“How’s she doing?” I asked, tossing Kyle a beer as he mounted the steps to my porch. Beers around sunset was one of our traditions on the weeknights I was lucky enough to be home. We never drank to excess, just a beer or two after work. Over the course of the past week, Kyle began to seem more and more downhearted each night.
He shook his head. He pretended to be in high spirits but I could tell it was a facade. That strong exterior was beginning to wear and fray at the edges. Kyle, who was normally so lighthearted and optimistic, was beginning to crack. He’d felt worried about Eden for days now.
“It’s just a flu,” I heard myself telling him. Of course, I didn’t believe it. So far they’d made a trip to the doctor and another yesterday to the emergency room where I worked. I’d administered the test, swabbing the inside of her nose myself. It wasn’t the flu. I couldn’t tell her — nobody could tell her what was actually wrong.
The mysterious sickness lingered for days. It started the way these things normally do: Sneezing. Coughing. Fever. Vomit. Diarrhea. After a week, she’d not improved. In fact, in the past two days she’d gotten worse.
Kyle opened the can of beer and the hiss of it filled the silent space between our words. “Last night,” he began, “she was like, speaking in another language or something.” Kyle said.
“Does she know another language?” I asked.
“Not that I know of.”
“What language was it?”
“I only speak English,” Kyle said with a shrug, “how should I know? It was like she made it up or something. Like those YouTube videos of people speaking tongues in church.” He scratched the top of his head. Though he made great attempts to maintain his casual air, I could see the worry was creeping behind his eyes. They looked lusterless and more far away every day.
“It’s probably fever nonsense.” I reassured him.
“Well, it’s like what she’s saying is incomprehensible,” he said. “It’s grunting guttural sounds, but at times what she’s saying sounds like actual words.”
I began to see less and less of Kyle for our nightly beer as the evenings passed and Eden grew progressively worse. Then he seemed to disappear all together and just as suddenly I began to see Eden again. She was fine. Eden was coming and going from the house, fully recovered…
I couldn’t help but notice something was different about her.
I thought I must have imagined it. It was near impossible to notice at first.
Had she lost weight?
Had she done something different with her hair?
There was an extra bounce in her step and though she was beautiful before, she seemed radiant now. It was as though she’d become another person. Even the tone of her voice seemed to have shifted, and grown a more velvet quality. It was hypnotic and intoxicating now.
“Hello Scott,” she said to me one morning.
“Shitty-titty!” I exclaimed in surprise. I spun to face her and apologized. I blushed. “I don’t know where that came from,” I explained. “You just startled me.”
She didn’t laugh or react. Her eyes were as cool as ice and her expression betrayed nothing. I was knee deep that Saturday morning in my flowerbeds, pulling weeds. I’d had hundreds of conversations with this woman, yet with my back to her, she sounded so different. I didn’t know who was speaking. Moreover, she was standing a mere foot behind me. She’d approached so lightfootedly I hadn’t heard her coming.
“I was wondering if you could pop in on Kyle tonight,” she said. “He’s the one that’s sick now. I won’t be back in until sometime tomorrow.” Her husky voice felt rehearsed and almost robotic.
“I would, but it will be kind of late, Eden.” I said, “I think I get off around 10:00 tonight.”
“It doesn’t matter what time,” she said. “He’s been so out of it, he won’t even know what’s going on.” Her eyes were glossy and emotionless, “I have to do this thing for — for work. And I’d feel better if someone looked in on him while I was out.” She handed me a key before she left.
Things were strange at the hospital that afternoon. It began immediately after I clocked in around 11:00am.
“Put on a mask.” Andrea told me as soon as I walked through the door. “There’s something going around, and it’s pretty bad.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Not sure,” she said. Her expression was easy to read, even behind the surgical mask that covered her face. She looked scared. “Seems like we saw a few cases of whatever it is last week, that thing…remember? The one we couldn’t identify? We still don’t have any idea what it is. They’re flying in specialists. At least that’s what I heard.”
I pulled the elastic bands behind my ears, covering my face with a mask of my own. “What, like the CDC?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t know where they’re from. What I know is that it looks like the flu,” she said, “but it’s not. We tested a lot of people already today. All negative.”
Could this be what had struck Eden last week? It all rang true. People with flu-like symptoms. People who didn’t have the flu. All of them tested negative. If that was the case, they’d probably recover quickly. The same as she had.
Our first patient of the day didn’t make anything better.
“It’s my husband,” the man said. “I wasn’t sick until this morning. My husband’s the cause of it. That’s why I’m sick.”
“What’s the cause of it?” I asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine.” The man told me, “I’ve been staying away from him. Hurt me to do that, but I get sick every time he does and I didn’t want to catch it. Been sleeping on the couch and spending more time at work.”
“What symptoms do you feel yourself?” I asked.
He coughed. His eyes were bloodshot.
“I’ve been throwing up for the past day.” He said, “it doesn’t constitute an emergency room visit, I know. But, I wanted to come here.”
