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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.’

 

 

 

If Aliens were able to travel lightyears through space to reach us, what makes us think we’d have even the remotest chance to resist them? If they were so advanced as a society, we would be like spear wielding cavemen in their eyes, would we not? More to the point, what makes us think they’d be any less vicious than we are? This story is my take on Independence Day. Enjoy!

Slaughterhouse

 The place stank of blood and metal. Moans and wails and shouts funnelled up to Vesko from the yard, screams of pain from the hang room and of terror from the kill room. Machinery grinding away day and night, a heavy deep sound that you felt in your bones, just a hint of the incomprehensible power it represented.

The Giants.

Vesko cooked his dinner under the sky vent. Tonight’s meal was a new delicacy: thigh tenderloins skewered with a piece of charred wood. He wished he had some spices to add, or better yet, some vegetables. An all meat diet was taking its toll on him: scurvy had already taken three of his teeth and his skin was turning a pale yellow and breaking out in small, suppurating sores. Still, no matter what hell you were in, you just did what you could. You made the best of it.

The first ship. So big it blocked out the sun no matter where you were, fast enough to cross half the world before it landed somewhere in the Indian, not far from Australia’s west coast. Vast. Everyone so excited, scientists and army flocking to it to welcome our Alien guests, if they were alive. Headlines like: Alien life confirmed – friend or foe? And – Experts say ship alone advanced enough to revolutionise modern technology.

            Then the Giants emerged.

Deep in thought, Vesko sat cross legged as close to the flames as he could without being burned – the giants didn’t like the heat. They had a thin down of hair all over their bodies and it glistened with sweat permanently, making them reek like sewage, the only smell that could penetrate that of raw meat in this hell. He turned the skewer over, watching the tenderloins he’d cut turn brown around the outside, the red meat turning pale. Occasionally a drop of blood hissed on the flames.

Angie blinked into existence across from him, looking perfect, not the plump empty shell she’d been at the end. This had been happening a lot lately, and though he was aware she was a hallucination, Vesko prayed every time that she wouldn’t leave him again. ‘Hey, baby,’ he said, grinning.

‘Hey.’ She wrinkled her face at the cooking meat. ‘You’re not really going to eat that, are you? That could be me, for all you know.’

He shrugged. ‘If that’s true, you’re delicious.’ He laughed until he choked on his own saliva, unaware of the tears trickling down his cheeks. They came every time he spoke to his wife. She smiled sadly at him and leaned across the fire to wipe one of them away. Her strawberry blond hair hung into the fire but didn’t singe.

‘Thanks, Angie.’

‘We need to have a talk.’

‘Yeah.’

‘About what you’re going to do now.’

He nodded. ‘I’m sorry I left you, you know. I wanted to stay with you all right to the end. I wanted to get back into that vat with you but there was no way.’

But her face hardened. ‘Don’t you dare talk like that, Vesko. Tell me what good that would have done. Just tell me.’

‘I could have been with you.’

‘You are with me,’ she said, softening a little. ‘But you staying with us when you could get away? That’s not the Vesko I married. That’s not him at all.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You remember the one that hung us up? You were watching, weren’t you?’

He cringed at the memory, gritting his teeth against the wave of horror that came over him. It passed quickly and he took a gasp of smoky air.

The sheer size of them wouldn’t have been enough by itself. A grown man was perhaps the size of a chicken in comparison to one of them, but mankind had developed formidable weapons to bridge that gap. No, the terrifying thing was their efficiency. No one stood a chance at all against that ruthless single mindedness. They had the population of earth beaten in intelligence, technology, numbers and size, but their greatest advantage was that relentlessness, utter devotion to their own kind. Each and every one of them ready to die for their cause. And what was their cause? Consumption. Expansion. Growth.

One of them picked their car up while it was driving. He remembered that moment of madness, the road just falling away beneath him, everyone screaming, the engine making a crazy high pitched sound as the wheels spun in the air. The giant held the car perfectly level in the air, moving at incredible speed over farmland to one of those enormous dump trucks they had, things the size of golf courses with a flat pan on the back, the barriers high and smooth. They were packed with other human beings, and the giant tipped the car slowly over the middle and shook it until they all fell out and hit the hot metal a couple of meters below.

When they reached the slaughterhouse, the dump truck opened up and the flat pan tipped to make a smooth slide, emptying them into a feeding pen. Vesko had still been hopeful he could get them out of this place. They were so much smaller than the giants – there had to be some crack to squeeze through, some weakness in the holding.

There wasn’t. Every day, a giant dropped enormous loaves of bread into the pens, delicious, moist bread that tasted like olives. Some refused to eat, but not for long. Soon after his arrival Vesko saw one of the giants reach in and pluck a man from the group. Judging by his holocaust survivor build, he hadn’t eaten in a while. The giant held him twenty feet or so off the ground, its long fingers pinched under his arms, and then it raised a tool of some kind, a pair of shears that they used to cut their body hair in an effort to cool down. It cut that man into pieces from the toes up, pieces of him falling down in a red shower, his screams going on far longer than should have been possible, only stopping when the shears reached a place just below his chest and his stomach acids came pouring down along with the blood. Most of him was gone the next day, eaten by the other hunger strikers.

Vesko was hugging his family when they were emptied, along with hundreds of others, into an enormous metal vat, but he lost hold of them during the short fall and hit the edge of the container they were all landing in. He didn’t remember much, only the sharp pain of hitting metal bars on the way down and a lurching in his stomach. When he woke, he was lying somewhere beneath the slaughterhouse, his hair caked in blood, the only light filtering through a crack in the floor above him.

The loins were pretty much cooked now, and he brought the skewer to his mouth and bit one off, chewing it slowly, his grumbling stomach welcoming the meal. He liked to imagine it was pork, and usually he succeeded. It was harder when he was eating fingers or pieces of a face, anything recognizable as human.

‘That’s the one you’ve got to kill, baby,’ she said.

He nodded. He had the thing’s face fixed in his memory. The giants weren’t like animals, they all had distinctive features, though as far as appearance went they looked more like enormous apes than humans. They had the disproportionately long arms, even the sideways loping gait when they were running fast. Some had different coloured body hair, blonde or red or brown, some had big, low hanging chins and an under bite, others had arms that bulged with muscle or bellies that sagged from too much meat. The one that had hung his family, gleaming steel hooks through their backs and out their chests, had big eyes the colour of ash.

‘But you’ve got to have a plan. You have to stay alive after, so you can kill more.’

‘Yeah, I know. I got a plan. I’ve been sharpening my sword, every day.’ He chewed at another loin and looked over at his sword. It was a piece of scrap metal shaving he’d found on the floor of the kill room, twice as long as his forearm, hard but surprisingly light. There was another smaller piece beside it, which he’d been using to sharpen the edges of the sword every day. It was almost sharp enough, but the handle was thin and he sometimes worried it would snap. Nothing he could do about that, though.

‘Live for me, honey? Okay?’

‘I will. I will.’ But she was gone, and he didn’t think she’d be back again, at least not until it was over and he was either dead or somewhere safe.

After the meal he curled up a little way from the fire where the metal was warm but not scalding, and tried to sleep holding his sword like a pillow. He would do it the next day. He’d have to get around to the place the hooks came out of the wall by a conveyor belt on the ceiling, hitch a ride to the hang room. He’d only get one chance at the giant, and that only if he was lucky. If he missed… The mincer.

The mincer was the source of most of the mechanical noise in the place. It was the kind of sound that made your skull vibrate no matter where you were in the building, and it kept going from sunrise to midnight, when the slaughterhouse closed and the giants descended below ground to sleep. On his second day here, Vesko had climbed up into the beams in the mincing room and checked it out. The hooks stopped at a point just before the mincer and a giant stood beside it, sorting the dying people. The children and the old or diseased, he lifted from the hooks and dropped straight into the wide circular hole in the ground, a constantly churning mess of blended bodies, a mash of black, red and yellow. Whatever blades worked just beneath the surface worked fast, because if so much as a toe disappeared beneath the surface, you were gone.

The young and healthy were left on the hooks, which took them to the next room. Vesko had spied there also, and seen another giant divide the bodies into the best cuts with expert precision, reducing still living human beings into ten separate blocks of meat in the space of seconds. Occasionally he judged a body unfit for consumption and threw it into another pile on the far wall. It was from this pile that Vesko had obtained all of his meals since.

He planned and mentally rehearsed what he would do until he could see every moment of the following day in clear detail, accounted for every possibility he could conceive of, and at last he closed his eyes and stole a few hours of sleep.

