Works in Progress


The Body Is a Cruel Mistress
by Scott Hale

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any relevance to any person, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

This book is protected under the copyright law of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.

All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 Scott Hale
*Unedited*

CHAPTER ONE

It had been raining for seven days in Agastopia, and old, buried things were being brought forth with the flood. By Barker Street, where the back alley between Frank’s Hardware and Secondhand Sarah’s let out to the creak-turned stream, a go-kart from the abandoned amusement park rose out of the mud, the painted clown on its battered front still smiling with a mouth full of teeth. Down by Griffith Square, a homeless man and woman the town had agreed died sat on a bench in their olive slickers holding hands, their heads tipped back, drinking the sky. Over in Eastwood, at the corner of Blossom and Sprout, a sewer gutter gargled out the remnants of an Agastopia High 1975 yearbook, Michelle Mitchell’s and Adrian Smith’s names still written on the inside cover, surrounded by a heart. Not far from there, little Bobby Peterman, bored and regressing, was making a ruckus in the shed that could be heard and up down Petal Court. On the north bank of the Phosphene River, the crumbling mansion of the town’s founding patriarch, Moss Collins, lurked behind the live oaks, the new chain on the ancient cellar melted. On the south bank, the fragile chateau of the town’s founding matriarch, Coralee Griffith, was held up solely by the doting historian, Hugo, who stood at the attic window, candle in hand, seeing the rising tide but not the fresh blood staining the hillside. Somewhere in between, where the Phosphene’s rapids broke against damming refuse, a fallen tree straddled a bend, and nursed at its moldering breast, a willful afterbirth.

Ethan leaned against the swing set on the marshy playground of Griffith Park, wishing for once in his life he wasn’t alone. It wasn’t that he didn’t always feel this way. It’s just that he usually had enough to do to distract him from the fact. This kind of loneliness he felt right now – cold and suffocating, as if he’d been sucked into the vacuum of space – was one generally reserved for holidays, or school dances, when everyone was together, and he was in his room, drinking Dad’s liquor, trying his hardest not to fall apart.

Rain pattered off his coat and hood, the sound numbing him. Ethan stared out into the mist that hung miserably over the trails, searching for signs of life. Voices, or footsteps, or even a passing car. He wasn’t picky. He’d take what he could get. But all he got was the throbbing ground and the bent trees, and the eddying clouds teasing, at times, fleeting glimpses of the sun they’d swallowed.

It was beautiful, he thought, but as fear swelled in his stomach, he began to suspect that all of this, in some way, wanted to kill him. He wasn’t supposed to be here. But because nobody cared where he went or what he did, he was.

Ethan bounced off the swing set and headed towards the outdoor auditorium ahead. The drowned land squelched beneath his feet. The picnic tables in the glistening expanse between here and there had sunken into the soil. He thrust his hands into his coat pockets and eyed the restrooms that sat shaded behind the auditorium. There was a mural on the side of it of a little girl in a dress chasing butterflies. His sixth-grade class, along with their art teacher, had been the ones to paint it. His contribution? The butterfly in the furthest corner, indistinguishable from those around it.

Climbing onto the cement block of a front stage, Ethan pulled his legs under the auditorium’s concave roof and stared out at the empty arena before him. It was July 1st, and he was sixteen. It was three days until the Fourth of July, and already there should’ve been banners hung and booths built and monstrous metal rides towering across Griffith Park. Even now, there should be sunburned families milling the arcade, hands wrapped around sodas and beers, swaddled in cheap American flag-patterned shirts and shorts. He’d always hated the Fourth, and the way the fireworks sounded so distant from his bedroom window. But again, he was sixteen, going into his Senior year. He’d made a pact with himself that, moving forward, things would be different. He would be different. In some way, he’d stand out amongst the crowd, and his classmates, like Liz or Callie or Hayden, would listen to what he said and laugh at his jokes. When he thought about what could be, it wasn’t lost on him that he might be able to climb the social ladder faster than others like him. Afterall, there was a benefit to his station in his life: He was nothing, so for a little while, he could get away with just about anything.

