“How’s she doing?”

The concern Jake had for Kyle’s wife was genuine so it was always the first thing he said as Kyle mounted the steps to Jake’s porch in the afternoon.

“Catch,” was the next thing he said as he tossed Kyle a beer. He and Jake had developed a sort of tradition these past few weeknights.

Ever since Eden had fallen ill, he and Kyle would shoot the shit. Jake knew that Kyle was avoiding going inside his own house as much as he could lately. Most evenings, he spent the time relaying distress he was feeling about his wife’s illness and Jake mostly listened quietly. They never drank to excess. Kyle got home daily around 4 o’clock and he wasn’t much of a drinker. Jake worked overnights at the hospital so he kept his consumption to a minimum, not wanting to stumble into work at 11 o’clock with beer still on his breath.

The problem was Kyle’s delivery job. He didn’t work enough hours for the two of them to afford insurance. Jake did what he could to try to diagnose what was wrong with Eden, but there wasn’t much he could do really. He’d never seen the type of symptoms or deterioration that were plaguing Eden before. Even with years of nursing, he couldn’t determine what exactly was wrong with his neighbor’s wife. She was gaining weight, but she hadn’t been eating. Her eyes were constantly bloodshot. She’d been running a fever for days and just the day before, Kyle had told Jake in confidence that he walked in on her in the bathroom and her nose was dripping a steady white milky fluid as thick as drool. She’d wiped it away quickly and when he’d asked her about it, she insisted that he must have imagined it.

Things with Eden were deteriorating over the course of the past week and Kyle’s mood was too. Jake could feel him growing more and more downhearted each afternoon that the two of them met up this way, though Kyle was doing his best not to let on.

Still, Jake could tell that Kyle’s smile was forced and the high spirits Kyle always seemed to carry with him as he popped the tab on his can of beer was pretense. Kyle, who was normally so lighthearted and optimistic, was beginning to crack and his strong facade was beginning to fray around the edges.

“You really should take her to the hospital.” Jake told him again. He’d been saying this to Kyle as they stood from the rockers on the porch. His constant parting advice.

Truth be told, the conversations were insubstantial and Jake entertained them because Kyle was a good friend and a better neighbor. He felt he needed the company, especially now. But the conversation consisted mostly of Jake shaking his head, gazing off into the distance and lost, and of greetings and goodes. The beer, the greeting. Jake’s continued repetition of the direction to take her to the emergency room, the goode.

“We can’t afford that man,” Kyle usually said. “Besides it’s just a flu. She’ll be back to her old nagging self soon.”

Eden’s mysterious sickness lingered for days. It started the way these things normally do: Sneezing. Coughing. Fever. Vomit. Diarrhea. Then there was that strange thing that Kyle witnessed in the bathroom on top of it all. After a week, she’d not improved. In fact, over the course of the next two days, matters had gotten worse. Against his better judgement, Jake smuggled a flu test out of the hospital. Normally, he wouldn’t risk his job doing something like this, but the patient he logged it under was old. The man was suffering from dementia and similar symptoms to the ones Eden was displaying. He logged the result on the man’s chart as inconclusive and noted that the attending physician should order a second test. It wasn’t like he was smuggling a pocket full of narcotics out of the hospital but still, he was terrified that someone would discover what he’d done.

Kyle was insisting that Eden’s ailment was the flu, but Jake wasn’t so convinced. If he wasn’t going to bring his wife into the hospital, there was something he could do to help them further. Protocol be damned.

The next night, as Kyle opened the can of beer and the hiss of it filled the silent space between their words, Jake told Kyle what he’d done.

“You think it’s the flu. I want to test her to be sure.” He said.

Kyle was quiet for a moment before replying. The air between them grew heavier and heavier as he avoided reply. Jake could tell he was mulling something over in his mind. Deciding whether it would be better to share it or keep it to himself. A breeze kicked up and seemed to set the world around them into whispering motion. The trees whispered with the rustling of leaves. Near there were bees flitting quietly, drinking the nectar from the oleander bushes at the edge of Jake’s yard. It would have been impossible to hear a sound so minute and distant, but the quiet between the two of them had grown so heavy that Jake could swear he heard them buzzing away at their work. He could swear he heard the fizzing of the beer he held in his hand and slowly, the sound was growing more and more deafening as the silence grew. The street light at the end of Jake’s driveway flickered on as the sky began to darken and the buzz of it joined the white noise of the anticipation that lingered between them.

