’t mind the cold too much as long as there’s no ice but I don’t see any ice. There’s no ice right?”
“No, there’s no ice.”
The reply came from the backseat. I whipped my head around and saw a figure in the seat behind Allie. It was gray and dripping, with a hideous indentation in its skull and a Y-incision in its chest. Green-blonde hair cascaded over its bruised, bony shoulders. May.
I gasped and turned back toward the road only to see a car stopped dead in front of me. I slammed on the brakes and swerved. Our car hit the guardrail and the vehicle in front of us, pushing the front of our car up onto the rail. Allie was still smiling, apparently unhurt, and whatever I’d seen in the back seat was gone. I reached out for Allie to make sure she was okay, but an impossibly powerful jolt slammed through the car as another vehicle hit us from behind at full speed.
The jarring sensation of the collision was replaced by a sickening, slow lurch as our position shifted from being half on the guardrail, half on the low sports car that’d been in front of us, to a gradual, helpless topple over the rail into a freefall. I couldn’t scream. I saw the water below rushing toward the windshield in a surreal, sunlit haze, and the moment before we hit the river, I glanced sideways at Allie.
Her eyes were closed and a smile was etched across her face. Nothing but the impossibility of the situation registered with me, so when I saw a gray hand reaching from the backseat and unlocking my daughter’s seat belt, I felt little more than acknowledgement.
Then we impacted. I felt my collar bone splinter behind my seat belt. Pain and shock blinked white in my vision and the breath was torn from my lungs. The car righted itself in the water and began to sink.
Allie was embedded up to her neck in the windshield and was dangling over the dashboard and the useless, flaccid airbag. A pile of skin and hair had been pushed down to her shoulders and the water rushing in around her was tinged with red. I have no words for what I felt upon seeing her like that.
I struggled to get out of the sinking car but knew I’d have to wait for it to fill before I could open the door. I wasn’t strong enough to break the window and my shattered collarbone made it impossible to try. We sank.
The car hit the river bottom right when it had filled enough to let me open the door. I gulped in the last bit of air, unlocked my seat belt, and swam out and around to Allie’s side. The devastation to her face and head, despite being blurred by the water, still haunts me to this day. When I reached her side and tried opening the locked door, I knew there was no way I could go back around, unlock it, and try to extricate her. My lungs burned. I felt hot tears leaking out of my eyes and I began to swim up, knowing if I didn’t move fast I’d succumb to hypothermia and die with my daughter. Part of me wished I had the courage to do so.
As I swam, I stared down at the wreck. Then I saw something that made me stop kicking. Another person was standing next to the car. I could see greenish-blonde hair floating in a cloud around her gray head. It was May. She wrenched open the door and with one powerful pull, removed Allie from the windshield. Blood bloomed from her head like the spores of a decapitated mushroom.
The girls looked up. My vision blurred and my feet automatically started kicking again as my body fought to bring me to the surface. I kept watching. My head breached a moment later, but not before I saw the something; something I’ve told my husband, my doctors, my minister, and everyone else who might listen: May and Allie joined hands and began to walk across the muddy bottom of the river in the direction of the lake it fed into. While they walked, Allie turned around to face me, and with her skull grinning, waved goodbye.
There’s a reason we don’t know about the things sharing the same space we do. The most obvious one is we can’t see them. Nor can we hear, smell, touch, or taste them. But they exist. They float in and through us; in and through each other. Space, to them, is an infinite series of fields in what we’d consider single positions. If it sounds like nonsense, then you’re showing you can think. You’re showing you have an epistemology based in logic and reason. The problem for us, a group of great thinkers by anyone’s standards, was it meant we were utterly unprepared.
I worked at the Sandia National Laboratories on a project called the Z-Machine. We made the news back in 2006 when we were able to produce the highest temperature ever detected, at around 6.6 billion degrees Fahrenheit. Since then, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland has produced a higher temperature and gleaned loads more information than we were able to. That didn’t mean we decommissioned our Z-Machine and terminated the associated research. Far from it.
After 2006, we began to implement a series of upgrades to our power and containment infrastructure. The goal was to leapfrog the LHC temperature record and reach one quadrillion degrees Fahrenheit; a number nearly every scientist on the team believed would be unattainable for at least another 50 years. New computational models combined with advances in materials science and capacitor discharge timing, however, caused them to reconsider their doubts. Under a cover of secrecy, we continued our upgrades – and in late August of 2016, we were ready to test.
