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I am not dead. Death was the worst thing that could happen to a person. I actually believed that.
Now I say the same words, every morning when I wake up. I am not dead. And I weep.
Or maybe I don’t. I guess it depends on how you define the word. If weeping is an action of the soul, a deep and bitter howling of the mind, if weeping is an emotional pit, then I weep. If weeping is the actual physical process of crying and wailing, then I don’t.
“Good Morning, Mr. Winston.”
It’s the nurse with the freckles, Amelia. She’s my favorite, she talks to me while she works. The only other person who talks to me anymore is an old preacher who comes by about once a month and reads a chapter out of the Bible before moving on to the next room.
Amelia opens the curtains letting the morning sun in, then gets to work. She checks me over for any changes, switches out bags here and there, all the while telling me about her date with her boyfriend the night before.
I try to focus on her words, immerse myself in the moment. I know what comes next, and the only peace I can give myself is in blocking that knowledge from my mind, pushing it away.
Or at least try to.
Eventually she picks up my chart and looks at it, shaking her head.
“Still with the samples. I swear, Mr. Winston, as long as we’ve been doing this, the doctor probably has more of you bagged up in his lab than in this room.” It isn’t the first time she’s told that joke, but I’d laugh if I could. It’s probably true. Every morning for the last four years the nurses have been taking samples from me. Hair, saliva, urine, blood, skin. From what Amelia’s told me, and from what I’ve overheard, there are five other patients who have the same treatment as me. All from the same doctor. It’s an odd treatment, according to everyone who works here, but he’s an odd man. A genius, they say, but an odd man. So they follow his instructions. After all, why would a doctor give his patient a treatment he didn’t need?
They even say he’s had some success. I don’t know how that can be, but sometimes I dream . . . .
After she collects the samples, the treatment begins. In my head I’m shouting. Screaming. Jumping off the bed and racing towards the door.
In the real world, I lay flat on my back, staring at the ceiling as she rubs an alcohol swab over the inside of my arm, and prepares the first injection.
It feels like someone started a fire beneath my skin. The liquid spreads through my body, and I feel every second of it. The world becomes hazy and the pain is so intense that for a while I can’t feel anything else. I can’t see, or hear, or smell, or taste. The entire world is burning, and for a brief moment I believe, as I do every morning, that this time they went to far, and I’m finally dead.
It isn’t until the second injection that I know I’m wrong. The second injection feels, for lack of a better word, heavy. My muscles cramp under the strain and my limbs ache, like they’re being dragged down, through the bed, through the floor, down into the sewers. For the first few seconds the experience is only mildly unpleasant, like lying under a pillow while a fat man sits on top.
Then the medicine reaches my organs.
My heart is the first to be effected. Suddenly I can feel it, beating in my chest. But each beat sends out a tremor, and the blows become more and more painful, like my heart is trying to beat its way down through my back and out of me. I am surprised that I am not bouncing off the bed.
Next I feel it in my lungs. Amelia doesn’t seem to notice any change in me, but I feel as though I am being smothered. I know that air is entering my lungs, but I gain no relief from it.
The world seems to spin above me. I pray for oblivion, but nobody answers me.
Then the drug reaches my stomach and bowels, causing them to cramp uncontrollably.
When the pain recedes enough for me to see the world again, Amelia is gone, and I feel a sense of overwhelming relief.
Until I realize that I can taste chalk.
They put the pills back into my routine.
I try to shudder, but am no more capable of that than jumping out the window and flying to safety.
The best definition of success that I ever heard was from a girl I dated back in my school days. She used to say that success was when you made enough money doing what you enjoyed doing, to live the way you enjoyed living.
By that definition, I was a success by the time I was twenty. It just happened that the way I enjoyed living only required me to have a running van and enough food to get by on, and what I enjoyed doing amounted to playing the guitar a few hours a day on a street corner for change. I also bought and sold some weed, when I could afford to, and didn’t end up smoking it all, myself.
I told myself I wasn’t going to do that forever, that I’d eventually get a band, start picking up gigs, or maybe find some rich girl to shack up with somewhere. Honestly, though, even then I didn’t think those were likely, I just didn’t see any point to aspiring to the life my parents had lived. Nine to five jobs, thankless bosses, all so I could have kids who I’d never get to see.