He awoke to the sound of the mincer starting up, and in a few moments he was on his feet, sick to his stomach with fear. He pissed in the smouldering fire and reached for his sword. Instead of leaving straight away, he sat down and sharpened it for another hour or so, not so much because it needed it but because he was hoping Angie would come back to him one last time.

She didn’t, but when he finally started on his way down the vents, her voice came to him on a blast of hot air from behind. ‘See you soon,’ she said. The words chilled him, but he told himself she meant them as a comfort, that whether he lived or died he would see her again.

It took a while to find the right place, and he had to squeeze through a narrow groove slick with black grease and barely large enough to fit him let alone his sword. When he finally got out and crouched on a shelf near the factory’s ceiling, he saw he was in the perfect position: the hooks were emerging directly beneath him: in fact he could have followed along the top of the conveyor belt directly above them. That wouldn’t be quick enough, though: he was going to have to drop down and stand in one of the hooks, be ready to jump at the perfect opportunity.

Vesko stayed where he was, watching the heads of some of the other giant workers pass below him, going about their gruesome work. They spoke to each other over the sound of machinery in a series of low howls and high yelps, like baying farm dogs on a hunt. He was terrified of them, but he was also angry, and for an hour or more he sat above the conveyor belt and allowed the hatred to overtake him.

He thought of the grey eyed bastard, working day in and out, grabbing wriggling bodies from the enormous vat and impaling them like worms on fishing hooks, unthinking or uncaring of the pain he caused. Vesko would make him think. Vesko would make him care.

He dropped down onto one of the hooks, both his feet wedged in the U bend while his free hand gripped the chain from which it hung. He held the sword backhanded: knowing that slashing would give nothing but scratches; he would have to thrust, and he would only have one or two blows to get it right.

The hook neared the hole in the far wall, and Vesko squinted ahead and saw two grey haired arms lay a screaming child onto a hook, the tip thankfully piercing her heart and cutting her suffering short. The hooks moved relentlessly on and the arms pulled back, then returned with a heavyset man who wasn’t so lucky: the hook wound up too low, piercing his stomach and bursting through with a light spray of stomach acid. The man turned and saw Vesko on the next hook, but whether he saw him and understood what was happening or was too lost in his pain was impossible to tell.

Vesko was coming through the gap now, and his mind had shrunk down to the tunnel vision that always accompanied extreme fear. He was not aware of the ear piercing screams, nor the thrumming machinery, nor the stench of blood and gore. He was aware only of the way the hook was swaying slightly under his weight, and of the sword in his hand, and of his own quick breaths.

Everything happened in a matter of seconds when he emerged into the hang room. The giant was pulling a plump, struggling woman from the vat, bent over the side of it with both arms inside, his back to the room. Vesko had a couple of seconds before it turned and saw him, but he didn’t wait: he pushed off the hook as hard as he could, kicking it hard against the conveyor belt, and grabbed his sword with both hands above his head as he flew through the air.

The giant heard him, the enormous head swivelling while the woman squirmed in his hands, and Vesko collided with his shoulder, sinking the point of the sword into the base of his neck.

The wind was knocked out of him but he held on, and when the Giant turned violently to swipe at him he was pulled along with the protruding sword handle, almost flying into the vat and then back the other way again, where he might have landed on a hook had he let go. The Giant was not bellowing but choking and gurgling, and when he went down on his knees with a deafening crash Vesko saw blood pouring down his furry front. All the motion had torn the airways and veins in his neck. Even now the sword was sliding out with Vesko’s weight on the end, and the giant’s hands fell on air as they reached for him. The blade came out with a wet sucking and Vesko landed hard on the metal floor.

The giant knelt there, swaying and confused, wide hands grasping his throat, grey eyes staring around him until they settled on Vesko. He was on his feet now, sword up and ready to fight. The giant was triple his height even though he was on his knees, but Vesko was mad. ‘You die, you murdering fuck. You die slow.’ His voice didn’t sound like his own. It sounded sick and harsh, like that of a bitter old man.

It died slow, making a weak grab for him as it came toppling to the bloody ground, but he hopped out of the way in time and then crouched right in front of its face, letting hot blood pool around his feet until his shoes were soaked. It watched him, just a hint of wonderment in its eyes, that such a harmless little thing could have killed him, and Vesko smirked. Working slowly, his hate burning like fire inside him, he pried out the giant’s eyes one after the other and listening to wasted screams hissing from its broken wind pipe.

There were no other giants in this area, but that wouldn’t last long: the giant in the next room would be seeing the first empty hooks about now and getting curious. Vesko had not expected to be alive now, but he had prepared for it all the same, and as he started for half open doorway into the next room he heard Angie urging him on: ‘Go, Vesko, kill them all for me.’

He entered the mincing room at a full sprint, and in a state of mind closer to madness than he’d ever been, but further from fear. He’d taken revenge, what else was there to live for? Everything else he killed was a bonus, a joy, a pleasure. With his mind full of the roaring mincer and his eyes and mouth open in a wild scream, he went for the next giant.

This one was standing hunched over and staring with a look of consternation at the fresh empty hooks emerging from the hole near the ceiling of the slaughterhouse. They were smart beasts, their minds working with the same mechanical efficiency with which they had conducted their enslavement of the human race.

But for all their intelligence, the giants were limited in that their eyesight was their primary sense to the exclusion of most others, and since this one, a slack jawed, big chested beast, was concentrating on the hooks, it did not see Vesko run in through the doorway nor hear his screams over the sound of the mincer.

He hamstrung it.

The giants were alien, but their anatomy was not so different from that of an ape or a human, and just by watching them move Vesko had seen the way their bodies were held together, the places their tendons showed through their pale skin. He dragged the sharp sword with all of his adrenaline fuelled strength beneath the knee joint of the beast and heard the snap as he broke through ligament. In almost the same motion he followed through with a hack, planting the blade in the place a human’s Achilles would have been and pulling it across the bone.

The giant let out a howl of pain and surprise as he went down hard on his right knee, and Vesko, still screaming his fury, launched himself at his back, colliding with a buttock the size of a bed and pressing the point of his sword into the soft flesh as hard as he could.

That was all it took. The giant let out another yell and jumped forward onto all fours. Only there was nowhere for its hands to land besides the mincer. Vesko didn’t see but felt its thick arms connect with the unseen blades, the giant’s whole body vibrating with the force of them. He let go of the sword and flung himself backward before he could be taken with it, and after that he could only sit and watch as the giant was pulled into the churning pit before him, the engines whining and struggling to chop the thick bones.

The pool of gore rose up fast as his midsection and then hips disappeared beneath the surface and suddenly the pit was overflowing, red waves with yellow froth washing over the stained metal floor towards Vesko. Watching them come, he only knew that if he stayed where he was and let that bloody tide reach him he would lose whatever remained of his sanity. At the last moment, he jumped to his feet and ran, not caring where he was going, only looking for a way out of this hellish place, never thinking about anything except getting away from that endless rushing wave of death.

He ran to the adjoining door but did not slide beneath it. Instead, he stopped beside it with his back against the wall and waited. Sure enough, a moment later the giant from the chopping room burst through and immediately headed for the control panel on the opposite wall which controlled the mincer. Vesko slid around the door.

There was nowhere to go from there. On one side of the room, the pile of discarded bodies. Vesko taken his food from that pile by lowering a noose made from his pants, shirt and shoelaces, and snaring a corpse around the neck so he could haul it up into the vent, so there was no way to get up there from the floor. There was no sanctuary there: Vesko had been here long enough to know what happened to those bodies: they were dropped into the mincer at the very end of the day and fed as gruel to the people in the holding pens.

His only hope was the pile of ready chopped body parts in the corner to his left. He ran for it, knowing he could be seen at any moment now, cursing himself for not being man enough to make a stand with his sword at least and take as many of the bastards with him. He dove into the pile and dug himself in as quickly as he could until he was settled in, near the bottom. The blood was still dripping form some of the cuts, and he was covered in the lukewarm mess. He could smell the sweat on a hundred bodies, the dirt in the flesh. He felt they were still alive and pressing on him from all sides.

There was much activity in the slaughterhouse after that, but Vesko didn’t take note. He curled into the foetal position, weighed down by heads, torsos, arms and legs. The best cuts.

The initial wars were furious, intense, and utterly hopeless. Vesko knew this from the very first news reports, and it was for this reason he packed his bags and drove as far out into the Australian country as he could with his family: to hide.

