Parasite

For some reason I got fixated on writing a parasite story. I actually wrote it three times before this one, but I couldn’t get the damn thing right. I’m not sure I got this one right either, but its the best I could do. Enjoy!

Parasite

Ben Pienaar

 

Here was Roger’s last diet: a white foetus suspended inside a bottle of golden brown liquid. It looked like a foetus, anyway, but it was too small for him to make out distinct features, even when Wei Leung shook the bottle to make it float nearer the glass. Roger saw a bulbous head too large for the shrivelled body, around which was coiled a thin tail. He took the bottle and unscrewed the top. The liquid smelled like a mixture of disinfectant and cheap whiskey.

‘God, what is it?’ he said.

Wei Leung nodded vigorously. ‘Yes, yes. Parasite. I tell you straight out. Sell like crazy on black market in Hong Kong. Not pass yet by Health Department, but it work fine. No complaints.’ He smiled, exposing all nine of his brown teeth. Roger could almost smell his garbage breath.

‘It doesn’t smell healthy.’

‘No, not healthy. Weight loss. Parasite.’

Roger shifted in his seat and then stopped when he heard an ominous creak. The whole place buckled and groaned with his every movement. He wouldn’t be surprised if the next storm reduced it to kindling. Then again, the market bustling outside had been standing for a long time, and all the buildings were made like this. The sounds of enthusiastic bartering and off tune flutes carried through a smudged window. Rather than discourage him, the atmosphere gave everything the impression of authenticity, the same way a fortune teller with a foreign accent, long coloured robes and a crystal ball was apt to do better business.

Wei read doubt on Roger’s face and spoke into the silence. ‘Very short life span. It take your foods and when it get too big for you it come out.’

‘It… comes out?’

Wei twirled the end of the long silver ponytail that hung over one shoulder. ‘It come out when you go to toilet. In nature, it lie there until another animal come, next phase of development, you know? But you can flush it down toilet.’

‘Huh. And that doesn’t hurt or anything?’

‘No, no, no! Very easy. My friend have one for three month. No problem. Usually they out of system much less than that.’

‘And how much weight could I lose?’

Wei shrugged, leaning back on his own creaky chair until only the back two legs touched the ground, hands behind his head. ‘Depend on how fat you are to start with. You? You lose twenty, thirty kilograms, easy.’

‘Thirty?’

‘You want to lose more after that, you come back for another one.’ He grinned. ‘Satisfied customer always come back. I still be here, don’t worry.’

Roger set the bottle down on the rickety table and eyed the foetus as it floated to the bottom of the bottle. It was only about the size of a fifty cent coin – barely a mouthful. He rested his hands on his enormous belly and thought of all the trouble his fat had given him over the years: the daggers in his knees, the endless sweat, the slipped discs, the high blood pressure. Lose the weight and ninety percent of your health problems will disappear, Dr. Fillion had told him over the rims of his reading glasses. I don’t care how you do it, Roger, but it has to be done.

So he nodded, and Wei Leung smiled wider than ever and came forward again, clapping his hands as all four chair legs hit the floorboards, threatening to bring the whole place down. ‘Okay, very good, very good. You drink all liquid too, okay? Protect parasite against stomach acid in early stages.’ He rubbed his belly to emphasise the point.

Roger nodded again, though he didn’t like to think of that sickly white thing floating in his stomach. He would drink it and then put it out of his mind and hope for the best. The less he thought about it, the better. ‘Okay. How much?’

‘Six hundred dollar. But you don’t like? I give you a refund.’

‘A refund?’

Wei gestured to a bookshelf behind him, on which two full shelves were occupied solely by bottles containing the parasite. ‘See those?’ he said. ‘They for return customers.’

‘Huh. Well, alright. It’s a deal, uh, Mr. Leung.’ He leaned across the table, wincing at the strain on his back, and shook Wei’s hand. When he settled back into his chair and began searching for his wallet in his jacket pocket, he asked if there was anything else he should know.

Wei gave him another of his toothy grins, sliding the bottle across to Roger’s side of the table. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Don’t chew. Ha ha ha!’