A clap of thunder hit Griffith Park like an artillery shell. He counted to one before lightning ripped open the sky. The wind turned on him, lashing him with rain. He took it until he couldn’t, and then he moved aside.

Groaning, Ethan got up, trudged around the auditorium and restrooms, and stepped onto the trail. It was paved with stone here, but turned to dirt about a half mile ahead, near where the woods thickened and the old hermit shack of Jessup still stood. Without a destination in mind, he started walking, eyes set on his mud-caked sneakers. He tried to think of something, because if there ever was a place and time to do it, this was it. But the only thing that came to mind was a memory: Him and Mom, when he was seven or eight, racing each other down the trail to the car. She’d won. Because he’d let her. At seven or eight.

The ground gave way to wood as he stepped onto the bridge that spanned one of the Phosphene’s tributaries. Water surged against the supports. He couldn’t hear anything but the roaring flood. He stepped up to the moldering railing. A twenty-foot drop during the dry season was now a ten-foot plunge. If the rain didn’t stop soon, the rest of Griffith Park would be cut off, and then the whole place would be overtaken. If that happened, it wouldn’t be long until downtown was underwater. He could see it: the roadways, now waterways, bubbling up against shuddered businesses, as they drooled out soggy goods and ruined merchandise; and in the hills that surrounded the valleyed town, where everyone lived, everyone watching as Agastopia sank, wondering what would change or stay the same when the waters receded; but altogether all together determined to wait it out, because nowhere in the county, nor country, was there a place as “bespoke” as here.

Ethan wondered about the houses of the town’s founders and if they’d fallen into the river. A part of him hoped they would. He was tired of celebrating the accomplishments of two abusive, racist, sexist psychopaths every year on the Fourth. Agastopia means to love someone else’s body part. Moss Collins and Coralee Griffith built the town in 1711 to worship themselves and each other. They’d only let other people move into their New Frontier to keep the venture afloat. Then again, if the houses did fall, so would everything else; and he had to work second shift tomorrow at the Hungry Heffer. Ethan sighed. He had to finish his summer reading for English, too.

Pulling away from the railing, and moving on, he stole a glance at the railroad track that ran along the opposite side of the bridge. The rails bled rust atop the mismatched and weeded ties. Candy wrappers and used condoms clung to splinters and bolts. The track had always fascinated him. It’d obviously once had a beginning and an end, but nowadays, all it was, was all it was: a lesser part of a greater thing, easily forgotten. Something told him, though, that if the town did flood. everything but it would wash away. Defiant in its irrelevance to the very end.

A thunderous clap fell with the rain from the sky and soaked into the ground. The bridge rumbled. The soundwaves got in his bones. Blasts of lightning went off like the world’s brightest camera flash. He staggered, thought about turning around, but kept going, instead. Across the bridge, and then, on a whim, off the trail, into the sodden woods.

Ethan chattered his teeth. His pants conformed to his contours. Where there was wetness, there was a sense his skin had turned soggy, like cereal. Pulling his tighter over his head, until he looked like an idiot, he pressed on. Not because he wanted to. But because he needed to. Beyond the battered trees and muddy ruin, the river Phosphene, surging against new banks. He couldn’t make sense of it, but a part of him had to see it up close. To stand at the edge of that all-consuming deluge and see what broke first: the ground, or himself.

The rain fell harder, heavier; it hurt. To the pain, he bared his teeth. Mud, slick as ice, sent him skating towards a bad fall. He caught himself against a tree, eye, but not face, narrowly missing a small branch protruding from the trunk. It cut him from cheek to earlobe. He winced as blood mixed with sap and seeped back into the wound. Steadying himself, holding his face, he thought about Hayden. She liked rough guys. She’d said it herself.