I asked a few more questions as I poked and prodded him. I took samples from his nose and swabbed the inside of his mouth.
“He’s been acting strange.” The man said moving his tongue around the wooden tongue depressor, “like he’s gone. Been stolen. Someone else.” I sat back in my seat, “He was sick for a lot of days. Then all of the sudden, he was fine again. But it wasn’t him. It was someone else.”
This was all very familiar and reminded me of my own neighbors.
That day, I had several other strange conversations. Conversations of eerie similarity that mirrored this one. Everyone I spoke to was showing symptoms — fever, nausea, vomiting — that their loved ones had mysteriously recovered from in the last day or two. Some came into the emergency room with boils, spewing puss and air when lanced. Nearly all of them complained of feeling bloated.
“It feels like my skin is too tight,” one woman said to us as another nurse and I examined her. “It feels like I could split apart at any moment.” Coughing, she spat a mouthful of blood into the crook of her arm. We admitted her along with many others to the south wing, which we’d made into a makeshift quarantine. It began filling with patients.
I clocked out around 1:00 in the morning, dead on my feet. I’d been falling asleep in the nurse’s station. I only left because they made me. Telling me to get some rest and come back as soon as I could. As I left, I decided to keep my mask on.
I stopped at the 24-hour grocery store.
I wasn’t the only one wearing a mask.
Walking through the cereal aisle, seeing not one but two others wearing medical masks … I found myself with more questions than I could answer on my own. What is going on here? Why hasn’t this been on the news? The others in the store eyed me warily.
“Excuse me,” I asked. A man stood at the end of the aisle, examining a tin of coffee grounds. His eyes grew wide as he dropped it, spilling it to the floor before ducking around the endcap into the next aisle.
By the time I went to check on Kyle it was 2:30 in the morning. I’d been changing the mask regularly, while keeping my face covered for the entire day at work and long after, into the night. I wore it as I drove home. I’d grown too afraid to take it off. How contagious this pathogen was I couldn’t say. We didn’t even know what it was. When I pulled into my driveway, I stuffed my pockets from a borrowed box of hospital gloves that sat in the front seat.
Kyle’s house was dark. Not a single light was on within and when I tried to turn them on, the switches clicked impotently and none of them worked. I found on inspection that every bulb in the front rooms was partially unscrewed from their sockets. Someone, Eden I guessed, went through and unscrewed them all. But why? For what? For me.
When I’d restored the light to the front room I knew the reason she tampered with it. Brown handprints, dark and dry smeared the walls like fingerpaints. A morbid sense of curiosity came over me. I didn’t want to explore the depths of this house, but I couldn’t stop myself from doing so at the same time. The ambivalence of fear and duty warred within me. After a few moments, staring aghast at the gruesome trains of red lines that traced paths along the walls, the duty won out and I put on a set of gloves. I adjusted my mask. Kyle was my friend. I had to check on him.
Eden must have done something awful. Leaving these blood smeared walls in her wake and asking me to look in on him was her confession note.
I crept down the hall moving slow and quiet. I knew this house but not well — their bedroom hid behind the door at the end of it. I tried the light switch at the entry of the narrow walkway to no avail. The bulb was too high above me to rethread so I took out my phone and used its LED to light the way.
Kyle laid in the bed, in the dark. His breathing was shallow. Eden told me that Kyle would be home alone. I could tell by the light of my phone and the moonlight through the windows that Kyle was not alone in the bed. The chest of one of the bodies rose and fell with air while the other lay still. Unease crept within my skin, begging for release. My own sense of self preservation was there with that unease, urging me to run. Run and do not look back. The discord of my thoughts rang like tinnitus in my ears (Run! Run! Run!) as I pulled away the covers.
Both bodies that lay in the bed were Kyle. Each sleeping form faced the wall. The two intertwined so close they appeared to be spooning.
Peeling back the layers of duvet and sheets I revealed that both bodies that laid in the bed were the same. One emitted those shallow, ragged breaths. The other was still. I panned the light of my phone across the sleeping forms. The one that moved, chest rising and falling in a rhythmic slow tattoo was bathed in green ichor. A thin layer of it stained the sheets around it. The Kyle that laid as still as death had gray skin, covered in pustules and sores. I circled the bed to where this body lay and reaching a glove hand over him, touched a particularly swollen boil in the dim light. I’d barely touched it and it reacted to my fingertips by exploding outward in a spew of air. I felt my stomach churn. This was how it spread. I could feel my skin crawl thinking about the infectious material in an invisible cloud filling the air around me. The indented skin collapsed in on itself like a dried husk falling away, an empty shell without organs or substance to give it structure. Desiccated and destroyed. I knew that whatever was left of Kyle was gone — replaced by whatever had crawled out of him to lay in his bed. Like the shell left behind by a tarantula, shedded and molted and discarded as it grew.
Kyle’s slimy eyes shot open in the dark. The LED on my phone restricted his pupils into tiny pinpricks through the green mucus that covered his naked form from head to thigh. He opened his mouth parting the ichor in stringy, gooey strands. Finally, I listened to what that voice in my head had been urging me to do. Escape down that path of self-preservation.