 

*

 

With every movement, into the car, out of the car, down a hot driveway to his unit, Roger grew more certain that he’d made the right decision. He imagined a version of himself (maybe only two months away – imagine that!) who didn’t have to lug thirty extra kilos everywhere he went. He’d wake up early and go jogging before work. He’d eat one more healthy meal a week, so that he wouldn’t have to rely on Wei’s parasites the rest of his life. Yes, it all started now!

He eased himself into a chair at his kitchen table and set the bottle down in front of him. He looked from the skeletal foetus (were those black dots in its head eyes?) to his kitchen counter, which was hardly visible beneath three family sized pizza boxes, a case of empty beer bottles, and a bucket of discarded KFC chicken bones. His whole place was full of this kind of trash, as was his fridge and his car, but now, on the point of change, it was as though he were seeing it all for the first time. How can someone live like this?

Less than twenty four hours ago, he’d been on his tenth beer of the night and second burger, when a motivational speaker had come on television, a slick square jawed suit with the build of a rugby player and the smile of an A list actor, Toby Grange. Last time Roger had been so inspired by one of these guys, he’d gone for a run and pulled both hamstrings. It was a joke. He was on the point of changing the channel when Grange said something, striding up and down the stage in a fever of enthusiasm.

‘Forget motivation, setting goals, all that nonsense. I know you thought I was gonna tell you to set goals. I’m not. I just want you to imagine one thing. Imagine if someone put a gun to your head.’ He made his hand into the shape of a gun and lowered his voice, serious now. ‘Imagine if someone put a gun to your head and told you that if you didn’t do… I dunno, whatever it is you wanna do – if you didn’t pull it off, he was gonna kill you. I bet all those little obstacles in your way wouldn’t mean a whole lot, would they?’

So here Roger was, gun to the head, doing what he had to do to save his life. He grinned at himself and shook his head. It would be just like it always was, of course – a week from now all this bluster would have faded, as it always did. The smile vanished when he raised his eyes to the contents of the bottle. It won’t matter if you do go back to what you were a week from now will it? By then, you’ll have that little guy inside you. Eating and growing and stealing every calorie it can get.

            He opened it and gripped the neck with one hand, trying not to breathe. It only held about as much liquid as the average beer. The rest was solid mass. He raised it to his lips, hesitated, and set it down again. He wiped his brow.

In the end, it was Grace that convinced him. She would have to clamp down on that big mouth of hers once he started dropping some serious weight. Maybe he’d even make a comment or two himself as he passed her on the way to his office. That a new dress, Grace? Looks a bit tight on you. Give her a taste of his own medicine.

How bad do you want it? Imagine if someone put a gun to your head.

            He raised the bottle once more, squeezed both eyes shut and drained it, glug by oily glug, until the flow jammed in the neck for a moment and then a limp body dropped into his mouth. It was soft on his tongue, and fleshy like an oyster or a snail. He choked it back, wishing there was more of the liquid to help wash it down, and hoped to Christ it didn’t get stuck in his throat.

It’s okay, just don’t chew.

            He swallowed.

 

*

 

Judging by the way he felt the rest of that night and the following morning, the preserving liquid had an extremely high percentage of ethanol. He crawled out of bed feeling too bloated for breakfast, head heavy and eyes puffy. The only difference he detected was an uncomfortable fullness, accompanied by the same churning feeling he got when he went full bore on Indian takeaway.

Grace gave him a fake smile when he lumbered in from the street, rolling up to the desk, smug look on an otherwise attractive face. ‘Hey, Roger. Have a big one last night, did you?’

‘Couldn’t sleep a minute, that’s all. I was definitely not meant to be a morning person,’ He chuckled.

‘Oh, yes, I’ve had a night or two like that myself. Coffee’s in the tea room.’

In the safety of his office, Roger leaned back on his chair and let out a thick burp and winced as a sharp pain bit into his liver. ‘Ahhhh, God. What have I done?’ His fantasy of clearing out the house and starting a rigorous exercise routine went out the window. After a few hours of trying to work, he gave up on that, too, and ended up staring out the window, daydreaming about Grace, and that future self of his, complete with pearly whites and strong arms – though Wei hadn’t said anything about gaining muscle. I’ll work out though. Just not today.