I should give a little background before continuing. In the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you a little something about myself: I was born blind. I endured my share of hardships, which, when compared to some less-privileged children, were paltry, but still unpleasant. Despite my disability, my love of learning was obvious. It became clear fairly early in my life that I was unusually good at mathematics, and thanks to the resources of my parents and a few generous people in my school, I was allowed to continually test and hone my mathematical abilities over the course of my educational career. I ended up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and, eventually, at the Sandia National Laboratories. Whether or not this will help lend credence to my story is entirely up to the reader, but I think it is important to include.
Now, at the end of this past August, the days leading up to the test were fraught with difficulty. Small parts were breaking down, simple things that’d worked perfectly for the last test were failing in the models, and our capacitor banks kept refusing to synchronize. Some of us were reminded of the hardships prior to the first test of the LHC, when conspiracy theorists were claiming visitors from the future were sabotaging the components to prevent a catastrophe from occurring when the machine was activated.
Thankfully for our project and the stress levels of the engineers and physicists I worked with, the problems were ironed out. On August 29th, Dr. Wang Lin and Dr. Alasdair Greenberg were alongside me in the control room as countless people in all branches of the military and scientific establishment watched remotely.
We’d begun charging the capacitors a few hours prior to the test. Our onsite nuclear plant was chugging along and providing the power we needed, despite redlining once or twice as the capacitors absorbed every electron they were fed. I felt out the various readouts on my braille terminal and listened for any audio cues that were programmed to indicate any anomalies. There were none. We were ready to test.
At 11:10am, we started the countdown. The smell of ozone from all the nearby electricity was pervasive and mildly intoxicating. Dr. Lin’s voice was steady and tinged with controlled excitement as he read the last numbers: 4…3…2…1.
I heard a loud, clapping sound as the power was shunted from the capacitors into Marx generators, followed by a pop as the generators fed the Z-Machine. The test was over. All we needed to do was wait for the flood of data.
Before any data could pour in, though, I heard some commotion behind me. Drs. Lin and Greenberg were talking, but not to one another nor anyone observing remotely. It was as if they were talking to themselves, under their breath, but not in words I could understand. Then Dr. Lin said, “hello there,” as if speaking to a cat or other small animal. Similarly, Dr. Greenberg muttered, “what in the world are you, little guy?”
I asked them who they were talking to, but they wouldn’t reply. I felt some pressure in my chest and against my skin that reminded me of blankets rich with static electricity were being pressed and rubbed all over me.
“What are all these things?,” asked Dr. Greenberg. Someone viewing remotely asked him to clarify; they weren’t seeing anything on the monitors.
“Jerry,” said Dr. Lin, speaking to me, “do you feel them?”
“Feel who?,” I asked. “Feel what?”
“They’re all over us,” Dr. Greenberg told me. “Floating in and out and around like little squid or jellyfish.”
“What the hell is that?,” Dr. Lin asked.
“Jesus, what is…,” started Dr. Greenberg.
The two doctors gasped and shouted. I felt them pushing up against the control panel next to me, which was the furthest spot from the observation deck overlooking the Z-Machine.
“Guys, what’s going on?” I felt moderate fear starting to nibble at my spine, growing in severity as the doctors refused to answer me and only kept gasping and shouting.
I clicked my headset over to the observation channel and tried to get one of the remote parties to fill me in on what was happening. They were equally in the dark and wanted me to tell them what was wrong with the doctors. Other members of the labs were banging on the door of our control room, trying to get it open. It was locked.
“It’s huge…,” choked out Dr. Greenberg.
“Why is it here?,” whispered Dr. Lin. He was sobbing.
“I can’t look at it anymore,” Dr. Greenberg announced, matter-of-factly.
I heard something metallic, then the sound of Dr. Greenberg screaming. “I can feel it in my head – I can taste it – it’s in every part of me.”
Dr. Lin called out, “let me help you.” There were wet noises mixed in with the pounding on the door and the commotion on the radio as the remote observers saw what the doctors were doing in the control room.
All I could focus on was the feeling of static and pressure on my skin. It was suffocating and terrible, like those blankets were sliding in and out of my lungs and mouth and leaving little arcs of electricity with every move.
I heard the door slam open and the feeling dissipated. I sat slumped in my chair, trying to catch my breath, as security and other scientists rushed into the control room.
