© Paraschiv George Gabriel | Dreamstime.com – Dental Xray right half
By Christopher Opyr
‘…always hungry.’ John could still hear his son’s words and he could see that look, those hopeful eyes, like Nicholas thought his father could do something, anything, to make him better. That he thought that somehow, his dad could take the pain and the hunger away.
He pitied his son that blind faith in one’s father. There was a time that he had mourned for the loss of faith in his own father, but after Nicholas was born, he understood that no man could live up to the adoration placed upon them by their children. Now, when his own son needed him most, John knew that there was little he could do to help. Discipline wouldn’t cut it.
He swept into the kitchen, popped open a beer, and chugged it back. John didn’t cope well with failure. When you had a job to complete, success was the only option. Yet no matter how he looked at the problem, he couldn’t see a way to help his son – not any method that he would have previously considered. The boy was scared. He was eating non-stop, talking to imaginary friends, and at the same time, Nicholas was just as mortified by his own decline as his parents were worried about it.
John cast himself back into his armchair, and took another swallow of beer. A commercial for a local car dealership interrupted the preseason match as it went into the second quarter. John shut his eyes and tried to escape from the stress that tore at him. He might have to listen to Emily; he might have to let her take the boy to Brynn Marr. He hated to admit that – he’d have to think of some excuse, some way of making sure it came across as his idea, not an acquiescence to her. Giving ground would be a mistake. He wouldn’t let her have that.
He sighed. “Yes, Em?”
“How’d it go?”
Like shit, he thought. The boy’s screwed. Something’s loose upstairs and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it. Of course the truth hurt. Emily didn’t need that.
“It went great, hon,” he said. “We’ll get this worked out. I promise.” No need for any more detail until he could figure out how to get his son seen without Emily gloating. Plus he’d have to find some way to do it quietly. If Nicholas saw a shrink, no one needed to know. It needed to stay a private concern – family only.
“So he’s going to what, diet? Do extra chores? Exercise?”
“I told you he’s going to be fine. I’ve got it covered.”
John swigged from his beer again. Em needed to leave him alone already.
“Yeah, but how?”
“Christ, Em! Just let me be.”
“Don’t raise your voice. He’ll hear.”
“Em, enough. Can you stop pestering for five seconds? I just want to watch the game.”
“Okay.” Emily raised her hands in surrender, then turned and fled. John could hear her footfalls, slow and heavy as she retreated down the hall. Finally their bedroom door slammed behind her and the house returned to silence – all save for the gentle buzz of the TV.
John smirked. I’m going to pay for that tonight. He glanced about spotting an afghan flung over the back of the couch. He leaned over, grabbed it and a small pillow and yanked them both back into his chair. He and the armchair had a long night ahead of themselves. Mentally exhausted, he closed his eyes and drifted off.
He woke to the national anthem winding down as the American flag waved in a gentle breeze on the television screen. John blinked trying to gather his bearings. The song ended and the screen cut to static, the crinkle of the white noise echoing in the silence of the night. John winced at the sound and flicked off the set.
Hell, he thought. I missed the entire game. He grabbed the warm beer from the end table beside him and swigged down the dregs of the bottle. That done, he reclined the chair and rolled back onto his pillow, squirming as he fought to get comfortable.
As he settled in, ready to return to sleep, he marveled at the silence that ruled the house. A quiet coupled with the dark, blanketing every room. Outside he could hear crickets, and the mating call of a lone frog. The refrigerator hummed in the kitchen, and a grandfather clock counted off the seconds with a slow, rhythmic ticking.
John smiled, taking comfort in the quiet. The soft night sounds of a slumbering house had always put John at ease. He had spent many similar nights in his youth slumbering on the couch at his grandparents, that same grandfather clock ticking from their foyer. The familiarity soothed him.
Then came the noise that he couldn’t place. It bubbled up, barely audible, a mix of hard and soft, fast and slow. It held an asymmetric quality, lacking any discernible rhythm – something organic and chaotic.
John cast all thought of sleep aside and popped his ears trying to hone in on the sound. No matter how hard he tried, he just could not place it.
“Em, is that you?” he asked. No answer came.
Slowly he rose, noticing a faint light emanating from the kitchen. “Em?” he repeated. His question met with only more silence – more silence and that sickening, unplaceable sound scraping in the undercurrent.
John peered around the doorway to the kitchen. The open refrigerator door hung ajar, its light cast out across the kitchen, shining on empty tupperware containers and discarded wrappers.