Or the next, or the next. It wasn’t that it wasn’t working – by the third day he’d dropped a kilogram, and by the end of the week he’d dropped three. No, it was just that he felt so awful. His stomach growled and burned with the furious heat of hunger no matter how much he ate, and though he was losing weight, the bloating and mild nausea never abated.

That wasn’t the only thing that didn’t change: pizza boxes and beer bottles piled up as they always had, and his sleep was actually worse. Instead of working out, he fell asleep on the couch and woke with a speeding heart and a cold sweat. Instead of cutting alcohol he added cigarettes, and his house was soon enveloped in a constant haze of their smoke.

But, damn, I don’t look so bad anymore, do I?

Grace noticed for the first time halfway through the third week. She glanced up as he walked in, then stopped mid keystroke and looked up again, eyebrows raised. ‘Roger?’

‘Yeah, Grace?’ He paused, trying to withhold a smile. He knew what was coming. That morning had been the first time since he was a teenager that he’d been able to see his feet over his belly.

‘Have you lost weight?’

He smiled. ‘I have actually, almost ten kilos. On a new diet.’

‘Oh? Might I ask what it is? My friend Trish…’

‘It’s nothing like that, no. Not one of these fad diets, I don’t go in for those. I’m too old school. Lots of vegetables, working out. You know. Oh, and a lot of white meat.’ He almost winked, and then realised she wouldn’t get the joke.

‘That’s it, huh?’

‘That’s it. Not easy though. I sure could go for a burger.’ They laughed together, and he realised it was the first time they’d ever talked like this. Like friends.

‘Well,’ she said, turning back to the computer, ‘I can definitely see the difference.’

Later, surfing on the wave of confidence, he almost asked her out, but restrained himself at the last moment. Not yet, my friend, you’re still twice her weight. Bide your time. Hell, if this keeps up, a couple months from now she’ll be asking you out.

So instead he went straight home and passed out five hours later with a bottle of whiskey, a furnace raging inside him. He vomited in his sleep and woke up in a pool of what looked an awful lot like blood.

Whatever it was, it was doing its job.

 

*

 

Dr. Fillion leaned back in his chair, legs crossed, and tapped a pencil against his knee with one hand, his head resting on the other. He flipped a page of his notes over and shook his head. ‘I don’t know, Roger. I think we should do a colonoscopy.’

Roger laughed, a joyful sound so unlike the bitter chuckle that normally escaped him. Maybe he really was becoming a new man. His habits hadn’t changed, but his attitude sure had. ‘I’m starting to think you’re a hypochondriac, doctor.’

‘Is that so?’

‘Well, a couple of months ago you told me my health was in trouble and I needed to drop some weight. Now I’m dropping weight and you think there’s something wrong with me.’

Fillion bowed his head. ‘Okay, I see your point. But Roger, something doesn’t quite add up here. You haven’t been starving yourself, have you? Because a man of your weight suddenly going into starvation mode isn’t exactly – ’

‘I’m not starving myself. Small portions, not much meat, exercise. You told me a hundred times what to do. It’s just that now I’m finally doing it.’

‘I want to believe you, Roger, but I know you.’ He half smiled, wagging a finger. ‘You like your shortcuts. Now you can say what you like, but I can smell that cigarette smoke on you a mile away. The fact is, no one loses this amount of weight in this amount of time in a healthy way. So what is it – diuretics? What are you doing to yourself?’

Roger held his arms out on either side, exposing a significantly reduced belly. Luckily, he hadn’t been so enormous that his skin had stretched permanently. ‘Doctor. Does this look like the body of an unhealthy man?’

‘No, I suppose it doesn’t. But that doesn’t tell me a whole lot. At least let me do a blood test? I promise I won’t lecture you, Roger, but you’ve got to be monitored. Someone your size – or at least the size you used to be… There are risks. Even if you do it the right way.’

Roger shrugged, then nodded. He doubted a blood test would reveal anything about the parasite. ‘Okay, sure, I’ll do a blood test. Maybe I’ll chow down on a burger after this too, slow down the process?’

‘Not so fast. Just do me one favour, okay? Cut the cigarettes. You could look like the cover of Men’s Fitness, but it’s a raw deal if you end up with lung cancer.’

‘Sure. No problem.’ He stuck his arm out. ‘Now suck me dry like Dracula.’