Kyle just continued to stare off into space, not hearing any of these things himself and not making any sound other than the labored sad breathing that pressed against his chest. It grew more and more ragged and Jake was afraid that the man might begin to cry. Kyle was not the crying sort and Jake wasn’t much for comfort. He held his own breath and quietly wished that the hitching of his neighbor’s breath would subside and he would either say whatever it was that he had on his mind or change the subject entirely.

Finally, Kyle spoke and decided to say whatever it was that was on his mind and holding so tightly to his tongue.

“I don’t think that’s what it is anymore. The flu, I mean.” He began with a sigh. “It’s different now. Something’s changed. It’s gotten–well–I can’t really describe it. Something’s definitely gotten a lot stranger.”

The things Jake imagined he was hearing in the distance began to amplify. The droning of the insects and the fizzing of the beer in Kyle’s hand grew louder in tandem as he went on. Jake knew he couldn’t really hear all of these tiny sounds, but the idea that they were there, fizzing and buzzing around in his head while Kyle spoke and getting louder all the while was hard to shake.

“How has it gotten stranger?” Jake heard himself asking, but his voice sounded far away to him. What if Kyle was right? What if it wasn’t the flu at all? What if it was something that was catching? He was already in so much risk of catching every strange strand of bug imaginable at the hospital and he’d been spending every afternoon sitting here on his porch with Kyle from nextdoor who’s wife’s condition had, Kyle’s own admission, been getting progressively stranger.

He imagined what it would have felt like if he’d been the one who walked in on her in the bathroom, with that strange viscous milky fluid draining out of her nose. He could tell Kyle didn’t believe it when she told him it was something that he’d been imagining. Jake’s head was swimming with this thought as Kyle spoke. He didn’t hear a word of it.

“I’m sorry, what was that? I was listening but I kind of spaced off.” Jake replied. He blamed the straying attention on missing hours of sleep.

“I said, she was speaking another language. In her sleep. It was the strangest thing, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just gibberish. Sounds I didn’t know a person could make. It was like she was having a conversation. Her eyes were open, but I waved my hand in front of her face and she didn’t respond at all. Like she was talking to someone that wasn’t there. I even tapped her and said her name. She didn’t wake up.”

“Does she know another language?” Jake asked.

“Not that I know of. If I’m being honest, I was so weirded out it, I went into the living room. Watched the news all night until I had to get ready for work and tried not to think about it.” Kyle said.

“What language was it?”

“I only speak English, man” Kyle said shrugged, “I’m telling you, I don’t fuckin’ know but it freaked me out, that’s for sure. Sleeping with her eyes open and muttering like that. It was like she was making it up or something. Like those YouTube videos, you know?” He ran his hands through his hair and looked around nervously, as though someone might be listening to their conversation. “Those YouTube videos of the people speaking tongues in church.”

Kyle scratched the shab growth of beard on his neck and sighed. He was normally clean-shaven and Jake couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen his neighbor with stubble on his chin. Though he made great attempts to maintain his casual demeanor there was a wiley unhinged sort of worry creeping into his voice. That same worry seemed to be creeping around behind his bag-darkened eyes, and the more Jake thought about it, the more he felt those eyes had begun to look more lackluster and glassy day--day.

“It’s probably fever nonsense.” Jake reassured him.

“Well, it’s just incomprehensible, is all.” Kyle continued. “It’s grunting guttural sounds, but at times what she’s saying sounds like it could be actual words…but like, words from somewhere else. Another world. You know?”

“I think you need to get some sleep.” Jake began, “this has got you worried sick and I probably shouldn’t have done this, but maybe it will set your mind at ease.”

Kyle listened as Jake told him about the flu test he’d stolen the day before and Kyle agreed that it probably would do a bit a good for his anxiety.