So I aspired to the unlikely and didn’t care much if it ever happened.
Even a blind squirrel occasionally grabs a nut, and one day I did run into a bit of good fortune. A guy I shared some weed with told me about a bar just outside of town that had an open mic night, and let the bands that kept the crowds happy have a few free beers while they were performing.
It was a short enough drive that the beers covered the gas, and the girls that came in were mostly from a nearby college, which made them young enough to still be into broke musicians.
It was my own, personal nirvana.
Until the night of the accident.
“Play that ‘July Sunrise’ song.” The bartender, a cute brunette with big boobs pushed another beer across the counter to me.
I’d been trying to get into her pants for months, but she was impervious to my charms. Or maybe she was just into girls. She flirted with anyone who hit on her, but I never saw her go home with anyone.
As I climbed back onto the stage, it occurred to me to wonder if she really liked my music, or if she was just sending me up so I’d stop hitting on her. Not that it mattered, every time she put me on stage, I had a fresh beer in my hand, and that was all it took to keep me happy.
I strummed idly for a few seconds, took a drink of my beer, and started up the song.
“Streets waver in the heat, and I’m sweating out the beat, another long and painful day in July. Praying for some wind, or some shade I can hide in, but all I feel is a burning in reply.”
The bar was almost empty. Not counting me and the bartender there were all of three people in a place that usually fit a hundred. It was spring break and most of the kids were gone, but since open mic doesn’t cost management anything but a few drinks, they kept it on the schedule.
I didn’t much care about the how and why of it. What little money I’d had that morning was still in my pocket, and my head was buzzing like a mason jar full of flies.
I finished up ‘July Sunrise’ and moved into, ‘Ode to a Girl I Barely Remember’ giving the bartender a sly wink.
A few lines in, the door opened and two men walked in.
They weren’t regulars, and they weren’t college students. As drunk as I was, they still seemed out of place.
For starters, they were too old for the bar. At twenty seven, I was usually one of the oldest people in the room. These two were in their forties, at least. Both were bald. Not balding, and not with close cut hair. They were completely bald. They were both dressed in button down shirts, and slacks. But the thing that made them stand out the most was the way they moved. Well, not how they moved, but how they moved together.
Sometimes when I’m playing in front of a large enough group, when the music is loud enough, and I’m on my game, sometimes I’ll see people moving in rhythm. It isn’t dancing, exactly, they walk, or they take a drink of their beer, or they talk, but they do it in rhythm with my music, unwittingly they take my music and embrace it, let it guide, not what they do, but how they do it.
It was like that with the two men who came in, except that they weren’t moving in my time. It was like they were both listening to something that I couldn’t hear, and every step, every motion, was in time with that beat. I wouldn’t have noticed it if one of them had come in alone, but with both of them in the room, I couldn’t help but see it.
They moved slowly towards the front counter, pausing as they approached the other patrons, their noses flaring, then moving on.
At the counter the brunette smiled and asked them what they wanted. One of the men answered, the other leaned forward, his nose flaring briefly.
The girl’s smile faded, though I wasn’t sure if it was something that was said, or the sniffing that bothered her. After a few seconds she nodded politely and poured each man a beer.
I had planned to keep going for a few another song or two, since I still had half of my drink left, but from the girl’s expression I thought she might appreciate a knight in shining armor coming to her rescue.
I hopped off the stage, almost twisting my ankle when I landed, and headed for the bar.
“Hey, beautiful, don’t suppose I can get this topped off?” I said, ignoring the two bald men as completely as I could manage.
They didn’t return the favor. Instead one of them leaned in, inhaling deeply, but instead of leaning back, as he had with everyone else, he leaned closer and sniffed again.
I glowered at the man, but he took no notice of my aggravation, instead, turning his attention to his companion, and smiling.
The friend turned his attention to me and grinned.
“That was a great piece you were just playing. Let me buy you a drink.”
I’ve never been the kind to turn down a free drink, no matter where it’s coming from. After that drink, the bald man bought me another. We talked. We talked about where I was from, and how I lived, and how many friends I had. We talked about my family, and my blood type. Every few questions we would pause, just long enough for them to buy me another round, and then there were more questions.