 

*

 

That night, while he dreamt of acres of pizza and mountains of ice cream, the parasite shifted in the folds of its womb. Its fingers were short and jointless like tentacles, but the tips were sharp, and it used these to feel its way along Rogers’s oesophagus.

Roger twisted and coughed, his mind passing first into blackness and then nightmare. He struggled to swim to a distant shore but heavy clothes wore him down and wave after wave came crashing down on top of him. Then, as abruptly as he’d appeared in that horrible place he vanished and found himself floating through air, sucking deep breaths, though they stank of bad milk.

The parasite sat in the back of his mouth, fingers pressing aside the corners of his lips. It peered out, tiny black eyes blinking in the moonlight. It hesitated, listening to the steady breaths of its host, and looked down the length of the rising and falling belly. It would be enough.

Satisfied and oriented, it tucked its arms into its body and slithered back down the tight passage until it was warm and safe once again.

Roger sat up, coughing and gasping until the horrible feeling of constriction was gone. In his dream he’d been trying to pull free of a hangman’s rope. When he tasted his mouth he stared at the bed, sure he’d vomited, but there was nothing there.

Luckily, his stomach was settled for the first time in a while, and it didn’t take long to go back to sleep.

 

*

 

The parasite didn’t grow, but it burned. It squirmed and moved and clawed at his insides, twisting its body in random seizures full of energy that had him doubled over in agony. That was where the calories were going. It was nearly winter now, but Roger found himself wearing a T shirt and shorts even on the coldest days, a move that certainly raised eyebrows at the office. Screw it, I’m the boss, I can do what I like. It’s not like I’m seeing clients, anyway.

There was more to it than that, though. Some of the parasite’s energy bled into him. From the moment he woke up he was twitching with it, charged with a thousand volts of electricity. By the end of the first month he was working out for an hour a day with furious intensity, just to provide himself with an outlet. It showed, too, and he became more and more certain that Grace’s raised eyebrows weren’t just for his lack of clothing but for what it revealed.

He made his move at the end of a long Thursday, when the office was empty except for the two of them. He came out of his office as she was heading out the door and she paused with her hand on the knob, not sure if he wanted anything else from her.

‘Grace? Sorry, I know it’s late, but could you do one more thing for me?’ He gave her an apologetic smile, enjoying himself. The night was chill, but he was in a red shirt and shorts. His legs, having grown used to carrying such heavy weight day after day, had more muscle than he’d ever have guessed.

She gave him a tight smile and brushed back her wavy hair. ‘Um. Sure, Roger. Anything for you.’

‘Oh, anything, huh? That’s a relief.’ He grinned, and she returned the look with a curious smile. He remembered the way he used to be with her – with all of them – eternally irritated, ever scowling. One month, and he hardly recognized himself. It was no wonder they gave him strange looks when he greeted them in the morning. ‘Would you go out to dinner with me tomorrow night?’

‘I… Oh.’ She stared at him. She glanced down, either at her feet or his legs, he wasn’t sure. ‘Are you sure it… I mean, we work together, you know?’

‘That’s true. I thought of that.’ He held up a hand and searched his briefcase for a minute, coming up with a handwritten piece of paper bearing his signature at the bottom. He handed it to her.

‘What’s this?’

‘It’s a letter of recommendation. I just don’t want you to feel like you’re under any obligation. If you want, you can end the dinner with a slap in the face and never talk to me again, and there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it – not that I would, but I thought you’d appreciate the reassurance.’

‘Are you… I mean, that’s… considerate.’ She held his eyes for a long time, not sure what to make of him. Roger didn’t know what to make of himself, either. Who was this cheerful, confident man? Was it really just the difference a few kilos made, or did the parasite have something else in mind?

‘Is that a yes?’

Maybe that’s how it procreates. It changes you, makes you into an attractive mate. Maybe Wei Leung was wrong, and it leaves you a different way – moves on to the next host.

            ‘Yes,’ she said, and then, more certainly: ‘Yes, I think I will. Is seven thirty okay?’

‘Sure,’ he said. ‘I’ll pick you up. And it’s on me, by the way. See you then.’

And, to his amazement, she didn’t even lean back when he moved to kiss her on the cheek.

I don’t care what it is, he decided. I don’t give a good god damn.