Ethan dug his nails into the cut, widening it.

A blast of thunder broke across the cadaverous heavens. Bolts of lightning longer than the sky struck and looped back, their split-second signatures glowing hotly like hellish pacts. Ethan pushed forward, until he was drowning in the sounds of the raging river. He could literally feel his entire skull gasping for relief, opening every hole and pore so that it wouldn’t burst. Yet for all the suffocating sameness, there was something else. Something needful. It cut through the noise, like a buzzing porchlight on a pitch-black night. Whether he was here or at home, somehow, he knew he’d hear this sound anywhere. It’d chosen him. From amongst madness and desolation, and the thousands of homebound masses, it’d chosen him.

Ethan staggered to the banks. His mouth tasted sweet, like he’d double-fisted a box of sugar. He stopped a few feet from the Phosphene, overtaken with awe. The water was the color of sewage. The discharge destroyed everything it touched. It was relentless. A sandhill crane swooped down from the sky, perhaps having seen something on one of the rapidly dissolving islets. From amongst the waves, a breaker rose, as if singling the crane out, then closed around the bird, pulling it under. There was nothing left but what Ethan remembered of it.

He went down on his haunches. He looked across the river to the other side, where the banks were collapsing; where the ravaged hillside was all exposed roots and pitted rocks, and old PVC pipes encrusted with filth. At the top of the hill, trees, and not far from where they stood, Mill Street – the “historical district” of Agastopia. Ethan’s grandpa used to live there, before he died six months ago. If the waters kept rising, his house, which still stood empty, would be one of the first to go. That made him smile.

Something strange was building at the corner of his eye. He looked down the river to find white foam growing along its surface, reforming just as quickly as the turbulent waters tore it apart. Again, he heard the sound within the sound. A cold sensation twisted like a nail into his pelvis. He had to jam his hands into his crotch to stop from pissing himself. Then, gritting his teeth, he saw it: a fallen tree further up, straddling the bend; the strange foam seemingly brewing from underneath those lightning-scorched boughs.

Ethan headed towards. The wind changed, buffeting him head-on. The ground gummed his feet; his soles slipping out of his shoes with every struggled step. Again, the icy spike of sensation drove into his groin. He coughed, choked on the rain that rushed into his mouth, filling his throat, like flies. Even he knew the only thing that was missing was a bright neon sign that read, “Turn the Fuck Around.” But he couldn’t. He was alone, but in his mind, he was being watched. By himself. By this entire town. Always watched. Never seen. But he’d made a pact. Things would be different. He would be different. And something told him this was where it would all start.

Shaking, skin pale and pruned, he made to the tree. It bobbed up and down as the Phosphene rushed underneath it. The white foam spilled over onto the banks, onto his feet. He stepped back, and then stepped back into it. This close, he could smell it, and it smelled sour. Bending over, he ran a finger through the foam building up around his leg. Not a second passed before his finger started to burn. Quickly, he wiped the foam on his coat; backed away. The skin on his finger from where it’d clung to him was pink; and his nail, partially ingrown.

Looking for a way around the foam, Ethan stopped and seemingly instinctively stared at the tree. There was a hole in it, wide enough for a small animal to hide in. Was there something in there? Was that what was making the sound? He was sure there was…

Movement. In that dark and unassuming, secret place. Subtle, but certain movement.

If he stepped into the so-called shallows, he might be able to reach it. He had to, too. He didn’t know why, but he had to.

Ethan crossed through the foam, keeping his flesh free of its stinking touch. He dipped the tip of his shoe into the waters. It went two feet before it found purchase. Heart beating so hard it hurt, he planted his foot, brought the next one into the river. The force of the Phosphene, even at the edge, was unreal. He grabbed onto the tree to stop from being swept away.

He inched forward, the waters rising past his calves. He told himself that, if it went any higher, he turned around. The foam, which had drawn him here, was giving him space, allowing him to work his way through the river without the threat of contact.