            He was right. By the end of one year, the earth was littered with the titanic ships and little of human civilisation remained. At least, nothing that the giants couldn’t use. By two years, when Vesko was beginning to grow accustomed to an isolated life, a place so barren surely no giant would ever want to go, they had demolished every form of organised human resistance that existed: every army, every government, every city. Their ships came and went with steadily increasing frequency, taking away resources in mind boggling quantities and depositing machines larger than cities themselves, their purposes only to mine Earth’s bounty ever more thoroughly.

            The giants were more than omnivores: they consumed anything and everything to feed themselves, and besides that there seemed not a single material they had no use for. When they mined a city, the material from the buildings was salvaged along with the asphalt from the roads, the cars, every life form, and then the dirt underneath for thousands of meters below the surface. The oceans themselves were being steadily drained by ships so large they rivalled the size of a small country.

            And Vesko lived in the desert, seeing these things in the distance, hearing the far away sounds of machines and the thudding of giant’s feet and refusing to believe they would ever come for him. What could there be for them, in the desert?

            But after five years the giants had erected their own monstrous factories, established their own systems, and there were few places of Earth that had not been thoroughly depleted. They came.

He didn’t know why he was trying so badly to stay alive anymore, but asking why had never been his prerogative anyway. It just was, that was all. His family was dead and he was lying here with someone’s intestines sliding lazily over his face and a factory full of giants nearby. That was just life. What could you do but make the best of it?

A head dropped down through the pile and landed on his left arm so that it was looking right at him. As his eyes grew used to the semi darkness, Vesko thought he could make out the contours of the face. A woman, not unlike Angie. The longer he looked, and let the shadows swirl in and around the features, the more like her it was, until she blinked open her bright blue eyes and smiled at him.

‘Sorry I had to leave you, baby,’ he whispered. His lips were cold with drying blood.

‘You did what you had to do.’

A few minutes later he reached out into the mass of chilled flesh and found a soft breast and a torso just like Angie’s. He dragged it into a hug, and soon after, groping around, he found her arms and legs and arranged them into position. She wrapped her arms around him and gave him that beautiful smile that had haunted his dreams since the day he’d met her.

‘You want to thank me Vesko baby? Keep living and keep killing. Alright?’

‘Yeah.’ He smiled back, unable to resist. ‘For you, Ange.’

She kissed him then, and her lips were warm on his and she didn’t taste like blood or death and there was still hope in the world.

You had to make the best of it, after all.

So this is the first one I’ve written since the novel, and reading it over I feel a bit rusty on the short story front, but I’ll warm up to it again. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the hell out of it, more as I went along, and I think it’ll be the same for you. Just a little something to remind you that monsters aren’t all bad. Enjoy!

Young Love

By Ben Pienaar

 

Monster, when she found him, wasn’t yet Monster. He was more of a creepy looking insect, so small that he was almost indistinguishable from any other crawling bug, and one that would have given any other girl nightmares. Good luck for Monster, then, that it was Mary who found him instead of a normal girl, and good luck for him also that he was almost indistinguishable from run of the mill crawling bugs, or she might just have squashed him all the same.

Mary was sitting down at the river bank at the bottom of the garden as she often did, her old dress getting muddy and her feet trailing along in the cool water. She could sit there for hours, and often did on summer afternoons, watching the water running, sun glistening off the ripples and leaves dropping from above. That day something else dropped from above, from one of the infinitely tall oaks that hung all down the river, but she didn’t see it (or rather him) until he grabbed her big toe out of desperation to keep from drowning.

An ordinary girl would have screamed at the unexpected touch – and some pain as tiny teeth sunk into the skin just beneath her toenail – but Mary merely let out a surprised gasp and brought her foot in for inspection.

Monster was there, and she was on the point of flicking him back into the water when she realised he wasn’t the spider she’d supposed. He was the wrong colour for one thing: mostly black but with twirling lines of red all over his body. And then she saw that he had only four legs instead of eight, and only two eyes. Spiders and insects tended to have pincers, but this thing had a mouth. She couldn’t see his teeth, because they were sunk all the way into her skin, but she did note that his mouth wasn’t wide the way a shark’s mouth is wide, but more tall, like a rat’s mouth if you took away its snout.

She analysed the thing, and while she watched he closed his eyes and his whole body began to pulsate gently as he sucked her blood into himself and his belly swelled to the size of a peppercorn. ‘Well, you’re greedy, aren’t you?’ she said. He paid no attention.

‘What’s your name?’

At last, he drank his fill and opened his mouth, retracting two lines of needle sharp teeth the way a cat retracts its claws. He scuttled up her ankle and along her leg until he reached her knee, where her skin was dry, and there he took refuge briefly, beady eyes flicking here and there, though back then he was so small she couldn’t make out his pupils.

‘I think I’ll call you Monster, because that’s really what you are, isn’t it? A monster.’ She could feel an almost imperceptible pressure as its four legs gripped her skin and it rested its belly on her.

She sighed and shook her head, and though she was curious she was still not above flicking the funny creature right back where it came from, but before she could make the fatal blow, Monster did a strange thing: he closed his eyes, relaxed his tight grip on her skin, and smiled. It was an odd, hair raising smile, full of black gums, but a smile nevertheless, and it stilled Mary’s hand the way mere curiosity could not. She decided to take him home.

For her last year of primary school, Mary was happy, and so was Monster. She kept him in a huge terrarium she’d created using the largest fishbowl she could find and several types of obscure plants. It sat on her desk in front of the window, and while it had initially been nothing more than decoration, soon after Monster it became a place for her to keep any interesting or helpless bug she happened to come across in the garden.

Soon, however, she discovered that some of the bugs were going missing, and Monster had his peppercorn sized belly more often than not. She began to add more bugs, and even things as boring as ants, to satisfy him. By the end of summer her terrarium was a veritable jungle of squirming, eating, fighting, mating insects. She made another just like it and put the two side by side, and when the population of the first was suffering, she would move Monster from that one to the other, so that he never went hungry. He must have been grateful, because though she handled him quite roughly at times he didn’t bite her again.

As for Mary, she had two loving – if distant at times – parents, four close friends, got consistently high grades at school and in general did well at life. So, they were happy. Then high school began.

Mary’s four friends all went to another school, St. Claire’s, while Mary’s parents bizarrely, unexpectedly, stupidly were adamant on sending her to Sion Secondary just because her mother went there. That was their sole reason. She fought with them and lost, and lost dessert for the next seven dinners for the things she said. Her first report card in seventh grade showed one B, three Cs, and two Ds. Her parents shook their heads and said they were disappointed. No one seemed to like her in her class, thinking her too snobby for them and their school, and she knew it was because she could only ever talk about her other friends and St. Claire’s.

It got worse. By the beginning of eighth grade, Mary found herself completely alone on the school ground, an outcast, the butt of every joke she pretended not to hear. When anyone tried to speak to her, she made an effort to be nice and smile, but somehow everything she said related to her house, or her family, or her clothes, and they always thought she was trying to show them how rich she was. They smiled at her face and laughed at her back.

But Monster was always there. He had grown, and now when he ate a big meal his belly was more like an acorn than a peppercorn. He was easily the best and biggest insect she had. Many of her afternoons were spent patrolling the vast garden for living things to drop in the terrarium, no longer for her enjoyment but for his. Whatever squeamishness she once had about bugs she lost in this pursuit. There was something satisfying about watching Monster gulp down a millipede and give her that cute smile of his. It was worth it.

Mary decided to take Monster to school one day. He was her only friend, after all. She put him in her pocket with a stern warning, and pushed some dead ants into a plastic baggie in her other pocket so she could feed him during the day. Even though he was just an insect, when she spoke to him and told him all her worries, he seemed to listen, and whether he understood or not it gave her comfort.

At lunch time, she took him to a wooden bench on the side of the football oval and put him beside her so she could feed him ants while she spoke. He sat comfortably and chewed on the little black bodies while she told him about the cruelty of the other girls and about how she was going to be a famous singer when she grew up, but before she could tell him how she’d spend her future millions, someone came and sat beside her.

Her name was Linda, one of the most popular girls in the year level, beautiful and smart and nice to everyone. She beamed at Mary, who was unable to give her anything in return besides a dropped jaw.

‘Hi, I’m Linda,’ Linda said, holding out her hand.

‘I know,’ Mary said, shaking it, and then realising how dumb she sounded.

‘Oh, K. Do you like it here?’

‘Yeah, I mean. Yeah. I just feel left out.’

‘Don’t worry about that, everyone’s very, I dunno, in their groups. But I think you’re okay.’

‘Thanks.’

‘So what were you doing all the way out here?’

Mary shrugged. ‘I just like… Well I don’t know who to talk to. God, my only friend is a bug.’