 

*

 

He didn’t sleep that night. He powered through a family sized bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and followed it up with half a tub of ice cream and then an entire bottle of tequila. The parasite soaked it all up like a battery taking in wall current, and an hour or two after midnight Roger found himself sitting on the edge of his bed, shivering and licking his lips, eyes darting back and forth, mind firing from one thing to another as though he’d had about ten coffees in a row. Shit, he wasn’t even drunk.

He paced his room, planning every moment of the date, and then the rest of the week, and then the rest of his life. He needed to procure more of these things. Wei Leung had no idea what he was on to, here. These things weren’t parasites, they were symbiotic life forms. They didn’t drain you, they improved you.

Roger went into his bathroom, stripping naked as he went. Maybe a shower would calm him, though he doubted it. He could sense that the parasite must be near the end of its cycle. Despite his external vitality, his insides were being torn to shreds by its constant movement and heat. He hadn’t gone to the toilet once in the past four weeks. The parasite, he figured, consumed the poisons and fat that he ate, and then his own body absorbed the healthy sustenance that it excreted, and everything was transferred into raw energy. Nothing wasted.

It occurred to him that Fillion would be at a loss if he saw him now. Instead of bulges and folds there was firm skin and muscle, a tightly bound physique, the kind a man would have if he ate not a scrap more or less than his body needed. There were signs of something not quite right, though: his skin had the deep red complexion of a bad sunburn, his chest and neck pulsed visibly with each rushing heartbeat, and when he leaned in he saw the pain in his bloodshot eyes.

I can live with that. He gave himself a reassuring nod, and then smiled, a gleeful expression that belonged entirely to the new version of him. Old Roger used to smile with a closed mouth to hide his sugar born cavities, with his shoulders tight and hands in his pockets; new Roger looked insanely happy.

It’s all worth it. Isn’t that what they say? No pain, no gain.

He laughed, and his laughter was like his smile, echoing in the small bathroom until he ran out of breath and doubled over, and even then it didn’t stop, but it came from somewhere else, somewhere deep inside him, and seemed to have a different voice.

 

*

 

Finally, he slept. The parasite did not.

This time, it came out limb by limb, since its body was too large to fit entirely in his throat. First one arm snaked out of his snoring mouth and then the other, pale and white, hands settling on the blankets on either side of his head. The rest of it came out in a slippery rush, head, narrow body and then legs, and it rolled away and landed softly on the bedroom carpet, covered in a cooling film of saliva and stomach acid.

Its first steps were shaky, like those of a newborn animal, but by the time it had crawled from his room to the kitchen it was moving with a slow grace. It squatted for long minutes by the counter, staring around every inch of the room with wide eyes that missed nothing.

When it saw the contents of the fridge, a round mouth opened and closed in the middle of its belly, lipless, tongueless and hungry. Packages of raw meat, a block of cheese, and half a stale pizza vanished inside opening, and the mouth squeezed tight again, like a belly button, stomach acids bubbling away.

It explored with its spindly arms, opening a drawer here, a cupboard there. It wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but while it fumbled through the cutlery drawer it hissed and withdrew, staring at a point of black blood rising on its finger. It hesitated, then reached back in and picked out the culprit: a small but razor sharp pair of scissors, meant for cutting packaging or the stubborn tendons in raw meat.

It turned the implement over, curled its fingers through the loops and opened and closed the twin blades, curious. An idea formed in its mind, and after a few minutes it opened its mouth and tucked the scissors into the folds within, the way a person might hold a nut in their cheek without swallowing it.

By now, the moisture on its skin had dried to an alarming level, and it crawled eagerly back along the hallway, seeking the refuge of its hot, wet home.

 

*

 

Roger woke up the following morning feeling full and ravenously hungry at the same time. There was nothing in the fridge and so he drove to the nearest McDonalds for breakfast and ordered six big mac meals, expecting to eat three and save the rest for later.

He ate all of it, every mouthful a small agony as his stomach stretched to its limits inside him, yet he was unable to stop. It was like having a mosquito bite that wouldn’t quit itching even when you tore it to shreds with your fingernails and started scratching the blood underneath. Unquenchable, unrelenting hunger.

He had a voicemail.