I didn’t stop running. I was hyperventilating. That didn’t stop either, not until I was in my car and speeding away from our neighborhood.
I didn’t know what direction to head. I didn’t realize how quiet my drive had been. It was only the pounding of my pulse and my rapid ragged breaths in the dark until, from the passenger seat the silence was broken by the shrill cry of my phone as it rang.
It was Kyle.
I didn’t answer.
I pulled off to the side of the road and unbuckled my seatbelt. Running into the grass, I pulled away the mask and heaved up everything inside of me. I stood there for several minutes as time slowed, staring down at the puddle of vomit at my feet. My breath hitched and I heaved again making every futile attempt to quell the urge down and dispel it but to no avail. The third time I heaved, nothing came out. I made my way back to the car and sat, slow and heavy with defeat, in the driver’s seat.
The phone rang again and the screen bleared through the darkness like a knife through the black. A notification indicated four missed calls while I’d been out on the side of the road.
It was the hospital. I began to listen to the voicemail. The Bluetooth connection sent the panicked voice of the caller’s dread through the speakers in stereo.
The messages pleaded me to come back to work. People were screaming in the background. “We need all staff here immediately! This thing is getting out of control.” I wasn’t even sure who the caller was. They were so rushed they didn’t identify themselves. I listened to the next voicemail. It was much the same and explained why I didn’t hear Eden moving closer to me from the back seat where she lay in wait. I didn’t even know she was there, in the car, hidden in the dark and biding her time until she reached up from behind me, shoving her slender, delicate fingers into my mouth. They were cold and tasted like ammonia. I felt them as sharp as razor blades as they broke open the insides of my cheeks. I gagged and she shoved the fingers further inside. I felt the palm of her hand in my mouth as it split open and began to ooze. Something thick and messy coated the inside of my mouth and drained down my throat, coating the inside of me. It felt delicious. A wave of calm hit me as I drank from the open sore. She tried to pull away but my own hands grabbed her arm and held it firm. I wanted it. I needed it. My body begged for it, while the terror of my brain watched from behind my eyes shouting silently within my head.
No. No. No. I thought.
But my body was shuddering with elation and though the words were struggling to escape around her fingers my mouth was moaning with orgasmic ecstasy.
“Yes, oh God yes.” I heard the words I didn’t mean to say as they slipped between her fingers.
I saw hundreds of worlds form and thrive in an instant. I saw solar systems shudder as stars sputtered out. I saw a great migration from host to host, from galaxy to galaxy as stars imploded and planets died in magnificent exhalations. I saw a creature lacking a face or form of its own, yet staring out at our world through a thousand eyes. I could see all of the horrible knowledge of the present and the consuming fire that charred the world after. I saw myself dancing in the ashes. Reveling in the slow snowfall of dark destruction. I saw myself assimilating with the rest, a thriving mass of limbs and organs as we left to find the next.
The precious vile milk stopped leaking forth, and with it, the visions, but it wasn’t until I felt her wounds close that I released my grip on her.
She laughed as she emerged from the car and melted into the night. The intoxication of the infectious honey subsiding, I watched while I sat in shock. I began to weep, both from the terror of the reality of what had been done to me and from the immediate longing and withdrawal.
She hissed something incomprehensible. Words like the sounds of snakes. It wasn’t English, but deep down I knew the meaning just the same. I said nothing. I did nothing. I would soon be like them. Like my neighbors. Like the patients in the emergency room. Shutting the door to the back seat, Eden disappeared into the tall trees that lay beyond the road.
I put the car back into drive and headed home. I found as I drove that the devouring didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt as it made work captivating my every nerve-ending and wrapping itself around every beat of my heart. Driving home, I realized that it had chosen me. It had chosen us to be its first emissaries on this world. It had slept for aeons but now it had awoken to stalk and creep in the open. It would find everyone in Bradenville after a time, usurping a place within the heart of town and slowly moving outward from place to place as it grew. It would move quickly until its innumerable fingers touched everyone. Once the people were afflicted, it would suck this place dry and burn the husk that was left for fuel.
It was Eden. It was Kyle. I would let it consume me until I was it and it was me. We are patient and we will bode and bide and you may hide but we will wait for you. One day even the vigilant will make a mistake, and we will eat you all. All the way, sliding up and down with our razor teeth on your insides.
As I pulled into my driveway, I realized that there would be nothing left but the wait. Several days of coughing and spewing and dying lay ahead of me. I smiled.
You’ll never see it coming. The greatest mistake you’ll make is thinking it’s a lie, but you will think it. It’s human nature. Humankind’s greatest flaw is how readily it ignores science and medicine, even as the data stares you in the face. You’ll do as the rest and put your trust in misinformation or conspiracies or faith. What you believe doesn’t matter in the end; not in the face of the truth. You’ll see in time and when you do you might elude us for a while if you try, but we will find you, no matter where you try to hide.
And when we do, we’ll find you delicious.