John swore under his breath, then bent and collected the containers, depositing them in the sink. He glanced back at the wrappers, but decided that they could wait. Kicking the refrigerator door shut, he turned to leave, only before he could he noticed the open pantry. One glance inside revealed empty boxes and emptier shelves, along with a trash can overflowing with other cast aside food containers.
That boy is going to eat our bank account down to zero, he thought. He needed to have a word with Emily. He’d be taking Nicholas to Brynn Marr in the morning. She could gloat all she wanted, they couldn’t take much more of this.
John crept down the hall to the master bedroom, and gently eased open the door. Emily would still be mad about earlier, and he braced for that, knowing an argument was coming. Now, however, it was time to face that storm.
Again, nothing. The room was empty, the bedspread crumpled and tossed at an angle away from Emily’s side of bed. She was up and about after all.
The master bathroom door hung half open, the room dark as the rest of the house. She wasn’t in the bathroom and she wasn’t in bed.
“Emily, where are you?” This time he asked louder. If he woke Nicholas, so be it. He needed to talk to the boy again, anyway. Nick had gone too far with his midnight snack, and on top of that, John needed to have a talk with him about what the morning would bring – about Brynn Marr.
“Emily, can you answer me?”
John jumped as a loud ring pierced the silence, the grandfather clock chiming the hour. It stopped at three chimes. No answer followed; yet something else sounded in the wake of the clock. That same unplaceable sound: wet and yet almost a crunch. It sounded fast, then slowed, then sped up again, no rhythm to its tempo, no symmetry to form a pattern. Straining, John listened closer, then caught it: the unmistakeable rending of meat.
After everything that they had discussed and the boy was eating in bed. John could feel his anger rising. He steeled himself. He had caved earlier, and now Nicholas was worse than ever. This time he had to be firm. He had to lay down the law.
He opened the door and stepped into Nicholas’s room, then stopped, gagging as his breath caught in his throat.
At the far end of the room, amid a nest of wrappers and half-devoured plates, lay Emily. She stared back at John, her neck twisted at impossible angle, her head hanging limp upside down, her jaw broken, and rivulets of blood leaking from her mouth and down into her hair. The rest of her body had contorted into a ball, bent and broken.
There could be no doubt she was dead, and yet her corpse shifted in a small jerking pattern as that sound continued beneath. John could place it now, the sound of something eating, its teeth clacking against bone and tearing at meat, pausing as it consumed its kill, then resuming with another bite – a fresh rending.
“Nick?” He didn’t want to even think it, but he couldn’t help himself. He pictured his son beneath that mass, eating and eating, sating the insatiable hunger that had plagued for months now. “Nicholas!”
The door shut behind John revealing his son, clutching his knees and rocking, his back to the wall. John felt a moment of relief, then flinched as the low to which he had let himself fall sunk in. How could he even have thought for a second that his son was capable of an act so grotesque. That thought would plague John for the rest of his life, and yet, no time remained for such indulgences now.
He grabbed a baseball bat from the floor and approached the broken remains of his wife. “You’re dead, mother fucker!”
John heard himself scream those first words as he approached his wife’s body, then the pulsing anger drowned out all sound and all rational thought. He could feel the string of obscenities unleash, the spit and rage exploding forth, but time and space, sight and sound, all became meaningless, nothing more than background to the main event.
He leapt behind Emily, ready for a man or even some wild animal, his bat swinging. It struck, the metal reverberating as it hit across something hard with a crack that John more sensed than heard, and simultaneously a soft give. That’s when the world exploded in a shrill creak-scream, an otherworldly mix of raspy violin chords tinged with a guttural bubble.
John fell to his knees, his hands covering his ears, and his bat rolling away into the blood nest of discarded wrapper and meat scraps. Emily scraps?
A pale form, almost translucent, jerked back, seizing as puss erupted from a crack along what John could only conceive of as a shell. It writhed, large, lobster-like claws clacking as they ripped away from Emily, and mandibles snapping, yet all too quick for John to catch a concrete glimpse before it burrowed beneath its macabre nest.
“What the hell?” John skittered backwards across the floor, in an unsettlingly appropriate crab-walk.
“Ade, dad,” Nicholas said from behind him. “Dad, Ade.”
John glanced back. His son still set back to the wall by the door, but he had let go of his knees, his body slumping, legs now splayed out and his arms slack at his sides, as if a balloon deflating. And there was something more to that thought… John could still see the baby-like fat in his face, and multiple chins still consumed Nicholas’s neck, and yet, he seemed smaller somehow.
“I don’t understand.”
“She gave him to me.”