Eden was unresponsive, her breathing shallow and Kyle gave his consent for the nose swab on her behalf. Jake was uncomfortable doing this test on his neighbor who had lost the ability to speak for herself, but Jake insisted that he ‘was on all her doctor forms’ and could consent for her.

The test results came back negative.

Over the next few evenings, Eden seemed to grow progressively worse and Jake began to see less and less of Kyle for their nightly beer and conversations. He was there some evenings and on others, went straight into his house upon returning home from work. Very soon, he seemed to disappear altogether and just as suddenly, Jake began to see Eden again. Eden makes the trip to the end of the driveway to collect the mail. Eden takes short walks around the neighborhood. Eden gets into the car to run errands. Eden returns with her arms laden with groceries. Just as suddenly as Kyle disappeared entirely, it seemed as though Eden was making a full recovery. She was fine now. She was coming and going from the house and all appearances she seemed to be fully recovered.

Still, Jake couldn’t help but notice something was different about her. At first, he thought he must have imagined it, but the change was nearly impossible to notice. Had she lost weight? No. That wasn’t it. Had she done something different with her har?

It was an undeniable fact that she was beautiful before, but it seemed that of late there was an extra bounce in her step. She seemed radiant now. It was as though she had become another person. Even the tone of her voice had seemed to change. It was shifted. It still sounded like her, but it was more hypnotic now. Intoxicating. It had grown a more velvet quality.

She approached Jake one morning while he was gardening.

“Hello Jake,” she said to him in the new velour husk that her voice had become.

Jake hadn’t heard her approach him.

“Jesus Christ!” he exclaimed and turning to face her, he wiped his soil-caked hands onto his jeans.

Eden didn’t laugh or react at all to his outburst. Her eyes were as cool and unmoving as glacial ice and her expression betrayed nothing. Jake had been knee deep in his flowerbeds, pulling weeds. He’d had hundreds of conversations with this woman over the years, and yet with his back to her, her voice had sounded so different. Less warm. Somehow cold.

She was standing a mere foot behind him and he should have heard her footfalls as she approached but her gait was so light-footed, he hadn’t heard her coming at all.

“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.” It was as though her eyes were looking through him.

“I would, but it won’t be tonight. It will be sometime in the morning, I guess. I’m supposed to get off around 7:00a.m.”

“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. I won’t be back until sometime tomorrow afternoon.” She handed Jake a key before she left.

When Jake got to the hospital that evening, the parking lot was full of cars. The waiting room for the ER was full. It was never full at 11:00pm. Hesitantly, he made his way to the locker room and changed into his nurse scrubs. The entire time, looking around him in confusion.

What was going on?

“Put on a mask.” Andrea said, brushing her auburn hair out of her eyes as soon as he walked out of the locker room. “There’s something going around, and it’s catching pretty bad.”

“What is it?” He 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?” He remembered, but at the time he didn’t think much of it. It was whatever Eden had. He thought it was the flu. Everyone thought it was the flu, but everyone they’d tested at the hospital and Eden’s own test results had come back negative.

“We still don’t have any idea what it is. They’re flying in specialists. At least that’s what I heard.”

Jake pulled the elastic bands behind his ears, covering his face with the mask that she handed to him. “What, like the CDC?” He asked.

She shrugged. “Fuck if I know. I don’t know where they’re from. We tested a lot of people already today for a lot of different things. All negative.”

If this was whatever Eden had, was it really something so terrible to worry about? Eden had made a full recovery. He told all of this to Andrea before he split up from her and began to make his rounds.

His first patient of the night did very little to ease the new worry that was slowly beginning to pulse through him.

“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?” Jake asked.

“What do you mean? You’re the fuckin’ doctor.”

“Nurse actually,” Jake said.

“Well fuck, your guess is as good as mine.” The man said with a hard shrug. “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 whatever he’d got. Been sleeping on the couch and spending more time at work.”

“What symptoms do you feel, yourself?” Jake 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, then there was the mucus. Never seen anything like it. I kept blowing and blowing my nose. So I wanted to come here.”