Linda’s smile faltered for a moment, but then laughed, and not in a cruel way. ‘Well that’s alright,’ she said. ‘Some of my friends are bugs too.’ And she nodded her head mischievously in the direction of the group of girls she’d left to come and talk to Mary. They were talking in low voices and occasionally glancing their way with scandalous faces. Mary giggled, tempted to say that some of them did in fact look quite like bugs, but she was afraid of being rude.

‘Anyway, I’m having a party on the weekend and I wanted to invite you.’

‘Really? I mean, thanks, I’ll be there.’

‘Okay,’ Linda said brightly. ‘And don’t worry about them, they’ll like you once they get to know you.’

‘Thanks.’ But the other girl was already moving off to her group, shaking her head at once of the glaring ones and saying something that made her turn red. Mary couldn’t help but feel admiration for the girl, and all the lonelier to be sitting alone on her bench. Monster nipped her hand and she dropped him back into her pencil case, where she kept a supply of ants she’d burned with a magnifying glass before school. That should keep him busy.

***

 

Years passed, and Mary seemed to rise to the challenges of high school. Her parents saw a healthy glow in her and she was smiling more often than not. Even the bitchier girls of the group accepted her after a while, especially once she learned to hide that tomboy side of her that had once kept her from making many friends. None of them ever saw her bedroom or met Monster, and her parents kept a respectful distance from her room once she put a DO NOT DISTRURB sign on the door made out of a small wooden board and blood red nail polish.

In her final year, she and Linda were best friends and the most popular and most beautiful girls in school. Their parties (always held at Linda’s house, of course) were legendary. And yet… Mary never quite seemed happy. She smiled, certainly, but there was always something else in her eyes. Like longing, Linda thought – and she thought she knew why.

One day, lying around on Linda’s Queen sized bed and listening to old music, Linda said: ‘I’m going to set you up, Mary.’

The other girl shot her a sideways glance. ‘Yeah? Who with?’

‘Dean Gallo.’

‘Ooooh, nice. Greasy hands and face for the rest of my life was just what I always wanted.’

‘He’s not greasy.’ She paused. ‘Well, not that greasy anyway.’

‘Besides,’ Mary said after a while, ‘If anyone sets me up, it’ll be me.’

‘Yeah?’ Linda sat up and turned the music down, then a little bit up again in case anyone was listening. Her mother could be so nosy.

‘Yup.’

‘Who, then?’

‘Ryan Skelts.’

‘Stilts, you mean? Really?’ Ryan Skelts was just on six feet five, and while he wasn’t fat he had plenty of meat to go with it. He had a slow way about him and an easy going attitude. Still, Linda didn’t see it.

‘He’s nice,’ Mary said, but there was a gleam in her eye Linda didn’t think she liked. There was something mean about it, and she caught a flicker of something else. Almost like her eyes had turned another colour for a second. ‘Do you wear contacts?’ she said, leaning closer.

‘What? No. Weirdo.’

They laughed, and the song ended so Linda changed her playlist and they talked about bands for a while. A little while later Mary said, ‘So will you help me?’

‘What, with Stilts? You don’t need my help, honey.’

‘Come on, I’m shy.’

‘Sure you are. ‘Course I will. Chin up, girl! Just look at you! You’re a man eater!’

For some reason, the joke struck Mary as particularly funny and she threw herself back onto the bed and laughed until her sides ached, and Linda joined in although she didn’t really know why, laughing more at Mary’s joy than anything else. Such a strange girl, she thought, but fun, really fun.

 

***   ***   ***

 

When she fell into step with him after school, he was more than a little surprised, but other than a sideward glance and a raised eyebrow he didn’t show it. It wasn’t that they didn’t speak or get along, but she’d always been a cold fish in some ways, and she sure as hell wouldn’t be walking with him, alone, when her house was in the other direction. Yet here she was.

‘Hey Stilts,’ she said, ‘how’s life?’

‘Ah, not bad, not bad,’ he answered in that ponderous way of his. He gave her a smile. ‘What’s up with you?’

‘Not enough. I’m bored.’

‘Yup, schoolwork’ll do that to you.’

‘It’s not the schoolwork.’

He didn’t know what to say to that. For now most of his effort was concentrated on slowing his heartbeat to something resembling the normal rate and trying to remain as casual as possible.

‘So did you wanna chill out somewhere after school? Linda said you like the old school Arnie movies, like me?’

‘Uh, yeah, love em.’

‘Cool, I’ve got like a thousand. That’ll be something to do, right?’ She cast an innocent smile up at him and he gave it back, not believing it for a second. It had to be something, no one was that naïve, right? The girl was all over him.

‘Yeah, I’m for it,’ he said at last.

‘Nice, I’ll see ya tomorrow.’ She slapped his back in a friendly way, same as Jimmy or any of the others would have, only it made his skin tingle, and then she turned and headed back.

He let out a breath, turned to watch her go for a little while, and then headed home, the day suddenly looking a little brighter.

 

As soon as he couldn’t see her, the smile disappeared from Mary’s face. Her stomach growled and squirmed painfully and several times she glanced down at it, worried that it was protruding enough to make a bulge in her dress. It seemed alright, but she was still queasy, and didn’t eat much when she got home.

‘Are you alright, dear?’ her mother said, when she pushed her plate aside and stood up.

‘Fine, just tired.’

‘You sure?’ Cocking her head to one side.

She forced a smile even though she was burning to get upstairs to her room, where her real meal was waiting. Her insides were screaming for it. ‘Yes I’m sure. Besides I’ve gotta get some homework done.’ Before her mother could say another word, Mary left the kitchen and took the stairs two at a time, pulled open her bedroom door and locked it tight behind her.

The room was dark and cluttered. Clothes and books and papers scattered all over the floors and bed, everything either damp or muddy, and piles of boxes stacked in the walk in closet. Several of these tumbled out as the closet door slid open and round balls of wriggling worms, wingless flies and ants poured out and disappeared into the wreckage of her room.

She’d lowered the rolling curtain all the way down and duct taped the edges all around the window, and after she kicked piles of clothes against the bottom of the door the whole room was dark as a cave. She closed her eyes and let out a sigh, relaxing.

A deep purring came from the closet and Monster came forward, only his eyes visible in the dimness. His teeth had been out, but as she came to him he retracted them and rose up to embrace her.

‘Oh, God I missed you today,’ she whispered. When he spoke it was in a series of low clicks in the back of his throat and short, soft purrs – a kind of Morse code she’d developed for him years ago, when she discovered just how well he could understand her.

‘Really?’ she said. ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t miss too much school. And I’ve been worried about… you know what.’ He growled an answer that made her smile and hugged her tighter, his black and red arms pressing into her back and warming her a little. Once he’d learned to communicate, she’d been shocked at how intelligent he was, soon matching even her sharper than average mind, and when she discovered the sheer depth of emotion he had… The rest was unavoidable, really.

Finally they parted and she felt another wave of discomfort roll over her, almost bringing her to her knees. He moved to hold her up but she held up a hand. ‘It’s alright,’ she said. ‘I just need to eat… some real food. I…’ But the pain deepened and she couldn’t waste another second. She spun around and pulled one of the spilled boxes over to her. Many of the worms had escaped but there was still a solid layer at the bottom and she plunged into this with both hands, sucking down squirming and dead bodies alike.

After her third handful she slowed down and began to pick the juicer specimens, and a few minutes later she pushed the box away and let herself fall back, blissfully into Monster’s strong arms. She let him carry her to the back of the closet and lay her down in the nest he’d made there, and it was so comfortable she almost fell right asleep. She couldn’t allow that, though, not yet. There was still a lot of work to do before tomorrow.

She rested with him for a while, enjoying the soothing relief as the worms reached her stomach and it stopped revolting and settled into a pleasant sense of satisfaction. She turned and looked at the red eyes beside her. She could see the smile in them and wished she could return it, but she was so worried.

‘It’s getting close to the time,’ she said.

He purred back to her and she nodded, but didn’t feel any better.

‘I just wish there were another way, that’s all. I’ll do anything to, you know, keep them, but… It’s sad in a way, isn’t it?’

He pressed closer to her and purred and clicked to her for a long time, and in the end she was comforted.

 

Ryan Skelts took his time, not rushing, talking to Jimmy and Dean like he always did, being normal. He waved goodbye as they peeled off the road and headed off to their respective houses, but as soon as they were gone he turned down a side road, doubled back and headed for Mary’s house. He’d thought about telling them what was going on, but word got around too fast for his liking and if Mary heard it might ruin his chances so… screw it. Just call him Mr. Bond.

By the time he reached her house his heart was hammering in his chest. He fixed an easy smile on his face and knocked on the door, preparing himself for the appraising glare of a stern father or judging tight lipped mother.