“She who?” John rose, his gaze returning to the remains of his wife, even as he spoke to his son behind him. That thing was still in there somewhere.
“I don’t know.” Nicholas said. “She was there when I found Matt, hiding in the mirrors. I only saw her for a moment.”
“Nick, you’re not making sense.”
Emily’s body shifted, her head tilting and the bulk of her mass shifting to one side. Somewhere below her that thing was moving. More, John had the distinct impression that it was burrowing.
“She gave him to me. She reached through the window and she touched me and told me that everything would be okay.”
His son wasn’t making any sense, but that was fine. He was alive. Right now life had just gone FUBAR. Sense could come later.
“Nick,” John said, breaking through the crazy talk, “get the door. We have to go.”
John kept his eyes on Emily’s body as it shifted, nothing left but a heap of pulverized bone and meat. As long as he kept his eyes on it, as long as he could see that thing coming, he and his son had a chance. Behind him, he heard Nicholas lift himself to his feet.
“Good, son. Good. Now get the door.”
“She gave him to me. ‘A friend for a friend,’ she said.”
“Just get the door.” Emily’s body collapsed inward, then lay still. The wrappers and plates at the edge of the nest began to stir. “Now, Nicholas!”
“I still don’t know if she meant a friend to replace Matt, or if she meant I was her friend and she was gifting me with a new friend. She didn’t stick around to explain, you know?”
“Nicholas, get the damn door!”
John turned, that pulsing anger resuming, not at his son, but at the whole situation. They had to leave immediately. As he shifted his gaze, his kneecap shattered and his world burst into a red flare of pain.
John fell landing on the shattered knee and his world ruptured once more. He screamed and toppled to the floor, clutching at the broken mess of bone and flesh. As the red subsided, he caught sight of his son lifting a heavy meat tenderizer, then bringing it down with all his weight.
John shifted, trying to roll away from blow. With the sudden movement Nicholas missed his other knee but the tenderizer still hammered home into John’s upper tibia. He screamed again as the bone fractured, then bit down on his lip. He could taste the blood trickling into his mouth and down his throat, yet he was thankful for it, as that new pain provided a momentary distraction from the absolute agony of his shattered legs.
“What are you doing?” he said, struggling to get the words out.
Nicholas stood above him, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow, and dropped the tenderizer to the floor.
“I guess it doesn’t matter what she meant by it, really. She reached out from that glass, from within that window, and she touched me here, and Ade was born.” Nicholas patted at his stomach as he spoke, and with a growing sense of horror John realized what was so different about his son. His shirt hung loose, as if he had lost nearly twenty pounds in the span of a few hours.
“Right here,” Nicholas repeated, lifting up his shirt to reveal folds of loose skin. In the center of those folds, John could just make out a large open wound. No blood poured from it, but a sticky mass coated its edges, like a glue sealing it shut.
John scrambled back towards the door, dragging his legs behind him. He reached up to the handle, his fingers glancing against the knob, then slipping.
“Don’t leave dad. It’s just me and you, now. Just me, you, and Ade.” Nicholas bent over, grabbing the tenderizer off the floor.
“Why?” John asked, one hand reaching once more for the door, while the other grasped for anything that he could use to defend himself.
“I don’t have a choice, dad.” Nicholas stopped, glancing back to his mother’s corpse, as if searching for his “friend” amidst its nest. “He depends on me.”
“Then let him die.” John’s fingers caught on the handle once more. He twisted it and yanked the door open, falling back into the hallway.
“You think it’s that easy? You think I haven’t thought of that?” Nicholas paused, cocking his head as if listening. As he did his brows furrowed, and he glanced back, his own rage bubbling to the surface.
“Shut up,” he yelled. “I already let you have her.” He turned back to his father. “You hear this shit, dad? You hear what I have to put up with? It’s just never enough.”
“It’s well beyond enough, son,” John dragged himself into the hall, his legs dangling behind him.
“No, no, no, no!” Nicholas gripped at his head, ripping at his hair. “Fine!”
He reached the door and slammed it as hard as he could, catching his dad’s mangled legs.
John banged his fists against the floor, his eyes winced shut, and gritted his teeth against the wave of pain. How is this happening, he thought. This wasn’t reality; this wasn’t the world as he understood it. More, this wasn’t his son, not his sweet Nicholas, the soft momma’s boy.
The door eased open and Nicholas, winded, slid down the door jamb, sitting himself upon his dad’s legs. “Don’t you get it, dad? I need him, too.”