Jake asked a few more questions as he poked and prodded the man. He took samples from his nose and swabbed the inside of his mouth. He wasn’t sure which tests they should be ordering, but he felt he had to do something.

“He’s been acting strange.” The man said moving his tongue around the wooden tongue depressor, “like he’s gone. Been stolen. Someone else.” Jake sat back in his seat as the man continued, “He was sick for a lot of days. Then all of the sudden, he was fine again. But it wasn’t him. I’m telling you it like he was someone else entirely.”

For the rest of that night Jake had other strange conversations. It was like the entire town was sharing the same delusion and he found it more baffling with each case. The emergency room was full for most of the night and began to clear out only in the early hours of the morning.

Everyone he spoke to was showing the same symptoms — fever, nausea, vomiting, and that strange discharge was mentioned more than once. People were saying that they must have caught it from their loved ones, but those people had experienced a full recovery in the last day or two. A few people came into the emergency room with boils, although that was less common. These swollen nodes would spew the same discharge that many of the patients described; a milky puss that shot into the air when lanced. Nearly every person that Jake spoke to mentioned feeling bloated.

“It feels like my skin is too tight,” one woman said as Jake and Andrea examined her together. Andrea swiped her hair out of her face with the back of her hand and Jake made a mental note to remind her to tie it back better once they left the room. Or put on a cap. Either way she needed to stop touching her face.

“It feels like I could split apart at any moment.” The woman complained. Coughing, she spat a mouthful of blood into the crook of her arm. Overnight, the south wing of the hospital had been made into a makeshift quarantine while they awaited the extra help that was supposedly being flown in. That help never did show up the time Jake’s shift was done, and the south wing of the hospital was quickly filling up with patients. Jake began to worry that they were going to run out of beds. Bradenville Memorial was not a large hospital, because Bradenville was not a large town. They weren’t equipped for this sort of thing.

Even as the emergency room began to clear out with the sunrise, Jake decided to stay for another two hours until nearly every patient had been seen. He was falling asleep in the nurses station when someone from the next shift tapped him on the shoulder. They told him the daytime staff was mostly here now and he should go home and get some rest.

He stopped at the grocery store on his way home. In a momentary thought of prudence, he donned his hospital mask before entering through the automatic doors which slid open with a quiet hiss. He was shocked to find how quickly news had traveled from the hospital that there was somehting new in the air and it was catching. Nobody knew how it was catching, but it seemed as though there wasn’t a single person in the store who was taking any chances. He wasn’t the only one wearing a mask and he wasn’t the only one who had pulled a set of latex gloves out of their pocket. Nearly everyone in the store was wearing some sort of personal protection against the spread.

Walking through the cereal aisle, he saw not one but two others wearing face coverings. One was a medical mask like his own, the other man was wearing a bandana that was knotted around the back of his neck. Jake found himself with more questions than he could begin to even consider. What was going on here? Why hasn’t this been on the news? He’d been listening to it on the radio during his drive over. The local station. The others in the store eyed him warily and each of them gave every other shopper a wide berth.

“Excuse me,” Jake asked a man who stood at the end of an aisle. In his hands was a box of sugared cereal, the kind Jake remembered from his childhood. The kind his mother used to chastise him for adding spoonfuls and spoonfuls of more sugar before devouring and coming back for seconds. The man’s eyes grew wide as he dropped it, and the box burst open, splitting the bag inside and spilling a rainbow of the sugary memories onto the floor. Quickly as a flash, the man ducked around the endcap and into the next aisle. Jake considered following him, but decided that would be more trouble than it was worth. What exactly would it accomplish?

Excuse me sir? Why are you running from me? I work at the hospital and although I should know what the fuck is going on, I have no fucking idea what is going on. Do you?

By the time he went to check on Kyle it was nearly 10:00 in the morning. Jake was changing his mask regularly, keeping his face covered the entire day at work and long after, into the morning. He wore it as he drove home. He’d grown too afraid to take it off. How contagious was this? Nobody even seemed to know what this pathogen was. Was it in the air?