“What the f**k is going on?,” I yelled, and felt someone pushing me and my chair out of the room, down the long hallway, and into another lab.
And that was it.
I was sedated against my will and woke up in the hospital three days later. I was forced to sign documents making me promise, under penalty of treason, that I wouldn’t divulge what happened during that test. But I didn’t know what happened. I still don’t. Regardless, I need to tell you that something happened. Something monstrous.
As I waited in the hospital, a friend of mine from the labs, Dr. Marie Lenzetti, sat with me and said what happened to Drs. Lin and Greenberg. Both were dead. Dr. Lin had killed Dr. Greenberg and inflicted terrible injuries on himself. But Dr. Lin spoke to the other scientists before he died. He told them what it was he saw; what he saw, then as a consequence heard and felt and heard and smelled and tasted. It was something entirely beyond his comprehension; something entirely beyond anything he could have dreamt.
The doctors got a glimpse of what occupied the space we thought was our own. The Z-Machine experiment created conditions that allowed them to see how wrong we were. That moment, he said, lasted an eternity. As soon as its shape registered in his eyes, he experienced it in all his senses. Every sense was dominated. Cutting away Dr. Greenberg’s eyes, tongue, nose, ears, and as much skin as possible was the only act of mercy and relief he could give his friend. And when he was done, he tried to do the same to himself, only to be stopped before he could excise his own tongue and skin. He died of a massive stroke an hour later.
I’m writing this to let you know there are things outside the realm of our senses which pervade everything we do. Everything we are. Things that can prove, and in fact have now proven, that we are not the dominant actors in the space we occupy. The Z-Machine experiment last month showed my friends the atrocious nature of true reality: something too hideous for our senses to endure. I will never consider my blindness to be anything other than a gift for as long as I continue to live.
Our observatory received word about a meteorological anomaly in Himachal Pradesh, India. While our satellites didn’t pick up anything out of the ordinary, the frequency and diversity of the reports suggested something was, indeed, amiss. Further, the crowdsourced pictures and video of the area, all taken and sent by cellular phones, were all corrupted beyond recognition. Whatever it was these people were seeing, you had to be there to get a glimpse.
As I was stationed on a military base in Afghanistan and about three hours away by jet, I was chosen to investigate. One quick flight to a local airport and a short helicopter ride later, I was on the ground at the site of the anomaly.
The meteorological disturbance was gone. The sky was clear and the late afternoon sun cast a warm orange glow on the orchards and farms at the foot of the mountains. That glow was the only warmth to be found.
The locals who’d seen the anomaly were uncharacteristically quiet. I’d heard from folks familiar with the area that the people here were normally gregarious and outgoing. These people were the opposite. They were taciturn and skittish. Moreover, they were unwilling to discuss what they’d seen that morning. They spoke about the incident as if it’d been a trauma; more often than not, their eyes teared up when my translator mentioned it.
I did my best to glean any bits of information that I could, but my success rate was low. The most I was able to learn came from a little girl, who, in the course of recalling the incident, burst into tears as she mentioned a face in the clouds. She would give us no more information after that.
The translator and I decided to call it a night and checked into our hotel. It was small but pleasant enough; the meal that was included was sumptuous, albeit a bit spicier than I’d been expecting. As we ate, it was hard not to notice the quietness of the dining room. Despite all eight tables being filled with diners, few words were spoken. Many tears, however, were shed. It felt like a great tragedy had occurred, yet no one was willing to admit what, exactly, had happened.
At my suggestion, the translator was able to eavesdrop on a few commonalities in the brief, quiet conversations going on around us. They all talked about having intense discomfort with having to wait for so long. There were nods of resignation and more tears. Still unable to put anything into a coherent, let alone meteorological, context, we decided it would be best to retire to our room and try again the next day.
Our sleep was taken from us in the early hours of this morning. It was still dark, but there was a buzz of activity in the streets. We left our room and went outside. We recognized people from dinner and from the businesses we’d stopped in the previous day. In the glow of the streetlights, I could see their faces were all wet with tears. They wept and moaned and the translator, with some alarm in his voice, told me they were conducting a slow, disorganized countdown. They had just reached ten seconds.