Thunder rolled from the south bend.

Lightning detonated overhead, as if behind the clouds, bulbs were going out, one by one. With their snuffing, the world drew darker.

Ethan steeled himself. He gripped the hole, trudged forward another few inches. The water was up to his ankles. The riverbed was breaking up under him. He didn’t have long until he’d lose his footing. Panicking, he noticed the foam was closing in again.

Rain bounced off his knuckles. He brought his face to the hole in the tree. He no longer heard the Phosphene, only the sound behind the sound. It sounded wet, and sticky; and also, fathomless; and within the sound, something was growing, solidifying. Out of madness, mass.

The thing inside the tree shifted. He was right. There was something there. He couldn’t make out many details. It was small, though. Hairless.

A crucifix of lightning lit up the sky. In that moment, he saw it. And it him.

When he pulled away, it pulled him in.

“I have to pee!”

Logan Rogers glanced in his rear-view mirror at his eight-year-old son Wesley bucking in the backseat and thought to himself: Go for it. His head was throbbing. The grocery store had been a shit-show. He’d fought with his wife, Missy, before going out. It’d been over money, and how he didn’t spend enough time with Wes. Now, she wasn’t picking up her phone. He didn’t know what he wanted to tell her. He just wanted her to pick up the goddamn phone.

“It’s coming out,” Wes said, crossing his legs as he went red in the face. “Dad!”

Logan hissed, “We’ll be home in 10 minutes.”

Wes shook his head, serious as a heart attack.

Logan caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, and he looked like his father. Hating that, he screwed his face into something neutral and said, “Alright. Park’s up ahead.”

“Hurry,” Wes said, pathetically, as he chewed on his seatbelt.

“What’d you drink?”

“Water, duh. My body’s a temple.”

Logan laughed and turned his attention back to the road. His phone went off. Missy was calling. He smiled and let it go to voicemail.

Wind rocked the car as they climbed over the single bridge that spanned the Phosphene. On the sidewalks that lined it, stubborn chalk still clung to the cement, blurry images of childhood fantasies rendered into abstract nightmares. Along the bridge, the hanging flower beds the city had put up at the end of June in anticipation of the Fourth had all been pilfered and perforated. Missy had worked on that project. Every time she crossed, she cussed.

“What happens if it gets too high?” Logan asked

Wes prided himself on his careful driving. He’d never had a speeding ticket, never been in a fender bender. Ten-and-two, twenty-four-seven. But even he couldn’t help but steal a glance at the river.

Coming up on thirty-eight come next March, he’d never seen the Phosphene like this before. As a boy, he’d explored just about every inch of it that fell between Griffith’s and Collins’ houses on the northern and southern ends of it. Today, he didn’t know what he was looking at it. It looked unnatural. The color, its girth; even the way it moved. He knew the river intimately, and from the end of grade school until the end of high school, the river had seen some of his most intimate moments as well. To see it like this, raging against the docile imagine he’d held of it, made him queasy. This wasn’t the Phosphene. And it wasn’t the rain’s fault, either. Something else was responsible.

Boyhood brutality well-inside him. He and his sexual conquests and late-night, low-key chill-fests felt trespassed against. He wanted to yell with someone about it. But when he looked in the backseat, there was only eight-year-old Wes, hands down his pants, doing his best to stop his personal flood. He wouldn’t get it, Logan thought. Not now, not ever. You had to be there. You had to stay there, if only for a moment, in your bed, while your wife slept. He hadn’t gone there in a while. Here’s what happened.

The shape of rain slithered across the windshield, jerkily winding towards the top, until the wipers obliterated the blobs. Logan, lost in thought, missed the first turnoff for the park—

“Dad!”