The night became a blur. I do remember that the bald men left before I did. And I remember that, try as I might, I couldn’t talk the bartender into letting me spend the night with her. I also know that at some point in the night I decided that I wasn’t too drunk to drive. The exact order of the events and how much time separated them I can only guess at, but there is one memory that stands out, one very distinct image that is ingrained in my mind for all eternity.
I remember headlights coming towards me, fast. And behind those headlights, just barely visible, I remember seeing what appeared to be the top of two bald heads inside of whatever was about to hit me.
And then I woke up. In the hospital. I was alone. I was paralyzed.
Not dead yet. That’s what I told myself
I wasn’t dead, and as long as I wasn’t dead, there was hope. As long as I wasn’t dead there were things to look forward to. As long as I wasn’t dead, I could know that things weren’t as bad as they could be. Because I could be dead.
Nurses came and went, checking on me. I tried to signal them, tried to get their attention by blinking, or twitching a finger, or sheer force of will. All to no end.
Then I met the doctor. He moved oddly, I thought. It was like he was trying too hard. It was like he had only recently gotten his body, like he was thinking about each motion, mimicking what he’d seen, not simply moving, the way people do. And he was bald. Completely bald. Like the men I’d met at the bar.
Then he touched me. I hadn’t thought about it when the nurses were taking their samples and measurements, the fact that I could still feel, but I thought about it when he touched me. I thought about it because he felt so wrong. His skin was too stiff, not like skin, but a glove made to look like skin.
As he took his measurements his eyes caught mine, and in an instant I knew. I knew that he knew. He wasn’t looking into the eyes of someone he thought was a vegetable, he was looking into the eyes of a human being. He was looking into the eyes of a desperate, miserable man, and he was pleased.
He was enjoying my suffering. He hated me. Truly hated me.
If I could have moved I would have torn away from his touch, I would have run from the room.
But I couldn’t.
The next day the injections started. Such pain. I’d never known that kind of pain. I’d been beaten before, I’d been in accidents and come down with diseases that made me pray for death. I’d suffered before that day, or at least I thought I had. The injections were more than I could handle, more than I could think about.
I went mad. I know I did. The world twisted around me, the meaning of everything changed. I left my body, or at least convinced myself that I had. Floating through the world, tethered to my body by a thread.
The universe compressed into the size of a small hospital room, and my pain became a billion supernovas. My mouth became a black hole, swallowing my screams before they could leave me.
I don’t know how long I lay there, curled up in the comfort of madness, it could have been hours, or days.
Eventually I returned to myself. Though when the next morning came and another series of injections coursed through my veins, I regretted my sanity.
It didn’t take me long to start hating the nurses. I knew they didn’t know what they were doing, but it was hard to care about that when I was suffering such agonies at their hands. But as much as I hated them, I hated the doctor a thousand times more. And I feared him with equal measure.
If I’d known what was still in store for me, I would have feared him more.
The chalky taste fades in about an hour, and as soon as it’s gone I try to convince myself that it wasn’t there at all. That I was mistaken. I don’t believe it. I never believe it. I just want to.
My first year in the hospital, I passed the time by counting the holes in the tile over my head. I named them. I made up stories about them, lineages and relationships, affairs and wars, treaties and betrayals. I calculated a rough estimate of the number of holes in all of the tiles in my room. I named them. I made up songs about them and sang them over and over again.
My second year in the hospital, I decided to relive my life. All the parts I could remember, in as vivid of detail as I could manage. Sadly, I hadn’t paid much attention to my life, and the alcohol and drugs had wiped away a lot, I could only come up with enough memories for eight and a half months.
After that, I switched to the Zen approach. I try to live in the moment as completely as I can. I try to focus on each second, each ticking of the clock, and see that instant as an eternity to itself. Actually, I’m not sure if that’s Zen or not; I didn’t learn much about eastern philosophy before I got turned into a vegetable, and I can’t exactly go looking it up now. Anyhow, sometimes it works.
Sometimes it doesn’t.
They wait until night to come. I don’t know if it takes that long for the chalky tasting medicine to take effect, or if the night nurse is the only one who’s in on it, but they always wait until night. Then they come. Two of them. The doctor and his assistant.
Both smell odd, and both are bald.