‘Hey, Roger, Dr. Fillion here. Just calling to let you know your bloods are in and, uh, they’re looking very strange, to be honest. I’ve sent them back for retesting but they don’t get it wrong very often so I’d like you to come in before that and let me run some tests if you don’t mind. I don’t think it’s anything serious so don’t panic, but, uh, I’d like to see you in as soon as possible just to be safe. Let me know.’ Click.

A maddening thirst seized him as a result of all the salty chips. Instead of finding a glass, Roger stuck his head into the bathroom sink and let the tap run directly into his mouth. He held on as long as he could, but after a minute or so – enough time for at least two litres to pass through the faucet, something tore inside him and he dropped to the floor, both hands on his stomach and eyes squeezed shut. Oh, something’s wrong, alright, something’s really wrong.

He told himself it was just a sensation – surely he wasn’t actually tearing –

The next rip turned his vision white and he threw his head back, smacking the kitchen tiles. He tried to scream, but something was blocking his throat and only a high whistle escaped him. This had to be what it felt like to give birth. Nothing else could be this painful. I will kill Wei Leung for this. He promised it wouldn’t be painful, god damn it.

            But the parasite wasn’t leaving his body at all. It was expanding. Slender limbs stretching out inside him, brushing by organs, curling, flexing, creating space for themselves between his muscles and along his ligaments. He was dimly aware of the sunlight spilling in from the kitchen window, and though time oozed by in painful fractions of a second, he was aware of the light dimming and then disappearing altogether. The parasite spread through him like tree roots through soil. One cold tendril snaked up his nasal passage, behind one eye – blinding it – and into his brain.

He lay, shivering and sweating on the tiles for another half hour, body clenching and unclenching around the foreign growths. As the minutes ticked by, he felt them less and less, as if they were made of slowly melting ice. When he didn’t feel them at all, he rolled over and climbed to his feet. One hand on the counter for balance, he swayed, trying to understand what was going on.

The clock on the kitchen wall read five thirty. He had to pick up Grace in two hours. Screw that. I gotta see Wei Leung.

Wei had given him a phone number, but Roger had little hope it was genuine. He barely let it ring five times before he shook his head and moved to click ‘end call.’

‘Hello?’ Wei’s voice crackled out of the headset. Roger stared at it for a second and then put it up to his ear.

‘Is this Wei Leung?’ He said.

‘Yes who is this?’

‘Roger. I’m – I’m the guy you sold that parasite to. The weight loss parasite.’

Crackly laughter. ‘Roger! I remember. You want another one, huh? Good results?’

Roger wanted to tell him the truth. He wanted to tell him that something had gone wrong and the parasite was growing too large and not coming out, and that the horrible pain in his belly was gone now, but that was a bad thing, a terrifying thing, and that he was scared and needed to know what to do.

Instead, another voice spoke from the back of his throat, his own lips not moving at all. ‘Can I come over now?’ It didn’t sound to Roger like his own voice – too deep and croaky – but it convinced Wei Leung.

‘It’s late now. What’s the rush, huh?’

‘I’m going away. I need stock. I’ll pay you double.’

‘Double? Ha ha! Good results, I told you. Okay okay. I meet you at the shop – all the stock is there. Bring cash!’

Roger dropped the phone into his pocket. He opened and closed his left fist, checking that he had control over his own body. He still couldn’t see out of his left eye.

This is insane. It had me. I swear it had me for a minute.

He told himself it would be okay. Wei Leung would know what to do, or at least he’d know someone who did. They would work something out.

Worst case, there was always surgery. Right?

 

*

 

The market place was deserted, awnings down, warm light shining through dusty window panes on the second floor. Roger was transported back to his first visit, an eternal two months ago now. He’d waddled uncomfortably past sizzling food stands, sweating in the sun, praying that Wei Leung’s miracle weight loss secret was what he promised.

Looking down at himself now, a wiry body beneath him, his feet light and his strides quick, he wasn’t convinced he’d been ripped off, exactly. It was just that something went wrong, that’s all. Like a cosmetic surgery that ended in infection. Probably it’s just one of those things that happens now and again. Probably he’s got a pill or something that kills the parasite if it won’t move on to the next stage of its development. He stopped himself there, not wanting to imagine what it would be like to have a dead body inside of him. Is it worse than a living one?