I stared at the translator for a moment, trying to put it all together, but there just wasn’t enough. Nothing made sense. Then, as the first sliver of sunlight crested the mountains, the screaming started. Women, children, and men, in unison, shrieked with sorrow and pain and desperation and clasped their hands to their eyes. My panic, already growing in my chest, began to bloom as blood trickled down their screaming faces.
As more sunlight filled the street, the intensity of the hideous wailing grew. When it reached a point when voices were beginning to give out and people were falling to their knees, a cloud passed in front of the sun. Every scream was silenced. Faces drenched with tears and blood began to smile. Hands were lowered to sides. Now it was I who shouted. Their eyes were destroyed. It looked as if they had burst. From what, I had no idea.
The translator, who’d been looking at the sky, gasped. I started to turn my gaze in the direction he was looking, but he grabbed my head with great force and pushed it down toward the ground and the faces of the terribly-disfigured people who still smiled with their faces turned skyward.
“Don’t!,” he shouted. He inhaled a lungful of air and exclaimed, “Now I know what they saw!”
The panic and concern in his voice was combined with something else. Something far more disturbing. It was ecstasy.
“Oh my God,” he cried, over and over and over, still holding my head in a vicegrip to prevent me from looking up. I’d lost my desire to do so. In fact, something else had claimed my attention. The gaping holes in the faces of the townsfolk had started projecting strings. Fleshy, red filaments slinked down their faces, but then perked upward and became erect. More and more length poured out and stretched outward and up. I couldn’t see where, but I had a feeling.
“They’re getting to touch him,” whispered the translator. “He is letting them inside.” His voice cracked and his next words were punctuated by sobs. “They’re tasting him with their eyes.”
I scanned the faces of the people in front of me. Their smiles were rapturous and the thin tendrils pulsed and quivered and gently pulled their heads forward.
The sky brightened. All at once, the ropes fell from the sky. They draped over me and the translator and the townsfolk fell on their faces into the street. The sun broke through the clouds. None of the fallen people moved.
The translator released my head and I spun around and looked into the cloudless sky. I directed my gaze down and saw what had to be miles of red, meaty tendrils stretched across the roads and rooftops all the way to the mountain. Finally, I looked at the translator. He was weeping. I asked him to tell me what he saw.
“The face in the clouds,” he told me. “The face that lets eyes taste him.”
He wept for a minute without interruption before speaking up. “There is so much more I wanted to see with my old eyes. So many more sights. But my new eyes will allow to taste so much more than I’ve ever been able to see. All I have to do is wait.”
Flies began to investigate the bodies in the dirt, landing on the gaping eye sockets and extruded filaments. My thoughts wandered to what I should do next. The translator sobbed next to me and began counting down from 85,000. The number of seconds until the next sunrise, I realized. More and more flies descended on the corpses and tasted the townsfolk with their feet. As the translator counted down with breathless anticipation, my fear grew into something monstrous and unexpected: curiosity.
I used the dremel saw I stole from work to cut off the first knuckle of my left pinky. The bosses had to know I took the thing but I doubt they even cared. What’s a $100 tool to a company that’s worth millions? Besides, they were getting rid of me, and that’s what their priority was. Maybe they’ll take it out of the last check they said they’d mail.
Despite what I thought, it wasn’t easy to pull the bone out of the finger chunk. So, I peeled off the nail and then cut the remainder of the piece open with the dremel and took the bone out the messy way. I didn’t think much as I popped the fingertip in my mouth and chewed for what felt like an hour before the meat broke down enough for me to comfortably swallow. I tried to figure out how many calories were in the finger segment while also working to determine how my caloric needs have changed now that my body mass had decreased by that little bit. I don’t know why I wasted so many years cutting when I could’ve done the smart thing by cutting off.
My adrenaline was off the chart for the rest of the day and I could barely sleep. I was brimming with excitement; I’d actually found a way to beat the system. Why do we need food when we are food? This elation was crushed when I stepped on the scale the following morning and saw the familiar, disgusting number: 82 pounds. I punched myself and clawed at my face as I stared at the scarred, bloated atrocity that smirked at me in the mirror. Much too much of me. Far too much.
I bent the remainder of my left pinky backward and twisted. The mirror-me kept smiling. I twisted and twisted the finger until it was connected to my hand by a tiny, tight rope of skin before pulling the broken digit completely off. I walked into the kitchen and turned on the stove’s electric burner and pressed the stump onto the coils. No more bleeding. Back in the bathroom, I took an antibiotic and an Oxy I had left over from my back surgery last year. I didn’t want to get too sick to continue or be in too much pain and lose my nerve. I gazed in the mirror while I chewed the cooling flesh off the bone.