When he pulled into his driveway, he stuffed his pockets from a borrowed box of hospital gloves that sat next to him in the front seat.

Kyle’s house was dark. Not a single light was on inside, which wasn’t so strange in-and-of itself–afterall it was daytime. Still, all of the curtains were drawn. Jake made his way slowly up the driveway and unlocked the door with the key Eden had given him. As his hand gripped the handle, he couldn’t help but notice that it was cold to the touch. The door swung open and Jake was not surprised to find that the house was freezing inside. He shivered, imagining himself an explorer entering the unearthed tomb of some forgotten Egyptian pharaoh. He tried to turn on a light, but every switch he flipped clicked impotently. None of them worked.

He tried the lamp the door, pulling the little chain that hung down beneath the shade.

Click. Click. Click.

Nothing happened, so he reached up a bit further and tested the bulb with his fingertips. Strangely, he found that it was loose, yet not loose enough to fall out. He screwed it back in and it lit up the living room, making the shadows that fell in the hallway more ominous and dark. He began to inspect other bulbs and flick other switches. If the bulbs were not missing outright, they had been hastily twisted out of socket with their connections broken. Someone–Eden he guessed?–had gone through the house unscrewing them all…but what baffled him was why? To what end? He felt a knot grow in his stomach as it began to churn. He did not want to check on Kyle. He wanted to run out of this house and not look back…

He found that he couldn’t. Kyle was a good friend and a good neighbor.

As he began to cast more and more light into the darkness of the house, he became increasingly unnerved. Brown handprints, dark and dry smeared the walls like fingerpaints. Slowly the dread he was feeling began to transform into morbid curiosity. He didn’t want to explore the further depths of this house, but he couldn’t stop himself from doing it at the same time. The ambivalence of fear and duty were waging a war within him. He spent more than a few moments staring aghast at the gruesome trains of brown lines that traced their paths along the walls and duty won out. He reached into his pockets and put on a pair of gloves. He adjusted his mask. Kyle was his friend and if he wasn’t dead amidst the walls stained with what he was sure was most certainly dried blood, he could be in need of some very serious help.

He worried about what he would find, but he continued on. Eden must have done something awful, leaving these blood smeared walls in her wake and afterward asking Jake to look in on Kyle. The entire premise of this felt to Jake like he was reading her signed confession note.

Slowly, he crept into the darkness. Slowly and quietly. He knew this house, but not as well as his own. He knew that their bedroom hid behind the door at the end of this hall. He tried the light switch at the entry of the narrow walkway to no avail and the bulb was too high above his head to rethread it so he took out his phone and used the LED to light his way.

He found Kyle lying in the bed, in the dark of the bedroom. His breathing was shallow, but he was still alive. Eden told Jake that morning that Kyle would be home alone and Jake could tell the light of his phone and the dim sunlight that filtered through the blackout curtains that Kyle was not alone in the bed. The chest of one of the bodies rose and fell with the wheezing of his breath and the other body in the bed lay still.

Jake’s skin began to crawl like something was moving beneath, begging for release. His sense of self preservation was there with whatever squirmed beneath his skin and the impulse of it was urging him to run. Run and do not look back. The discord of his thoughts rang like tinnitus in his ears and he began to feel faint as he watched his hands move of their own, curious volition, and pull away the covers, all while his brain screamed at him…

No. No. NO! Run! RUN!

Both bodies that lay in the bed were Kyle. Each sleeping form faced the wall with their backs to Jake where he stood. The two were intertwined so close they appeared to be spooning. One emitted those shallow, ragged breaths. The other was still. Jake panned the light of his phone across the sleeping forms. The one that moved, chest rising and falling in a rhythmic and slow tattoo was bathed in what appeared to be a green and sticky ichor, although Jake did not reach out to test the consistency and know for sure. A thin layer of the slime stained the sheets around the bodies. The Kyle that was lying as still as death was gray and covered in pustules and sores. Jake circled around the bed to where this body lay and reaching over to it with a gloved hand, he touched a particularly swollen boil in the dim light. He barely touched it and it reacted to his fingertips exploding outward in a spew of air and Jake felt his stomach churn. This was how it spread. This had to be how the thing spread.