Up creaky stairs, through a rusty door, he found Wei Leung waiting for him in the room they’d first had the meeting. A lightbulb hung from the ceiling, but the light it gave off was so dim the corners of the room were left in shadow. Wei leant back on his rickety chair with a big smile on his face, picking at his nails. ‘Sooooooo, Mr. Roger. You looking very fit.’

Roger closed the door behind him and scanned the room without speaking, his eyes settling on the shelf which held the bottles. Some were empty, but there were at least ten or twelve that held the coiled foetuses. A strange sense of urgency seized him, a powerful need to possess every last one of them and take them to a safe place. Don’t listen. It’s the parasite. It’s manipulating your emotions. Tell him, tell him now!

            He tried to keep his lips pressed shut, but the words spilled out as soon as he took a breath. ‘I’ve got the cash. I brought double.’ He walked stiffly over to the shelf, as though he were going to pick the one he wanted. Wei Leung watched him, head cocked to one side.

‘Oh yeah? How many you want?’

Roger grabbed an empty one by the neck, and Wei Leung got out of the chair, smile gone from his face. He probably thought he was about to be robbed.

Tell him. Just open your mouth and tell him.

Roger faced him, bottle dangling from his hand, but for what felt a very long time, he couldn’t move at all. Every muscle in his body was tense, the parasite pushing him hard. He shook, his face red, gritting his teeth so hard they could have cracked.

Wei’s expression changed from suspicion to genuine concern. ‘Hey, Mr. Roger? You okay? You don’t look so good.’

The dam wall broke.

‘RUN!’

But in the same moment the parasite relinquished control of his voice it seized his body, and barely a split second after he screamed the word into Wei’s face he smashed the bottle across it. It shattered into a thousand pieces, along with a thousand chunks of Wei’s flesh. The small man flopped to the floorboards. When Roger crouched beside him, he saw that a shard of glass had cut neatly through his jugular, and blood pumped from the wound with each weakening beat of the merchant’s heart. He took a few minutes to die.

Roger’s body no longer needed his mind to act, and in the quiet minutes following the violence he collected the bottles containing the parasites and took them by armfuls down to his car. When that was done, he expected the parasite to make a getaway, but instead it marched his body up the stairs once more.

The body was getting cold now, death settling in and making itself a new home. Roger knelt beside it and concentrated on his breathing. You are in control, he told himself. You are in control. You can fix this. You can drink bleach. No wait, don’t think that – what if it can read your thoughts? Just stop… Step one is… Step one is…

            He retched. It wasn’t his stomach – he wasn’t entirely sure he had a stomach any more. It was as though the parasite had consumed that part of him and replaced it with its own body, metabolising the food he ate and sharing the nutrients with him. But something was moving up inside him. He jerked forward with each gag until he was on all fours over Wei Leung’s body, struggling to keep down whatever was trying to come up.

It came up anyway, but it wasn’t vomit. A soft hand forced his lips apart, pressing against the side of his mouth, and an arm pushed through the opening, reaching out with grasping pointed fingers. He tried to pull away but the parasite tightened its hold on him. He might as well have tried to pull away from his own skeleton.

The hand caressed Wei’s torn face, the fingers pressing harder against the flesh and then sinking in, peeling back a hunk of his cheek and separating it with ease. It brought the bloody handful to Roger’s screaming mouth. He didn’t taste it because his mouth full of the sourness he’d woken with every morning for the past two months. Sounds of wet mastication escaped his throat. The hand slid out of him again, empty now.

The hand grew quicker and more eager, and soon Roger’s face was covered in a mess of blood, his jaw pried painfully wide. Wei Leung disappeared organ by organ, bone by bone. When only liquid was left, he leant over and a long black tongue slid out of his mouth to lap it up to lap it up.

I am in control. I am in control. Roger wept.

 

*

 

Grace could not believe her eyes. The man in the driver’s seat was completely unlike the person she’d known for all of the four years she’d worked with him. He looked ten years younger, about fifty kilos lighter, and he was in a suit for God’s sake. He didn’t even wear a suit to work.