But it was Mary herself who opened the door, bright as ever, and beckoned him inside. He opened his mouth to speak as he stepped into the hallway but she put a finger to her lips and pointed through the tall archway on their right into the adjoining room. It was a cosy looking living room, and both of her parents were sitting on the couch watching television, only the backs of their heads visible above the cushions.

‘Hi, Linda, come quick, I’ve got the craziest video to show you,’ Mary said, pulling him out of view of the living room and up the steep flight of wooden stairs.

‘Hello, Linda!’ Mary’s mother called after them in a singsong voice. Luckily they were already far enough away to pretend not to hear and then Mary was pushing him into her bedroom and shutting the door behind her. She leaned on it once they were inside, grinning.

‘Sorry about that,’ she said. ‘My parents can be a bit… weird with boys.’

He glanced around the neat room and thought how unlike any girl’s room it seemed. True, he’d only ever seen a few in his life, two of them being his sisters’, but they all seemed to share the same common characteristics: they tended to be messy, smelled sweet, and were littered with hundreds of objects – books, jewellery boxes, makeup bags, etcetera. This room had none of it. There was a dressing table with a couple of rings and bracelets. The walls were completely absent of posters or decoration of any kind, and the overwhelming smell was of lemon scented cleaning product.

‘That’s alright,’ he said easily, sitting down on the side of the bed. ‘I get it. My parents are pretty strict about stuff, too. They think I’m at the library right now.’

‘Really?’ she chuckled. ‘Adults are weird sometimes, aren’t they?’ She brushed back a lock of golden hair and opened her mouth to say something, but before the words escaped her she half doubled over, clutching her stomach and grimacing.

‘Uh, you okay?’ he half stood up, not sure how he was supposed to help, but thankfully she recovered a moment later and shot him an apologetic glance. ‘Sorry, just stomach trouble. I had a bug a few days ago and I’m still recovering.’

‘Oh, okay, you sure?’ he said, sitting back down a little uneasily.

‘Yeah, yeah. Don’t worry, it’s not contagious.’ She sat down next to him and he felt decidedly better about everything, and when she looked up into his eyes, her smile returning to the corners of her mouth, and said, ‘So…’ he felt better still.

He decided she’d made enough of the moves and went to kiss her, but she was already going for it and they clashed too hard, his teeth mashing against her top lip. He tried to pull back and apologise but she hadn’t noticed, and now she’d pushed him back onto the bed and was sitting on top of him. He could taste blood. Just go with it, man! This shit doesn’t happen every day, his inner voice cried joyfully.

Indeed, it didn’t.

Her tongue felt strange. Much too long, and thick with saliva somehow – almost suffocating him. She’d obviously had plenty of tic tacs but there was something else beneath the heavy mint that made him want to retch. He tried rolling her over on her back so he could take a break but she pushed him back down, playfully. Finally, he opened his eyes, hoping he could give her some kind of warning look to say she was coming on too strong, but by then, of course, it was too late.

Her eyes were already open, wide as fists with pupils the size of raisins, and they were focused on his with a kind of blank intensity.

He tried to sit up, pushing hard with both hands on the bed, but she moved her weight forward at just the right time and he fell back onto his elbows, and in the same motion her tongue pushed further into his throat, much further than it should have been able to go. It was blocking his airway completely now, and the base of it was so swollen in his mouth that if he’d tried to bite it off he wouldn’t have been able to – his jaw was forced too far open to lend a bite any force.

He felt a hand run down his flank and one long nailed finger – at least that’s what it felt like – snaked under his shirt and settled on his belly button.

He panicked, his body suddenly revolting against her with every ounce of strength in all six feet five of lean muscle. Such an effort – even without the added power that terror lent – had in the past dislodged three opposing players pulling him down on the football field. By all accounts it should have propelled the girl clean through the opposite wall.

Instead, the energy pulsed through him, his mind electric with it, and died in his muscles. He got all the way into a sitting position, pushed ineffectually at her shoulders, and then fell back under her weight again. He was weak, like he’d just run marathon at a full sprint. His extremities were going numb, and the oxygen was stale in his deprived lungs. His screams sounded only as low groans from deep inside him.

Her finger pierced his belly, but he didn’t feel the pain. Only the sensation of splitting skin and tearing muscle. The wound just kept on widening, until it felt like her whole hand was inside him, stretching the flesh, making a space inside his stomach. He was completely relaxed now, his whole body a strange kind of numb, all feelings seeming far away from him and unattached. He stared at the ceiling.

 

She dropped the last of them into his stomach cavity, letting out a gasp of surprise at the sudden relief. She felt light on her feet, if a little exhausted, and when she stood up to look at her babies she was breathing hard. Monster came out of the closet and stood behind her, purring congratulations in her ear. After a few minutes he went over to the bed and began to seal the opening in Ryan’s stomach with deft movements.

‘He won’t suffer any more, will he?’

Monster told her he didn’t think so. He was right, as it happened. While they fed on him for the next few days he would feel nothing but a sense of calm and contentment. By the end of the week, when the babies had grown as large as a human hand, he would simply find somewhere dark and secluded, go to sleep and not wake up. They would eat for another day, until they were the size of a human head and there was nothing at all left of him.

‘Won’t he remember?’

Monster didn’t think he would, and he was right again. Mentally, Ryan would be on autopilot, moving and talking without really thinking about it as if he were in a dream, barely self aware.

‘That’s good. I hope we can find our babies later and look after them. They look so cute.’ She caught a glimpse of an innocent gleaming eye before he sealed the last of the wound and turned back to her. Ryan let out a groan in the back of his throat and his finger twitched.

She watched him, Monster beside her, feeling strangely melancholy. It was a long while before she shook it off and got back to her feet, feeling decidedly better.

‘Alright. I suppose now’s as good a time as any. I’m a bit nervous, though.’

He clicked and purred and she smiled back gratefully. ‘You always know just what to say, don’t you?’

***   ***   ***

 

Jean Tiller, Mary’s mother, was setting the table while Mary’s father sat cross legged in the study, reading the paper. When she turned and saw Mary she sucked in a breath and put a hand to her heart. ‘Mary! You almost gave me a heart attack sneaking up like that.’ Seeing the embarrassed look on Mary’s face, she cocked her head to one side and raised an eyebrow.

‘So what’s news?’

To her amusement, the girl flushed red and averted her eyes. ‘I… I’ve got a boyfriend,’ she said.

‘Really? Well… I suppose you’re about the age, aren’t you? Why so shy, Miss Mary?’

‘It’s… I mean I’m a bit worried because… he’s a little different. A lot different, actually.’

‘Oh?’ She folded her arms, a handful of knives still in her left hand. How different could any of the boys from school be, she wondered? Probably he had a disability of some kind or – she thought with a stab of worry – he was much older than she was. Whatever it was, she determined then and there to keep her face as neutral and friendly as possible when she met him. If there was something she didn’t like she could talk to Mary about it afterwards.

‘So where is this mystery man?’ she said, keeping her tone light. It didn’t seem to comfort Mary, who was looking more and more nervous by the second, and kept glancing over Jean’s shoulder at the double doors that were open on the dining room. Jean felt her back itch and had a feeling she was going to meet the man himself sooner than she expected. She resisted the urge to look around and prepared herself instead, setting the cheerful expression on her face. She didn’t want to embarrass Mary with any odd reactions.

‘Promise you won’t freak? He’s really nice, mum, and he treats me really well and everything, okay?’

‘Okay, honey. I trust your judgement,’ she said, now more curious than anything else. She’d never seen her daughter act like this before. She gave her a look that said: out with it girl, show me the goods.

At last, Mary relented with a final cautionary glance at her mother. She gestured at the interleading doors just as Jean had predicted, where the boy was probably waiting in a nervous sweat by now. Best smile, best smile, she thought to herself as she turned around, arms coming unfolded now in case he went for the handshake or even, if he was bold, the hug.

The smile remained plastered obscenely on her face even as her eyes registered the thing, black skin and red eyes and gums stretched in a friendly grin.

In the next room, Mr. Tiller, who had been listening to the conversation with great interest, heard what sounded like a loud, high pitched hiccup, followed by a familiar sigh of distress he’d often heard Mary utter. ‘I knew you wouldn’t understand,’ she said.

He stood up and folded the paper, dropping it onto the coffee table with a frown. If even Jean couldn’t hold it together, it couldn’t be good. He was going to have to have a long talk with Mary later, he suspected. Ah well, the joys of fatherhood. He left the lounge, shaking his head. He had a bad feeling about this, a very bad feeling indeed.