The air moved out from the boil in a hazy cloud, filling the room around him while the skin indented Jake’s fingertips collapsed in on itself like a dried husk and began falling away–an empty shell without organs or substance to give it structure. Dessicated and destroyed. Whatever was left of Kyle was gone and replaced whatever had crawled out of him to lay in this bed beside him. A discarded shell left behind a growing hermit crab. The molted skin left behind a tarantula. Left behind to shrivel and decay and the thing that had grown inside of that skin had grown large enough to force itself free.

Kyle’s eyes shot open in the dark, favoring Jake with a slimy, hungry stare. The LED on his phone restricted Kyle’s pupils into tiny pinpricks through the green mucus that covered his naked form from head to thigh. He opened his mouth, parting the slime in stringy, gooey strands.

Finally, the conflict that Jake had been feeling left him. That feeling of duty and aversion that had been battling inside of him fled and self-preservation won out. Jake listened to the voice in his head that he was working hard to shut out from the moment he entered the home.

He turned and a voice screamed out to him, almost loud enough for him to hear… RUN! …and he ran.

Jake didn’t stop running and before he knew it he was hyperventilating but that didn’t stop him either. He didn’t begin to calm down until he was in his car and speeding away from the neighborhood.

He didn’t know what direction to head in, and he wasn’t really thinking about how quet his drive was. The only sounds he heard were the rhythmic spin of the tires against the asphalt, his own ragged breathing and the pounding of his pulse in his head.

When the silence was broken, he screamed.

The shrill sound that he heard was not a malevolent one, only unexpected. It was the sound of his phone as it rang in the seat next to him.

He didn’t answer.

It was Kyle

Jake pulled off to the side of the road and unbuckled his seatbelt. Running into the grass, he pulled away the mask on his face and heaved up everything inside of him in one quick and hot spew of vomit. He stood there for several minutes as time began to slow, staring down at the puddle from his stomach at his feet. His breath hitched and he heaved again making every futile attempt to quell the urge down and dispel it entirely, but he found that this effort was to no avail. The third time he heaved, nothing came out. He made his way dizzily back to the car and sat, slow and heavy with defeat, in the driver’s seat.

The phone rang again, and Jake jumped at the sound, but this time he didn’t scream. The sun reflected off the glass of the screen and hit his eyes like a knife slicing at the pounding in his head. He squinted the reflection away and picked up the phone to see who the caller was.

He didn’t answer it.

The notification on his screen indicated that he’d missed four calls while we’d been on the side of the road. Four calls from the hospital. He began to listen to the voicemails; the bluetooth connection sending the panicked voice of the caller through the car’s stereo in vivid clarity. Dol digital. Surround sound screams.

“Please Jake, you have to come back to work,” a voice said. He couldn’t identify who the caller was against the screaming in the background.

“We need all staff here immediately! This thing is getting out of control.”

He deleted the message and listened to the next. It was much the same and the same cacophony of screams and wailing cries accompanied the caller’s voice.

That explained why he didn’t hear Eden moving closer to him from the back seat where she lay in wait. She moved as quiet as a spider waiting for the perfect moment and when that moment came, she reached up from behind him. Her delicate slender fingers parted his lips forcibly and she forced them into his mouth. They were cold and through the nausea, Jake noted the pungent taste of ammonia.

He felt them as sharp as razor blades as they broke open the insides of his cheeks. He gagged as she shoved them further inside and down his throat. As if this weren’t enough, something more horrific began to happen. He began to feel the palm of her hand in his mouth as it split open and began to ooze. Something thick and messy coated the inside of his mouth and began to drain down his throat, coating his insides…

And it tasted delicious.

A wave of calm hit him as he drank from the open sore. Eden tried to pull her hand away but Jake’s own hands grabbed her arm and held it firm. He wanted it. Suddenly, he felt as though he needed it. Every fiber of his body was begging for it as his conscious mind flitted in and out of rationality. His brain was watching all of this happen from behind his eyes and he had no control over his limbs or power to stop it from happening. He could only drink. Drink and drink and drink down the smooth nectar of her poison.