Did you know it’s surprisingly easy to find someone on Craigslist who will perform surgery for the promise of cash? We met in my garage. He inspected the place for cameras, closed the garage door, and slammed the hatchet into my left wrist. I fingered my collarbones and traced the craggy topography of my ribcage as he swore, realizing he’d only broken the bones without severing my hand. All the while I’d retreated into my head, watching the scene unfold from above. I felt the thud as the blade hit me and the dull popping as he carved away. The Oxy did a really good job masking most of the pain. To be honest, I was a little disappointed.
My Craigslist surgeon looked mildly haunted by what he’d done, so as soon as he seared the wound shut with the torch, he ran out. He’d be back soon enough, though. I sat in the garage and stared at the stump where my hand used to be. It smelled like the time mom burned pork chops and almost set the kitchen on fire. My severed hand sat on the table like a flaccid relative of Thing from The Addams Family. Picking it up, I was a little surprised by how heavy it felt. You never really think about the individual parts of your body having weight. Still, I was encouraged. This was an immediate loss of at least a pound or two.
I gnawed at the sinewy knuckle areas and fought through a dizzy spell. Orange juice helped get my head to stop spinning. Whether it was blood loss or excitement didn’t matter much. Things were finally going in the right direction.
A week later, I contacted my Craigslist surgeon again. I didn’t have any more cash, but he agreed to do what I wanted in exchange for a couple of the Oxy pills. I had at least 20 more in one bottle and an unopened bottle of 30 stashed in my bedroom, so he’d be happy for a while. Besides, we were almost done. I was almost done.
My surgeon said the next part would probably kill me. I agreed. He got to work. The pills didn’t do much to dull the pain this time. The feeling of a saw going through a femur right near the hipbone is a hard thing to describe. Even harder is the sensation one experiences the moment one’s femoral artery is severed. It’s like the world starts melting and going gray at the same time. Luckily, my surgeon had the torch ready and seared the gushing artery shut before finishing the amputation. When dropped the saw, the first thing I did was try to wiggle my toes. It felt like I was wiggling them just fine. Strange. I threw down another few antibiotics and painkillers.
Before the surgeon left, I demanded that he help me to the bathroom scale. It was hard to balance on one leg and get a proper reading on the scale, but when it finally registered, I was triumphant. 68lbs. The dizziness came back quickly and I yelled to the surgeon who was about to leave. We were going to finish this. It didn’t take long for him to agree to take off my other leg in exchange for more pills. Cut cut, burn burn. He carried me back to the scale where I teetered on my lopsided stumps. 59lbs. Then he brought me to my bed.
So here I am. My right arm works fine; I don’t think I want to get rid of that. It’s probably the only part of me I find useful these days. I figure I have another couple weeks of antibiotics left. They’re next to me under the pillow. I tucked my severed legs under the comforter. Over the next few days, I’ll nip at them whenever I’m hungry. My guess is the hunger pains will become less intense once my body realizes it doesn’t have as much to fuel. Until then, I’ll just keep taking little bites. Minimal intake, just like I’m used to. Just like what keeps me comfortably in control.
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.
Growing up, whenever my brother would get hurt, I’d blame it on my fairy friends. My parents never believed me and I’d get punished. It didn’t help that my brother said I was the one who pushed him or punched him or scratched him. No matter how much I protested, at the end of it all, I was the one who got in trouble. So, at a young age, I learned I was the only one who could see the fairies.
For some time, it was a mixed blessing. Having friends only I could see meant there wasn’t anyone who could tell them to leave me alone or that they had to go home because I needed to go to bed. It was nice to never feel lonely. The issue, unfortunately, was that the fairies were mischievous. They’d rarely listen when I told them to stop doing something. They would just laugh and flit about and continue with their fun.
Most of the time it was harmless, albeit obnoxious. They’d flutter their little wings under someone’s nose and make them sneeze or they’d knock someone’s elbow against a glass and spill their drink all over the table. That kind of thing. On occasion, however, their activities were more serious – especially when it came to my older brother.