 

Everyone knows bugs are creepy. That was probably my main reason for wanting to write this, because bugs are just one of those obviously creepy things I hadn’t written about yet. Also, I’ve been wanting to write a story with a treehouse in it for a while. I don’t know why, but I did. The two things seemed to go together.

 

Little Bites

By Ben Pienaar

 

The jacaranda tree in the corner of the garden had gone largely undiscovered since its first sprouting, and it was only now that Nathan began to notice it at all, since he was at last almost tall enough to reach the first branch. It was also for that reason that he’d been forced to build his first ‘tree house’ underground. Now that he was taller, he decided it was time to move up in the world.

At the bottom of the garden, where ten shoddy piles of bricks made steps down to his ‘ground house’. His father had dug the hole at the base of the wall for him, and given him the bricks, but he’d taken care of the rest. He’d assembled the stairs and made the ceiling out of bark strips and leaves. He’d even taken an old rug and laid it out on the floor, and often swept dirt off it. Most importantly, he had populated it with his pets.

Nathan’s pets were not furry or loyal or cuddly. They didn’t fetch for him, or lick him or even bark. Instead, they were small and slimy and brainless, and their daily concerns were eating, fighting, and growing their numbers. He loved them just for that: like him, they were simple and practical. He also loved them because of how they slithered on bare skin and made people scream, and how everyone but him was afraid of them. No one dared enter his house now, not even his father, and it was his secret place. His pets protected it for him.

Nathan stood at the foot of the stairs now, in front of the makeshift door he’d created. The door was really a wall of logs and sticks, but he’d made a wide opening at the bottom, so that to enter he had to crawl in on his stomach. That was so that anyone who wanted in had to get dirty, and be brave, and see what it was like to crawl on the ground like the insects.

He was here today because he had been so excited about a tree house, a real tree house, that he’d wanted to destroy this one. Everyone thought insects belonged underground but he knew that wasn’t true. Insects existed everywhere, and even if he destroyed this place he’d find a whole new world of precious pets up in the branches. Then his place would become not a burrow but a hive, and he could expand it to house anything he wanted. The jacaranda was certainly big enough, after all.

Now that he was standing here, he didn’t think he could do it. He stared down at the slit entrance, a scrawny black haired boy who looked almost like an insect himself, and shook his head. ‘Why should I?’ he whispered to himself.

‘Why should you what?’

His father had come up behind him somehow and was standing in the rose garden with a spade, looking down at him. He had a look of mild concern on his face, as he usually did when dealing with his son.

‘I’m going to build a tree house,’ Nathan said. ‘And I was thinking of breaking this one down. But I don’t think I should.’

‘Oh. Well I think you should. What about all the materials you could use from here? All the wood and bark and sticks would be great for making a tree house. Hey, I’ll even help you do it.’

He took a step forward, as if he was planning to attack the place right there and then with the spade.

‘I don’t want to,’ said Nathan.

His father hesitated. ‘Okay. Well, I’ll help you build your tree house if you want. Trust me, though, after a few months you’ll be having so much fun up there you won’t even remember this place.’

Nathan smiled, because he had a plan. ‘Okay!’ he said.

He began work on the tree house in earnest, and his father helped him out on every available afternoon.

For a while, it almost did seem as though he was neglecting his old tree house, where he used to spend hours every day, but on a slow Sunday afternoon, something happened that reminded him. He discovered an insect he’d never seen before.

He was up in the jacaranda at the time, building on the vast platform that now spanned a considerable space about halfway up the tree. That he could do on his own, but only his father had the hammer and nails and materials to put up real walls. (That had been part of Nathan’s plan, and he knew that as soon as his father finished the walls and he let slip that he planned to make this place his hive, Mr. Gallo would suddenly lose his enthusiasm). A seriously annoying itch began on the back of his neck and intensified to the point of pain.

At first, he thought it might be an ant and left it alone, but after a minute the pain was even worse and seemed to be intensifying, as whatever it was burrowed into his skin. Worried, he dropped the plank he was holding and snatched a brittle twig, which he scraped up and down his neck until the pain subsided.

He searched the boards for it, but there was nothing, and then he felt the same pain starting in the hand holding the twig and looked down. It was a tiny thing, so small that he might have mistaken it at a glance for a grain of soil. Nothing but a black dot, but it was biting into his hand like a bull ant, and it hurt like mad.

Nathan managed to bear the pain until he’d climbed down the tree and raced into the kitchen to get a Tupperware container. He rubbed at the little black spot until it fell inside and then shut the lid tightly and went out the back door again, ignoring his mother’s cries not to trail dirt in the house.

He didn’t get a good look at it until he’d crawled through the slit of his ground house and turned on the light (a high powered torch he’d taken from the garage). Before he opened the container, he put it aside and spent a minute nursing the tiny bite on his hand, where it had nibbled for a good minute or so. Then he went about maintaining his other pets. He kept almost anything that lived in moist, dark places. Several kinds of spiders, worms, ants, wood lice, centipedes, and beetles. Each of them lived in a designated place, tubs or trays full of dirt and leaves and whatever food they required. None of them were confined, however – Nathan liked to give them freedom, and so hundreds of little things were always scuttling over everything. It was impossible to be in this room without having at least two kinds of insect crawling on you somewhere. He kept the food in marked containers on an old wooden table in one corner.

Nathan sat down on a split log he’d set there as a stool and held the light close to this new specimen of his. He lifted a dusty book from the table entitled The Entymologist’s Dictionary and began to leaf through the pages. He flipped through the pictures until he came to something that might possibly be what was in the Tupperware and then decided it wasn’t.

He scrutinized the little dot and found that he actually could make out some of its features. It had six tiny legs and a round abdomen. When he analysed it under a magnifying glass, he found that the only part of it that really stuck out was its face, and that seemed to be made up of all mouth. It was difficult to tell with such a small thing, but it didn’t move with the restlessness of most insects he’d come across. At its head he saw two white pinpricks (eyes) and then beneath them a tiny red mouth. Every now and again he saw something shoot out of the mouth. It wanted food.

Nathan gave it every kind of food he could think of, but it ate nothing. Whenever he put anything in the container with it, it crawled over it for a bit and then seemed to ignore it. Only then did he remember the way it had latched onto his hand, and thought that it might be some sort of mosquito.

He left and returned a minute later with a Swiss army knife and a gleam of excitement in his eyes. With barely a hesitation, he cut his thumb with the sharp blade and squeezed a drop of blood into the container. He closed the lid and waited.

The effect was almost instantaneous. No sooner had the drop landed on the plastic bottom the thing went for it. It was so tiny that it almost disappeared into the liquid, but a few seconds later it had sucked the whole thing down and was looking decidedly fatter. It sat in the corner motionless.

He fed it two drops of blood a day from then on, and watched it grow in increments, but he quickly decided that it was the wrong food. After all, the thing lived in the trees – how could it possibly survive on human blood from there, if it couldn’t fly? Nathan told all this to his father over breakfast, partly to see what he’d say and partly just to watch his disgust.

‘And,’ he went on, as his father pushed a bowl of cornflakes aside, ‘it’s not anywhere in my dictionary. So it’s not even normal. Maybe they haven’t even discovered it yet! Maybe I’m the first one!’

Mr. Gallo smiled. ‘Sure, maybe. Anyway, I think it’s just that the little guy is carnivorous. Maybe you should give him one of your other buddies to eat?’

Nathan wasn’t sure if he’d been serious, but he did discover that day that his new pet took a voracious liking to ants. He fed it three in a row before it was satisfied, even though by then it wasn’t much bigger than they were. The ants were fast, but it caught them easily. It would crawl slowly over the floor of the container, and as soon as one whizzed it would shoot a thin red line from its mouth and snag it. After that, it just reeled in the ant with its tongue and demolished it in a matter of seconds. He decided then to name it Spike. Since he didn’t find any examples of it in The Entymologist’s Dictionary he thought he’d go ahead and name the species as well: bites.

Nathan didn’t find any more bites, though he spent a lot of time in his tree house after that. He could, however, make out a funny lump of green leaves near the top branches of the jacaranda tree and he wondered if that was their hive and this one had just fallen on him. It looked like a hive of something, anyway, and he intended to build his tree house wide and tall until he could reach it.

He hadn’t let Spike out of his little cage yet, but he continued to feed him three insects a day. It seemed that there was no living thing that the bite could not consume. Even the centipedes, which were much larger than him, were soon curling up or trying to escape from his needle tongue.