—then quickly cut through Pedro’s Petrol’s and readjusted their course. Potholes exploded around them, dousing the sides of the car in water. Wes was simultaneously weeping with every bump, and also transfixed with every dousing gout. Winding up on Gretchen Avenue, they followed this past marshy pasture and the oddly spaced historical homes whose backyards were another day of rain away from being their undoing. Logan pulled his turn signal down, turned right onto Prospect Avenue. Waterlogged trees darkened the road; they leaned over it, like one might lean over a casket, hair of Spanish moss running along the roof of the car.

The backs of businesses that’d been built up around Agastopia proper ran along Prospect Avenue, and none of them were open. He’d never known anyone in this town to miss a meal, or a chance to drink. Agastopia was a town built on excess. Even the chance to see the Phosphene spilling over the park and parking lot should’ve been enough to bring people out in droves.

Logan told himself it was just the rain. It’d gone on for too long and beaten everyone down. That’s probably what it was. Even he’d noticed it, when the storm would let up for a moment, and he’d become aware of how numb his entire mind and body felt. Then, and now, he’d realized it was time for a change.

“I’m dying,” Wes said.

Logan said, “Okay, okay. We’re here,” albeit prematurely, and then made good on his statement two minutes later as they turned onto the main promenade of Griffith Park. The rain picked up. He hit his wipers into full speed.

Wes unlocked his door in the back, and Logan hollered, “What’re you doing? Now, hold on just a second.” The restrooms materialized in the mist ahead, and so, Logan said, “See? Now, hold on.” He parked the car perfectly, but made sure to check his side mirror, just to be sure. “Alright, let’s—”

Wes threw off his slobbered seatbelt and burst out of the car. Logan called after him, but his calling was cut short as Wes slammed the door shut. Logan had half a mind to sit in the car until he was finished in there, but his other half, his Missy-half, wouldn’t be quieted, so, grumbling, he killed the engine, hurried out of the car, and gave chase through the storm.

Logan caught up with stubby-legged Wes at the restroom. They went into the men’s together. Inside, it was cramped, and sweating. The hard, filthy floors and grubby mirrors were fogged over from the humidity. The weak, piss-colored light didn’t flicker so much as fade, as if something were sapping the power from it. There were two stalls, one which was accessible, and one urinal with a mouthful of mint-colored urinal cakes.

It looked like any other park restroom. Logan joked once with Missy they came pre-built this way. But there was something off about it. Even Wes, who was about to burst, had wrinkled his nose to it. The smell. It was the smell. Wes wouldn’t know it, but Logan knew it all too well. It smelled like sex in here. The desperate, drunken kind. The unwashed and by the banks kind. Pungent sweetness. Hot fluids. The kind of smell you don’t notice until it’s over, when you’re lying on your back, wiping yourself off, wondering how you got there, hoping you might get there again.

Logan gave the bathroom a once-over. Not seeing anyone, he patted Wes on the back, told him, “Go for it,” and then stepped outside. The boy needed to learn how to do things on his own.

He left the restroom to lean against the water fountain bolted to the building. The rain was coming down even harder. He could barely out the outline of his car. It was hotter, too. Mid-eighties. He didn’t understand how it could still be so hot with an ocean’s-worth of water being dumped on this southern town. He thought about the groceries thawing out in the trunk, and the milk going bad. Everything went bad in air like this.

Thunder rattled the building. Roots of lightning grew out of the atmosphere. He wrinkled his nose. The smell found him. It’d followed him. He turned to the restroom and thought he could almost see the vapors drifting towards him. His stomach twisted. His neck tightened. He shouldn’t have left Logan in there, even though there was nothing in there. Somethings a kid shouldn’t be exposed to. This stinking odor, like soiled skin, was dangerous. Or at least, it’d been for Logan. It made him think of Missy. Not because the smell or the fucking it represented reminded him of her, but because the smell or the fucking it represented did not. Missy had been everything the girls and women in his life hadn’t been. No, she hadn’t saved him. She’d just given him a reason to save himself.

Logan pulled out his phone and called Missy. One ring from voicemail, she picked up.

“Hey,” she said. “Where’re you guys?”