Nicholas struggled for his breath. As at last he eased back to a normal rhythm, he pulled at the fold of skin under his night shirt. “See this,” he said, waving the glued over wound at his father. At this distance John could see it more clearly – almost a surgical incision.
“It doesn’t hold. If he doesn’t return, it will open, and I’ll bleed out.” He stopped, listening once again.
“Nicholas,” John started.
“Shhh!” Nicholas held one finger before his lips, then cocked his head back towards his room. Finally, he sighed.
“Yes, I’m telling him. What the hell do you think I’m doing?
“Well, hell with you. You know how long I’ve wanted to tell someone?” Nicholas turned back to his dad, shaking his head and rolling his eyes in a ‘can you believe this guy’ gesture.
“I’ve so wanted to tell you, you know that right.”
John looked at his son, a mix of pity and horror in his eyes. “You killed Matt. You and this thing, you killed the Hoffmans.”
“Damn, dad. Have you even been listening? The girl did that. I just walked in at the wrong time and she gave me a friend. I had to feed him. He needed me to grow, but now he’s here.”
From beyond Nicholas John heard a rustle, then that raspy, violin clicking as something large skittered over the wood, a squelching gurgle dragging behind it.
“Huh.” Nicholas shrugged. “Ade wants to meet you. What do you say, dad?”
John lunged forward, grabbed his son, and slammed him back into the doorjamb! He screamed as his head cracked into the wood, and behind him that shrill, crackly gurgle split the night once more.
John fell to his elbows and army-crawled down the hall, his son moaning behind him. Behind that, the skittering resumed.
John had made it as far as the living room entryway when he felt a sudden yank on his leg, and yet another burst of fireworks blocked out his vision.
“Dad,” Nicholas more breathed than said as he hunched over him. “Dad, I don’t want you to go. I don’t want to be alone with him.” Nicholas motioned beside him, and John shifted his gaze.
A mass of shell and flesh coiled around Nicholas’s foot, like a cat rubbing against its owner’s leg. The thing had to be two feet long, its front resembling a cross between a tick and a lobster, all mandibles, antennae, and claws. Two lidless black eyes stared out,and behind its head, a small thorax with six segmented legs, quivered as it caressed against his son. Finally, the thing ended in a long multi-segmented abdomen, thin and translucent and riddled with veins dragging out in an amorphous mass that bloated at its end to the size of a basketball. The whole thing rippled and gurgled as it moved, then its eyes shifted to John, it’s mandibles opening and a mouth more mammal-like than insect, yawned open revealing rows upon circular rows of needle-like teeth and pulsing gums.
John recoiled, then reached up and grabbed for his son. Whatever happened, he would not be a part of this abomination. Nor would his son, not even if meant killing him. Only Nicholas pulled back too quickly, dodging from his father’s grasp.
That parasitic thing tensed around his leg. “But I don’t want to,” Nicholas said. John knew he wasn’t talking to him. “Fine.” He looked to his father. “Now, I’m sorry.”
Nicholas brought the tenderizer down on John’s head and the world went black.
As he came to, his head thumping to an excruciating internal drum solo, the first thing John noticed was the dust catching in the sunlight from the living room window. He found himself lying in his arm chair, his entire body aching. His son sat on the couch, showered and in a fresh set of clothes, his legs kicked up on the coffee table as he watched Saturday morning cartoons.
“Morning, dad,” he said, stretching back into the couch, his shirt pulled taut over his massive belly, the fat once again bubbling out from a shirt now at least two sizes too small.
“You think I could pick up some new clothes, today? These don’t fit anymore.”
“Sure,” John said, shaking his head, trying to clear it. The drum solo intensified. Everything seemed so normal, the previous night nothing more than a vivid nightmare now vanished in a bad hangover. “Yeah, yeah, we can do that,” he continued, still staring at his son’s exposed belly.
Suddenly it quivered, and shifted, something big pressing out against the skin. Nicholas leaned forward, grabbing a handful of shredded meat and bone from a plate sitting on the couch beside him. He shoveled the bloody concoction into his mouth.
“Thanks, dad.” He offered the plate to his father. “Hungry?”
John recoiled, trying not to think about what his son was eating. More he recoiled from his own reaction. His stomach rumbled and he realized that he was hungry; hungrier than he had ever been in his life.
He tried to fight the urge, but instead found himself accepting the offered plate. He began to eat and something inside him twisted and turned and for a moment he thought he heard a quiet voice speaking in his head, urging him to eat even more. Again, John tried to resist, but he couldn’t. He ate another bite, and another, the drumming of his head softening as his own tears began to fall.
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