The summer holidays came and once again Nathan began to neglect his pets. He and his father worked on the tree house almost daily and after just a couple of weeks it was big enough to rival some folks’ real houses, or so he thought. Mr. Gallo, thinking he was at last helping his son escape his creepy obsession and maybe even get some friends one day, spared nothing. He built the walls with the care and skill of a carpenter, which was exceptional considering he was by trade an actuary.

When all the walls were up and the only things left were to add a few floors and ceilings, Nathan let slip that he was planning to use several of the rooms to house ‘tree bugs’. After that, his father’s enthusiasm for the project waned considerably and in the days that followed he tended to have important work to do in the afternoons. By the time Nathan started work on the top room of his now colossal tree house, neither of his parents ventured outside any longer and the garden was once more his domain.

The rooms of his house were spacious and sprawled, and any child’s dream during the final days of its construction. In less than a fortnight, however, Nathan had transformed it into any child’s nightmare but his. He left the top ceiling open and made small holes in the others, and then scattered soil and leaves everywhere. He took flowers from the garden and random scraps of food from the kitchen and spread them all over the floors.

It wasn’t long before insects were trailing into his house by the thousand, and Nathan went about making them at home. He took up boxes of soil and planted things in them. As for the insects themselves, he didn’t try to restrict them, as he had in the ground house, but allowed them to come and go as they pleased. He did make sure, though, that there was always plenty of food in his hive. As a result, when he finally declared himself finished his tree house was home to more kinds of creepy crawlies than the entire neighbourhood combined.

Sometimes, at night, Nathan would sneak out of the house, climb into his hive and sleep there instead. He’d strip off his shirt and stretch out on the damp boards and then close his eyes. Many nights he drifted off while thousands of little legs crawled over his skin, and though it was relaxing to him he always woke covered in bites. That was alright, he thought – it meant they were well fed.

Always, he hoped for the bites to come. In a way, he realised that he’d been trying to get that small green hive to move down here since the beginning. The problem was, though he sometimes saw the little black dots trailing down the branch to his place, they never wanted to stay. The miniature armies would strike, paralyse and murder several insects, and then transport them back to the top of the tree.

As his world grew, Nathan spent more and more time in his tree house, less in his real home, and none at all in the ground house. That was nothing to him now, and besides, he thought, all of his pets had either died, or escaped and come to the tree by now. Up here, he had more pets than he could ever dream of.

He eventually decided he’d have to go back one last time, to retrieve some of the equipment. He wanted the desk and stool so that he could read in the tree house, and the flashlight so he could keep the bottom rooms lit at night. Secretly (his father would have been horrified), he’d built a fireplace in the top room. It was made with a circle of stones on a heap of sand, and he kept the corner stocked with small logs to keep a small fire going. He made sure to build it far enough away that no smoke would reach the hive far above, lest it smoke out all the bites. He decided he’d also take whatever insects still remained in their old home and take them up with him.

He knew something was wrong the second he began to slide under his makeshift door by the smell. Usually it smelled of fresh dirt and stale air, and of rotting leaves. Today, it stank of graves and rotten gas and compost heaps. Also strange, when he slithered in over the ground, he was not met by scurrying centipedes or spiders at all – only dusty ground.

When he made it to the other side of the room and turned on the flashlight, he was only mildly surprised to find that all of his insects were gone. That in itself seemed unusual to him – he’d have thought there’d be at least one or two tiny corpses lying around. Insects could die horribly easily sometimes, and he’d have assumed a lot of them would starve in here without food.

Then he shone the light on the container in which he’d kept Spike and it all made sense. There was a hole in the side of the container about as big as a thumbprint (wasn’t that too big for something barely larger than an ant?). There was no other evidence of what had happened, but considering Spike’s appetite Nathan could pretty well guess. And where was his sticky mouthed friend now, he wondered? He shone the light into every corner and inside every little tub he’d set aside for other creatures and saw nothing. This place was as dead as a cemetery. A boneless cemetery, he thought.

If he’d thought to shine the light at the ceiling at all, which was only a foot or so taller than his head, he’d have found his little pet (though by now Spike could no longer be called ‘little’ at all), clinging to the boards in the far right corner. He’d grown to the size of a basketball, and his milky white eyes watched Nathan, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. He wanted badly to stick his barbed tongue into the meaty boy just feet away, but he was so bloated and full of insects just then that he couldn’t move. Having swallowed many of them whole, he could still feel them writhing and squirming around inside him.

But Nathan did not shine a light on the black monstrosity that watched him, and instead went about moving the stool and desk out of the room – at one point getting so close to the corner that the tip of his head almost brushed Spike’s belly. Luckily, both things were small enough to fit below the door. It took him an hour, but eventually he got them both up into the lower room of his tree house, and even had time to make another stool to set next to the fire. At last, he thought, he had created his paradise.

Needless to say, his parents did not approve of his new obsession, but thankfully neither of them had seen the inside of his tree house yet or they would undoubtedly have destroyed it. His mother complained about the danger of being bitten and only relented when he assured her all of his bugs were in special containers. His father urged him to take a walk to town, or join a football club, but that was as close as he got to keeping him out of his favourite place. The truth was, neither of them saw him aside from mealtimes, now, and they both knew there was nothing they could do about it.

As for him, Nathan revelled in his hive. He fed his pets and observed them and played with them and often slept by the fire all through the night. He noticed that the top room tended to be almost empty of insects, and that the hive at the top of the tree seemed to have doubled in size, but aside from that Spike and the bites remained far from his mind.

The memories returned soon enough, however, when he stepped out onto the rope ladder to descend and felt something watching him. He froze with his hands on the top rungs, and then looked over his shoulder. At first, he thought the garden was bare as usual, but then his gaze drifted over to the site of his old treehouse and he froze.

It took him a moment to recognize Spike, for he’d grown so huge now that he’d be more likely to squash ants as eat them. It was sickening enough to see such a small thing grown to such a ridiculous size, but what was worse was the mouth. Nathan had never been able to see Spike’s mouth before, but now that he could he realised how it had devoured so many of his pets so quickly. Like a fish, its black lips turned down at the edges and hundreds of tiny pointed teeth were just visible. They were finely bunched and sharp, like cactus spines. Somewhere behind them would be that long, stringy tongue, and behind that was a stomach that looked capable of fitting the head of a small boy. It watched him with blank eyes, motionless.

Nathan watched it, terrified, his knuckles white on the rungs of his ladder. He realised at some point that Spike had begun to move towards him, very slowly. Each of his six spindly legs moved at a time, moving his fat body slowly over the grass.

It’s trying to sneak up on me, he realised, and that shook him awake. He shot back up the ladder, spun around, and began to roll the ladder up after him as quick as he could. Somehow, Spike made it all the way across the garden before he pulled it the rest of the way up and leapt at the bottom rung. It was a frighteningly high jump, but it fell short and Nathan heard the whump as he landed in the grass a moment later.

He shoved the rope ladder aside and screamed for his parents as loud as he could. Then he remembered they were both out at work today, and wouldn’t return until dinnertime. That was soon, actually, but when he stuck his head over the side and looked down at his old pet he realised that the difference between soon and half an hour might mean his life.

Spike had moved over to the base of the jacaranda and was now standing on his four back legs while his two front ones probed the bark for leverage. Nathan noticed that his legs were covered in hundreds of barbs that had once been too small to see. For feet, he had large hooks that resembled oversized bee stingers. He dug these into the bark and pulled himself up a little, so that the pair of legs under his abdomen could lift up and begin probing the tree.

Every now and again, Nathan saw a long, red worm of a tongue shoot out from his mouth. It was not big or thick and full of barbs as he’d feared, but it was certainly long and about as thick as a piece of spaghetti.

The utter shock that had seized him initially was beginning to recede and be replaced by a fear so horrible and instinctive that for a moment all he wanted to do was throw himself from the treehouse and run for the house. That, of course, was madness. The way Spike had moved suggested that even with its wide body he’d feel its tongue on him in seconds. He remembered the way it had snagged the ants and pulled them into his mouth with painful leisure.

Nathan stood up and looked around the room for anything he could use. He had a flashlight, a log stool, and a desk. Useless. He couldn’t even throw them on Spike, since he was climbing the tree trunk and not the rope ladder.

The answer came to him a second later, just as Spike’s ugly head poked in through the doorway. So shocked was he that the fat thing had managed to climb so quickly, he staggered back and tripped over his own stool, landing on a heap of soil that ants were using for their home. They swarmed from the wreckage and onto his legs, covering him with angry bites, but he barely noticed.

The long, red spaghetti tongue shot from Spike’s mouth and into Nathan’s outstretched ankle. Not around it, or on it, but into it. The tip of it went through his skin like a needle through butter and snaked up his shin. When it clenched, he felt it close around his bone. The flesh yielded like ice under hot water. Nathan screamed.