They unplug me from my machines and take me down the hall to the elevator. I try to focus on the sounds from the rooms that we pass. Mostly there are snores. Sometimes I hear patients muttering. Sometimes moaning.
Then we’re in the elevator, descending. Descending. I swear, it gets hotter as we go, like we’re falling into the bowels of hell. Actually, it isn’t heat, it’s fear. Terror.
Eventually we stop, and they pull me out of the elevator and down the hall. The heat disappears as they drag me into the operating room.
Actually, it’s the morgue. I know because of the smell. And the cold. And because once, after they pulled the lamp over me, but just before they turned it on, I could see bodies reflected in it.
They strip off my clothes and lay me on an icy table.
Then they begin.
They cut into me. Into my stomach. Precise cuts, always in the same place, they slice me open, and I try to scream. Try to throw myself off the cold metal square. I feel the knives slicing into me, cold, hard, invasive things, violating the core of my being.
It goes on. And on. And when I think it cannot possibly go on any longer, that they must have sliced every nerve, and severed every part of me an inch at a time, they cut some more.
I wish I could pass out from the pain. I wish I could block it out, or meditate my way to some kind of peaceful oblivion. But I can’t.
Eventually, though, they do finish, and both men set down their blades. That’s when the assistant disappears from view. I can hear him, still in the room. He walks to something close by, a refrigerator, I think, which he opens. And then he returns.
He has a metal container. Stainless steel, and covered in ice, though the assistant holds it with his bare hands, unconcerned with the cold.
The doctor removes the top and reaches in, digging through whatever is inside for a few seconds before removing a slimy, squishy ball. He sets it on the table and digs through the container again. He pulls out six of the disgusting, greyish green things before closing the container back up.
The assistant returns it to wherever he got it, and then makes his way back over to me.
The cutting felt like a violation, like a brutal assault.
Somehow, what they do next feels worse. The slimy things that they put into me don’t technically hurt, but they feel wrong. It’s like having your arm twisted, and contorted into an unnatural position, then forced to stay that way, only it’s happening inside my body.
Organs shifting, being pushed aside, as a slimy substance slips into my blood. I’m not simply violated, I am corrupted. I am unclean.
When the last of the things is placed in me, they sew me back up. They sew those things into me.
Back in my room I try to count the holes in the ceiling. I try to pick at memories from my youth. I try to live in the moment.
I try everything to distract myself from the things inside of me. The things that grow, with each passing day. The things that move about inside of me. The things that I can feel slowly nibbling at me.
I sleep in short, restless bursts, dreaming monsters crawling through my stomach, out of my mouth. Dreaming of animals ripping their way out of me. Sometimes they devour me. Sometimes they just leave, and I lay, helpless in bed, as nurses come and go, checking my pulse, and taking samples, ignoring the gore pouring, endlessly, out of me.
Then one of the things inside of me twists, or bites down, and I wake up.
The next morning Amelia comes in again. Smiling, chatting, checking up on me, making sure I don’t have any bed sores, telling me about the guy she met last night.
I try to listen, but can’t. The corruption inside of me is growing, feeding on me, tainting me.
Then she gives me my shots.
The things inside of me like the shots. They’re always more active afterwards. Always hungrier. This isn’t the first batch that I’ve had inside of me, and I can’t help but wonder how I’ve survived so many of them feeding on me. Perhaps my paralysis helps. Perhaps my body is better able to handle the internal damage because so little else is happening. Or perhaps that’s what the shots are for. Or the chalky taste.
Or maybe this was all a dream, maybe I was really in a coma and everything that was happening to me was a delusion brought about by endless self-loathing.
No. I didn’t hate myself that much. I didn’t hate anyone that much.
It’s easy to lose track of time when you can’t move, can’t communicate, when your days are a blur of routine. But when you have things inside of you, when you have parasites lodged between your organs, slowly devouring you, you start to pay attention to the passage of days.
One month. That was how long they left those things in me. Thirty days, exactly.
I used the tiles on the ceiling to count down my time. There were four tiles directly over my head. Four tiles, each tile with four corners, that made sixteen. The first sixteen days were one corner of a tile. The tiles made up one large rectangle, a rectangle with four corners. Sixteen plus four made twenty. The rectangle had three vertical bars in it, one on each side, and one on the middle, it also had three horizontal bars in it, one on each side and one in the middle. Twenty plus six made twenty six. Then there were the four tiles. Twenty six plus four made thirty. Thirty days.