“Griffith Park. Wes had to pee. Got everything at the store. We’ll be home in ten.” He paused and filled his nose with the drifting stench. “I’m sorry about this morning.”

“Me too.”

“Uh, I…”

He could hear the smile in Missy’s voice as she said, “It’s fine. Just come home. Sounds like it’s getting worse out there.”

“Yeah.” He leaned forward, unable to see anything beyond the rain pouring off the restroom’s roof. “Yeah, it is.”

“Wes okay?”

“Huh?” He’d heard her, but it was getting hard to hear. “Oh, yeah. But he has been in there for a while.”

“You’re not in there with him?”

“I checked.” He chewed on his lip. “I’ll go back in.”

“Good.”

“We’ll be home soon.”

“Good.”

He strained his ears; he’d heard something in the background on the other side of the line. “What’re you doing?”

“Watching TV. Be careful. I love you.”

“Love you,” he said, slightly unsettled as he hung up.

Logan slid the phone back into his pocket. Missy sounded strange, but that’s because she was probably still pissed at him, despite apologizing to the contrary. He stood there awhile longer, swirling the air in his mouth.

Wes stood in the stall, still peeing. He’d been at it for what felt like five minutes. It was amazing. He felt better, but he kind of hoped he could keep going for another minute or two. He remembered when him and his family had stayed the night at his grandparents’ a year ago, the night before going on vacation. His uncle, who didn’t live too far from his grandparents’, came over and peed for not what felt like, but what definitely and totally had to have been five minutes straight. It’d blown Wes’ mind.

The stream was coming to an end. He could feel the pressure going away. He let out a sigh of relief. Down to a trickle, he shook himself silly. He was glad Dad had stopped. It meant more time for him and Mom to chill out. This morning had been pretty bad. It was hard to play video games when the other kids over chat could hear them screaming and breaking things.

Wes didn’t bother flushing the toilet. He tucked himself back in his pants; zipped and buttoned. Turning around to head out, he stopped. He’d seen something at the corner of his eye. On the ground, under the divider between the two stalls. Nothing there now, but there was something. He could hear it on the other side.

A shiver shot through his body as he said softly, “Hello?”

Wes stood there, not quite paralyzed, but close enough. Clenching his jaws, squeezing his fists, sending his nails into the meat of his palms, he tried, but couldn’t quite bring himself to cry out for his dad. Not even the thunder or lightning battling above could move him. Nor the fat, hairy spider crawling up the door, a desiccated flying hanging from an old web still clinging to its leg.

A cloud of warmth fell on him from above. With it, the smell he couldn’t get enough, but was grossed out by all the same. He felt a tickle on the back of his ear. Then a drop of something wet, on his neck.

Wes, dizzy with fear, pressed his hand to his neck and looked up.

At the top of the diver, a kid was holding himself up, as if he were about to climb over into the stall. His face was bright red; eyes dilated and bulging from their sockets. Rain, or sweat, poured off his face. His arms were shaking. He was grinding his teeth. One cheek quivered. He had a coat on, but wasn’t zipped all the way up. Wes could see the kid’s throat. It was covered in fresh, bleeding cuts that were… moving.

Wes’ eyes were locked on the kid’s.

He didn’t see the thing coming underneath the divider into his stall until it was too late.

Logan, thinking about the groceries spoiling, got annoyed enough to go in after Wes. He turned into the men’s room, stopped dead in his tracks.

Wes was on the ground in the stall, hanging onto the sides so hard his fingers were bleeding. He couldn’t scream, because something thick and fleshy, like a snake, was shoved in his mouth. Above him, Ethan Landry… Ethan Landry, who lived at the end of their street… was propped up on the divider, watching his son struggle.

Logan barked, “The fuck you doing?!”

Ethan dropped from the divider.

Wes’ grip finally gave, and he was wrenched through his stall, into the one beside it with Ethan.