No, no, no, no, no. He thought…

But his body was working against his wants and desires. He shuddered everywhere with elation and words were escaping around her fingers from his mouth as he moaned orgasmically. Moaned with ecstasy.

Those words weren’t the ones he meant to say.

“Yes, oh God, yes.” came out of him, slipping around the thin bones of her hand.

As he drank, he saw hundreds of worlds form and thrive in an instant. He saw them wither and die into barren husks. He saw solar systems shudder as stars sputtered out. He saw a great migration from host to host, from galaxy to galaxy as planets and the moons that circled them imploded. Entire civilizations crumbled and died in magnificent exhalations and a creature lacking a face or form of its own was staring out at our planet through a thousand hungry eyes. Jake could see all of the horrible knowledge of the present and the consuming fire that would char the world after they devoured everything that there was on the Earth to consume. They would move on to other planets and other people in other worlds just as they had done since the beginning of time.

Jake saw himself dancing in the ashes. Reveling in the slow snowfall of dark destruction. He felt the untold knowledge that he would soon assimilate with the rest in a thriving mass of limbs and organs, and after this place was sucked dry, he felt the excitement of knowing that he would move on with all of the rest as they left this place to find the next.

The precious and vile milk stopped leaking forth, and with it, the visions. It wasn’t until Jake felt the wound in her hand close up completely that he released his grip on her.

Eden laughed then as she emerged from the car and melted into the high grass that grew along the verge of the road and Jake began to watch in shock as the intoxication of the infectious honey left him and subsided. He began to weep, both from terror and the unwanted acceptance of what was yet to come. Then the reasons for weeping shifted and he continued to cry, but driven a different reason than before. From longing. From withdrawal.

Eden hissed something incomprehensible from the tall grass. Words like skittering of the legs of thousands of arachnids against a pane of glass. It wasn’t English, but deep down he knew the meaning of what she said, all the same. He said nothing. He did nothing. He would soon be like them. Like his neighbors. Like the patients in the emergency room. Like everyone in the world, in time. Shutting the door to his car and reclining the seat, Jake watched as Eden disappeared from sight as she sank on all fours and moved through the weeds away from the road.

Jake wanted to put the car back into drive and head home, but his eyes felt heavy, so he closed them instead. He felt the devouring entity as it moved through him as he began to shudder with seizure. He felt it captivate his every nerve-ending and wrap itself around every beat of his heart and that was okay. He felt as his organs began to slowly shut down and with his eyes still closed, he began to smile, knowing that something greater would soon burst forth from inside of his skin and it might hurt and he might scream in the process but it had chosen him to be it’s vessel.

He was going to give birth to this thing that had slept for aeons, drifting through galaxies until it finally found a place to grow. He would bring this thing to life and it was going to awaken inside of him and stalk and creep in the open among the entire world and nobody would see it coming. It would find everyone after a time, usurping a place within the heart of Jake’s little town and slowly moving outward from place to place and adding to its consciousness as it grew. It would move quickly until its innumerable fingers touched everyone. Once all the people were afflicted, it would suck this place dry and burn the husk that was left of it for fuel.

It was Eden. It was Kyle. It was Jake. It was everyone. He would let it consume him until there was nothing left and it was patient and it would bode and bide its time.

We can try to hide but it will wait for us. One day even the vigilant will make a mistake. It will eat everyone. This was something Jake would tell you if he could, but he’s gone now. Something else is inside of his skin and it’s eating him alive. It will eat all of us, all the way, sliding up and down with razor teeth on the insides of every human being left until there are none.

The worst part is, we’ll never see it coming. The greatest mistake we’ll make is thinking it’s a lie, but we will make that mistake. Humankind’s greatest flaw is how readily it ignores what is staring it in the face; how readily it ignores science and medicine and the data that shows the truth. Individually we may allude it for a while if we try, but in the end it will find each and every one of us no matter what, and no matter where we try to hide…

And when it does, it will find us delicious.

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