Spike made an odd gurgling sound in the back of his throat and Nathan was thrown onto his back as he was dragged across the floor by his leg. The pain was maddening, but his foot was now less than a meter from Spike’s mouth and he knew that if he didn’t do something soon things weren’t likely to get better.

Summoning all his strength, he grabbed the log stool, fixed his aim between the wide milky eyes, and hurled. It struck Spike in the middle of his head and rolled with him out of the tree house. Now the tongue clutched Nathan’s bone so tight he’d swear it was cutting grooves, and for a second all he could do was stare at the ceiling and scream.

He sat up and hammered at the stringy tongue with all his might, but it seemed to be made of rubber. If only he had a knife, he could cut it. He felt the tugging on his bone as Spike began to pull himself up, like a spider ascending a string of its web. Nathan did not have a knife, and he might have despaired but for his ants. They were all over him by now, and those on his leg attacked the tongue with equal ferocity. Some of them began to crawl down it and that was when Spike relinquished. A second later, Nathan heard another whump, far below.

There was not much time, but now he knew what he had to do. Somehow bearing the agony in his leg, he grabbed his desk and lugged it up the branches to the top room. He dropped it just in the entrance and then fell by the fireplace, pushing the stones and sand aside. Safety was no longer his goal for this fire: size was.

He snatched a bundle of kindling and a box of matches he always kept nearby (along with a jug of water, just in case). The bundle lit on the third strike, and he forced himself to nurse it until it was big enough to take a few more substantial logs. He piled them on as fast as he dared, knowing that if he smothered it his only option would be to jump and run.

When a few of the sticks had caught on, he grabbed them and hurried down the branches to the lower room. He found a dry patch in one corner and scraped the dirt away before he lay them down.

When he turned, Spike goggled at him from the doorway once again. This time, instead of staggering backward, he raced across the room, and though he escaped he felt Spike’s tongue lick the sole of his right foot, drawing blood instantly.

He dove back into the fire room and saw that the flames weren’t nearly big enough yet. He turned and wedged the table hard into the doorway. Spike was already scrabbling up the spiralling branches that made a makeshift stairway.

He grabbed another flaming stick and hurled it at Spike. It struck him in the face and Nathan watched with relief as he retreated, squealing obscenely. Nathan turned and grabbed two armfuls of logs, almost all that was left now, and dumped them on the fire. It accepted them with a hiss and a crackle. By now, the heat was singeing the hairs on his body and the smoke was beginning to choke him.

Something red and sharp snaked into his left arm from behind and pulled. Nathan jerked backwards, screaming. He dropped to the floor and reached for the fire, and managed to snag a flaming twig by the tips of his fingers. He could feel hot breath on the back of his neck. Without looking, he thrust the twig over his shoulder and heard another squeal, and the tongue receded.

Nathan threw himself forward and then kicked every last loose bit of wood into the fire except one, which he kept. He flung the flashlight at Spike just as he was coming over the barrier. The desk broke and the whole mess went tumbling down the branches to the lower room.

He didn’t wait to see that flicking tongue again. Instead, he reached up through the open ceiling and hauled himself up onto the next branch. It was a few seconds before the smoke thinned out enough for him to see and breathe properly. When he wiped the tears from his eyes, he saw that he was barely twenty feet from the top of the tree, with the big green hive hanging from the top branch. Then he looked down and saw, amidst billowing smoke and fire, A black body and two milky eyes, steadily ascending.

‘Why don’t you die!’ He screamed at it, beginning to panic in earnest, now. ‘Why don’t you just burn and die!’ Then he turned his attention skywards once more and reached for the next branch.

His climbing was dangerous and uncertain, but Spike was sure and steady, and he was gaining. Soon, Nathan thought, he’d be within reach of his tongue, and if that thing curled around one of his bones once more he didn’t think he’d get free again. He didn’t want to think what those cactus spine teeth could do to his soft flesh.

He climbed with a fearlessness he would have once been awed by. Once, he had to leap from one branch to another, which was barely strong enough to take his weight. It cracked under him, and he found another to stand on just as it was breaking away. Beat that, you slippery turd, he thought, but Spike only goggled at him and flicked his tongue and hooked his way ever upwards.

The trunk grew thinner and thinner as he went, until it was barely as wide as he was, and he realised that he was at the top. Or not quite the top – the hive was almost an arm’s reach above him, now, and that was the top. It didn’t matter, really, because Spike was a fraction of his weight and he was going to reach him. There was nowhere else to go except down, and they were almost forty feet up. The tree house was twenty feet below him, and Spike was perhaps fifteen and climbing.

Nathan looked down at the distant grass, where he could make out massive lines of insects running across the garden, escaping from the fire. The smoke was all around now, thick even at this height.

He looked up at the hive and saw that it was, as he’d suspected, a biter hive. This close, he could see that it was crawling with the little black dots. It looked like a fat green fruit infested with living black mould. He decided, then, that if he couldn’t kill the slavering monster below him, he’d kill its extended family at least.

He couldn’t reach it from where he was – his fingertips barely brushed the bottom. But there was one more branch that might take his weight. Spike was less than ten feet below him, now, and he could hear those hook arms digging into the bark with each step. There was nothing for it, he hugged the trunk and took a step up.

The branch bent under his weight, but it held. Nathan cackled in a voice high with hysteria, and then reached around the trunk with both arms and grabbed hold of the narrow branch which held up the hive. He pulled down, almost resting his entire body on it. The wood began to give a little, and when he shook it he heard a snap. The bites fell from it like pepper from the shaker. As if he knew what was going to happen, Spike let out another gurgling squeal and increased his pace. His tongue leapt out, but he was still short of Nathan’s feet.

There was a loud snapping sound and Nathan felt the branch break. He watched gleefully as the hive fell through the air towards the inferno that was his tree house, and disappear into the smoke. He let out an insane scream, borne out of no particular emotion. It was all animal, and he screamed it down at the disgusting carnivore below him. It screamed back at him, and it was almost as though they were speaking the same language.

But now, Nathan saw, the end had come. Spike’s tongue came flying up towards him. The tip of it pierced the skin near his hip. For an agonizing second, he felt the tongue moving inside him as it groped for purchase. Eventually, it curled like ivy around his upper leg and held tight. He was almost near enough to take a bite.

In his pain and terror, Nathan stared down past this beast and saw the fire. He didn’t think, but he saw the fire and understood only that fire killed. That was the extent of his fear, and his desperation was enough that he needn’t think any further: he simply jumped. In the moments that followed, there was little that Nathan remembered. They were a blur of pain and horror that existed only as they occurred and no further.

Nathan plummeted towards the raging fire. He was jerked up by the leg at the moment Spike’s tongue went taught. Then Spike lost his grip and they went down together. Vision disappeared in masses of smoke, and then they struck the treehouse.

The previous summer, Nathan’s family had gone to the beach, and he and his father had gone swimming in stormy weather. He’d been dumped by a four meter wave that day, and this was like that. The difference was that that storm had been made of water and this one was made of wood and fire. He felt blows on every side and he flopped and turned like a rag doll.

He had no recollection of anything, but when his thoughts returned to him he was lying face down on damp grass, choking. He’d been on fire a moment before, and rolled around on the lawn, but he couldn’t remember even that. Now, all he sensed was heat behind him and he crawled away from it. In all his life, that was the closest he’d ever been to being an insect himself: Mindless, reacting on instinct to the basic sense of pain.

He opened his eyes again and twisted in the grass until he was looking up at his tree house. There was nothing left of it. Most of the fire had burned itself out, but there was a pillar of smoke stretching into the sky. The center had collapsed in on itself and whatever was left had been destroyed by his and Spike’s descent.

And there was Spike, too. He was lying less than five feet away from Nathan. He’d still been alive after the fall, apparently, because while Nathan lay unconscious he’d still been trying to reach him. When Nathan sat up, he saw the long tongue stretched out on the grass, and its tip lay inches from his neck.

Nathan turned and crawled further from the corpse and the smoking ruins. He could hear fire engine sirens in the distance and he had a good idea where they were headed.

He made it to the house and then turned and sat up against the brick wall. His legs were both screaming with pain and he thought one of his lungs must have been damaged because with every breath he received only half the air. He was crying, but they weren’t all tears of pain. He watched his favourite tree house – his sanctuary – burn, and he knew all the bites burned with it.

Nathan closed his eyes and fell back on the grass. He wondered how long it would take his parents to return when they heard there’d been a fire, and what they’d do to him. Eventually, he found he didn’t care.

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