Every day, after my injections, when the things inside of me were most active, when they were hungriest, I would count off my thirty days. I would count how many had passed, and how many were left. Front to back. Back to front.
I calculated the number of hours I had endured this time. I calculated the number of hours I had left. The number of minutes. The number of seconds.
I double checked my math.
Amelia got moved to a different shift, and I got a surly old crone who talked to the equipment more than me, and even then, only to curse at it.
An old man down the hall from me died in the middle of the night. His heart gave out, according to the nurses. I envy him. I spend the next several days trying to stress my heart out, trying to make it crash.
The priest who comes by to read to us has gotten to revelations. It’s a very visual book. I can practically see it, as he’s reading. For a few seconds, I can almost forget the things crawling around inside of me.
Then one of them takes a bite.
They come for me again. I know what’s coming, the cutting, the agony, but it’s a price I’ll willingly pay to get these things out of me.
Through the hall, down the elevator, into the morgue. I’m eager, this time, looking forward to the pain.
They cut me open, and I almost black out. The eggs that were in me have hatched, or molted, or something. The things they pull out of me look more like spiders, but with extra legs.
The doctor and his assistant handle them carefully. Lovingly. They move them off of me and into something nearby. One of the dead bodies, I think. I hear a crunching sound as the creatures begin to eat their new host with reckless abandon.
I want to throw up.
The doctor and his assistant pause, looking down at me.
I wish they’d get on with it. The sewing isn’t pleasant, but once it’s over I’m back to plain old ordinary misery again. I look forward to that.
“He won’t be able to handle another batch.” The doctor says.
I’m surprised. They never talk.
“He might be able to handle three.” The assistant argues.
“No.” The doctor shakes his head and pokes at something inside of me. “He’s done.”
Done? Am I done? Will they finally let me die?
The assistant nods and moves out of my view.
The doctor leans in, pulling a pen light which he uses to check my eyes. “Time for your miracle cure, Mr. Wilson.”
Cure? I stare at him, confused. He can’t cure me. With everything I know, with everything they’ve done to me, he can’t risk me living. He can’t . . .
The assistant steps back into view. There’s something on his shoulder. It looks like the things they’ve pulled out of me, but larger. A giant spider with many limbs. But they aren’t limbs, not like a humans. Not even like a spider. They’re tentacles. Long, thin things.
The creature slithers down the assistant’s arm and into the gaping hole in me.
The corruption I’ve felt before, the tainted feeling at having the young creatures in me is nothing next to this. Even paralyzed I can feel my body reacting, twitching, trying to reject the thing.
To no avail.
It climbs into me, and its tentacles stretch out, slithering throughout my body, everywhere, out to my limbs, to my head. I feel things cracking inside of me, bones breaking, muscle tearing, as this thing, this creature, makes room for itself. The last tentacle, the slowest of the bunch, slithers along my spine, along the inside. It climbs up, and up. My body spasms as it climbs through my spine, and into my brain.
The two men watch, faces expressionless. Finally the doctor reaches down, pulling my skin back into place and begins sewing me back together.
As he does, I move. My hand raises up in front of me, and my head turns to look at it. My fingers curl into a fist, then uncurl.
But it isn’t me moving them.
It isn’t me.
I sit up. No. Not me. It sits up, the thing wearing me sits up, and looks around.
“Do you know who you are?” The Doctor asks.
The thing wearing me opens my mouth, then closes it. I can feel something happening in my brain. Not physically, the brain doesn’t have any nerves, but I can feel . . . something.
The thing wearing me opens my mouth again, using me like a puppet, its slimy tentacles manipulating my body from the inside in a way that makes me feel ill.
“Wilson.” The thing says.
“Good.” The doctor pats his shoulder. “Lay back down. We need to take you back to your room. Tomorrow night we’ll practice more.”
The thing wearing me lies back down and closes its eyes.
I scream in my mind. I howl, and grind my teeth, I weep. In my mind.
The thing wearing me takes no notice.
The thing wearing me.
It can’t do this to me. It can’t. It can’t use my body while I’m still in it.
I’m not dead!
I’m NOT DEAD!