Exquisite rage pounded in Logan’s ears. His blood had dried up in his veins, and in its place, violence. He rushed the furthest stall, spewing incoherent threats. Until he yanked the stall door back. Then he didn’t say anything at all.

Wes was on his knees, face down to the ground. The snake that’d been in his mouth was still in his mouth, but it’d entered through his ass. He was spasming. His wet, terror-slickened skin smacked against the filthy floor, sounding like a fish out of water. Ethan wasn’t far; perched on the toilet. From his pelvis and between his legs, something had attached itself to him. It looked like a massive ovipositor. It was fleshy, constantly folding upon itself. Small tendrils along its sides spasmed. Ethan wasn’t wearing it. It was wearing him. And from it, this growth… this parasite…  the snake-like appendage that’d penetrated his son.

The appendage reeled in with cruel, decimating speed. It slithered back down Wes’ throat and insides, and then out of him, through the bloody hole in the seat of his jeans it’d made. Chunks of intestine, like fetid confetti, exploded out of the little boy’s ass, splattering the walls with fecal gore.

Logan lurched forward, vomit oozing from his mouth. He didn’t have time to think or feel. He grabbed Wes’ sweaty hands and tried to pull him out of the stall. It was like dragging roadkill that’d baked into the pavement. His shirt and skin acted as if they’d fused together, so that when Logan wrenched, his belly tore open, leaving behind a glistening sheet of fat and muscle.

Logan screamed, and he screamed harder, when the boy’s hands melted into his. He flailed, but his son’s flesh had already combined with his flesh. Stepping back, Wes’ arms extended, locked, and then towed Logan to the ground, into the boy’s quivering corpse. He tried to break free, but the harder he struggled, the more Wes’ body reacted. The boy’s back split open. His spine snapped free of his skull and shot like a javelin into Logan’s side. He gasped, gulped for air, as gouts of blood sprayed from the wound. He grasped the spine, trying to rip it free, but his body had betrayed him: the gash was sucking the spine further into him, devouring it.

Still squatted atop the toilet, Ethan made a sound that might’ve been sorrow. The thick, nest-like ovipositor between his legs extended to the ground. Swollen, secreting organs took form at the edge of its girth and merged with Wes’ feet and legs, thighs and torso. Violent waves traveled through the boy’s flesh, each one bunching up with the other; and when they reached Logan, they broke over him, swallowing him, becoming him.

“Stop!” he screamed, as Wes’ skin crept across his face and painted the insides of his mouth.

As if brought to life by Logan’s voice, Wes woke. His skull, free of a spine, rolled into and down his neck and fixed itself into the gaping back cavity, so that his bloodshot eyes met what little whites were left of Logan’s. Wes opened his mouth. He whimpered, “Daddy,” and then, behind the words: a red dais of musculature, bearing at its center, a nearly indescribable organ. A gift, Logan realized with his limited faculties, from the creature that now worked his boy like a puppet.

The organ, multi-jointed, extended itself and then bloomed, its colorless, light swallowing texture something like a combination between a flower and a black hole. Logan’s mind, now with the consistency of the drops of vomit still pasted to his lip, was calmed by the organ. He thought not of his son, whose body was now attached to his, like a deformed, regurgitated twin; nor of his wife, who he could feel calling him – his cellphone having been absorbed through his thigh and into his testicles, its wiring intertwined with his veins and arteries. No, looking at the organ, he thought of his mother, and her womb, and things he couldn’t possibly remember about his birth, and things he couldn’t possibly know about his death.

For a moment, all at once, he was everyone.

And then he was nothing.

Ethan waited until the creature, which had detached from his waist, licked the restroom clean of all evidence. He picked it up, fearing what would happen if he didn’t, and it attached itself to his body underneath his coat. He zipped himself up, and when he left the building, he found it had stopped raining.

The sun was out, and not far from where he stood, he could hear cars, people.

He wasn’t alone anymore.


    

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