His skin was paler, there was that, and his smile didn’t look like the one she was used to seeing on him – it showed too much gum. She smiled back, though, and not for the last time, either. The whole date went like a dream, and though she kept noticing things – the odd way he ate for example, seeming to swallow mouthfuls whole without swallowing, drinking vast amounts of wine without getting drunk – she put it down to whatever new lifestyle he was living.

She gave in to curiosity at the crucial moment, just as they were idling on his front door step. ‘So, Roger, you have to tell me. How did you do it?’

‘Do what?’ He said, eyebrows raised.

She slapped him on the shoulder. ‘Oh come on, you know. How’d you lose all that weight? I mean, you were always a nice guy, but…’

‘But you’d never have gone out with me before, huh?’

‘That’s not what I – ’

‘It’s okay,’ he laughed. ‘If you really want to know, come inside and I’ll show you.’

The house was spotlessly clean, almost unnaturally so. Roger turned on the lights as he led the way through to the kitchen, where he opened a neatly stacked fridge (she didn’t see what was inside) and took out a bottle of tequila and margarita mix. ‘Pour you a drink?’ He asked with a gleaming smile. She nodded absent-mindedly, peering into some of the unlit rooms branching from the main hallway. He lived in a place this big, alone? She supposed he was the boss.

‘Margaritas, huh?’ she said.

He laughed, a high off kilter sound she still hadn’t grown used to. I wonder if he’s on some kind of new drug. Hell, if this is what it does to you, I might just buy a whole box of ‘em.

He handed her a glass and half drained his own. ‘The margaritas don’t help, but then again, they sure don’t hurt,’ he winked. ‘Actually I keep the real secret in my bedroom.’

She let out a surprised laugh and then restrained herself. That had to be the cheesiest line –

‘It’s a special liquid from the market – you know the one near Collins Street?’

‘Oh, you’re serious?’

‘Of course.’ He doesn’t even realise what he must have sounded like. Roger was always awkward, but jeez. She inspected her Margarita, decided it didn’t have anything suspicious in it, and took a sip. It tasted like the rest of the house smelled, a mixture of strong alcohol and detergent. She put the glass down.

‘Here, I’ll show you if you want. You can even have one yourself, although you don’t really need to lose weight. Just follow me.’ Without a hint of suggestion he turned and headed to a door at the end of the hallway. She hesitated, but not for long. It was hard not to notice the way he moved, strong and confident, agile even, and compare it to the spare tire around her waist. Screw it. I don’t mind going the whole nine yards with that body if it means I get whatever he’s got. Even if he is acting weird.

The smell of his bedroom hit her before anything else – a strong sourness that reminded her of bad milk. The next thing she noticed, although he’d neglected to turn on the light – was the state of it: masses of blankets in curled in heaps around the bed, a writing desk in one corner hidden beneath a mountain of papers, and a bookshelf which held no books. Those were scattered on the floor, and in their place stood an assortment of bottles, some liquor, others random household chemicals, Bleach and methylated spirits among them. What the hell? Who makes their house spotless for a date and then forgets the bedroom?

            ‘Hold on a second,’ he said. ‘I have one of them just in here. You can even drink it right now if you want. I guarantee you’ll notice a change within the next couple of days.’ He dropped to all fours and started rummaging around under his bed.

She ignored him for the moment, running a finger idly over some of the strange chemicals. A large closet door was inset beside the bookcase, and she put a hand on the knob, curious to see what other strange things he might be keeping in this nest of his.

‘Aha, here’s one,’ he said from behind her, retreating from beneath the bed. ‘This’ll do the trick, alright.’

She opened the door.

The closet was mostly empty, but for a single heap of clothing on the floor. It was quite dark, and something about the shape of it, the features, seemed familiar, so she leaned forward and squinted for a better look.

The heap shuffled, a twisted face rising up to look at her with drooping, mournful eyes. Its mouth was pulled wide apart, and when it spoke the words came in a barely audible moan: ‘Graacee. Heeeelp meeeeee.’ A long arm, boneless, skin hanging in folds, rose up to grasp her, and she staggered away from it, mouth open in advance of a scream that wouldn’t come.

A steady hand fell on her shoulder, and she heard the distinctive sound of a cork popping, accompanied by the sting of ethanol in her nostrils.

‘Don’t worry, Grace,’ Roger said. ‘I think this one will suit you just fine.’

 

 

 

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