The fairies didn’t like how Todd would talk to me. I didn’t think much of it; I was the younger sister and he was my bratty teenage brother. I just thought that’s how the world worked. The fairies begged to differ. And they wanted to make it known. That’s why they’d scratch and hit him. It went on for years as his treatment of me got worse and worse.
On a Saturday morning when I was in bed being lazy and listening to the rain fall outside, I heard a muffled scream from Todd’s room on the other side of the wall. The scream was followed by retching and gagging and Todd streaked past my doorway and into the bathroom where he vomited loudly and often. My parents noticed the commotion and came to his aid. Mom’s shout was loud enough to cut through the sound of Todd’s puking and Dad swore. That scared me. He never did that.
I stood in the doorway while the fairies giggled and floated in an iridescent orbit around my head. I knew whatever they’d done to my brother had to be worse than things they’d done in the past. My father father stormed from the bathroom and entered Todd’s room. He came back a second later with his fist full of something. He stood in front of me, eyes glazed with rage and disgust.
“What the hell is wrong with you?,” he hissed, and opened his hand.
I shrieked with surprise and disgust when I saw what he held. It was the body of a small bird, a sparrow, maybe, that was cut up and bleeding. Dislodged feathers stuck to the blood and greasy white discharge oozing from its truncated rear half.
“Do you have any idea how sick your brother can get from this?,” Dad asked. Behind his rage was a tone of deep concern and even fear. His fear only amplified my own.
“I…I didn’t,” I stammered, and my eyes darted back and forth as I followed the hysterically-laughing fairies as they swept back and forth across the carnage in my father’s palm.
“Stay here,” Dad ordered.
“But…,” I tried to interject, but he grabbed my shoulder hard with his free hand and held me against the doorframe. The din of giggles stopped. I heard them whispering amongst themselves.
Dad leaned down and pushed his forehead against mine. When he spoke, his words were clear and smelled like the coffee he’d been drinking.
“You are not to say another word. You are not to leave this room. I am taking your brother to the doctor, and if your mother tells me you’ve said anything or set foot outside, I promise you will regret it.”
He squeezed my shoulder harder and I winced and tried to fight back tears. He stared at me for a full ten seconds without saying anything, then he let me go.
Dad turned the corner to head downstairs and I saw what was coming but was too afraid to speak up. As he started down, I saw the fairies hurl themselves against the bottom of his foot before it had made contact with the first step. His foot landed awkwardly and his ankle twisted, sending him face first onto the uncarpeted wooden steps. The sound of his face impacting with the stairs seemed louder than anything I’d ever heard.
Mom called from the bathroom where she was still attending to Todd. Dad didn’t answer. I peeked around the corner. He was on his belly at the bottom of the stairs. He was moaning and weakly flailing his arms against the hardwood. His legs were still on the steps, but they didn’t move at all.
Mom came out and down the hall, glaring at me before turning the corner and seeing her husband. She gasped and rushed to his aid. Not wanting to make them any angrier than they already were, I turned back into my room. I winced when I put pressure on my right ankle and limped back to bed, where I sat and stared at the fairies.
They were laughing again. They flew like a shimmering, animated constellation around the room, weaving in and out of closets and drawers and galoshes. My ankle throbbed. The fairies formed a line in the air and held the formation for a moment, then they made a beeline for the dusty corner behind my dresser. They burst into peals of uproarious laughter and blinked out of view.
As the faint sound of sirens in the distance entered my ears, I gingerly walked to where the fairies had gone. I noticed a tiny feather. And then another. And another. When I reached the dresser and peered behind it, there was a clump of feathers and some blood right next to a small knife from our kitchen. I felt a pang of confused, disconnected recognition, but was shocked back to my senses by a fresh wave of pain from my foot and ankle.
I sat on the floor with my back against the dresser. I pulled up the leg of my pajama pants and examined my ankle. It was swollen and red. The top of my foot hurt, too, and I drew my knee to my chest so I could get a closer look. Again, I felt confused and out of place. The sirens were loud and close but I wasn’t paying attention to them anymore.
I looked around for my fairy friends, but they were nowhere to be seen. For the first time, when I desperately needed to ask them a question, they were gone. My confusion grew teeth and fear pricked the skin of my back and neck. My ankle hurt, but that wasn’t what was scaring me. It was my foot. Because even though I watched the fairies trip my dad, for some reason, the imprint of his work boot was etched in the skin of my foot – and my heel was stippled with tiny handprints.