Last Call: Complete

© Ruslan1117 | Dreamstime.com – Two shots of tequila with lime and salt on a wooden table bar on the background of bright lights of the bar

By Christopher Opyr




Author’s Note:

I will now be using Tuesdays, when I don’t have a new blog entry, to post completed versions of my stories for easier reading. We begin this week with the complete version of Last Call.



          Thick strips of bacon crisped and bubbled, popping in an ocean of grease, their smoky aroma mixing with that of the scrambled eggs and glazing the kitchen in the scents of breakfast. Teagan breathed deep, the strength of the smell forcing itself past her clogged sinuses, and sliding inside. It felt warm and comforting, then suddenly it didn’t.

          Her stomach lurched, the taste of the previous night’s pad thai and whiskey surging up, along with what tasted like tequila, though Teagan could not remember having any. She burp-vomited in her mouth, wobbled, and lost her balance as her nausea took center stage. Attempting to right herself she flailed out at last catching onto the corner of the stove.

          “Son of a whore!”

          She yanked her hand back, her index finger throbbing from the sudden heat of the gaslit burner. The room spun, a whirling kaleidoscope of sensory overload. The sizzle of the bacon. Elder meowing incessantly, planted beside the cabinet with his treats. The window fan sucking in thin wisps of cigarette smoke from the ashtray. A metal band blaring over the surround sound, mingling with the raised voices of the television.

          Teagan winced fighting back the remainder of her pad thai and struggling with the throbbing migraine playing the drums in her brainpan. How many shots did I have last night, she wondered for not the first time that morning.

          After they had left Toi she and the rest of the gang had pinged a Lyft and caught a ride to the Whiskey a Go Go. The house had been packed and they had pushed their way past the reserved tables to the back bar under the balcony, ordering the first round of shots. They began with decent standards, ordering up an 18-year Glenlivet Single Malt, followed by a round of Johnny Walker Blue. After that they had hit the floor, and explored further options between sets, gradually regressing until they were down to the house whiskey. From there the night got fuzzy.

          Usually after a night of hard drinking Milly checked in with Teagan in the morning. They had been friends since childhood and had moved out to Los Angeles together eight years prior. Now they each had their own lives, but they were still close as sisters. When things got blackout crazy, they watched out for each other.

          Teagan checked her phone. No missed calls. It was only 11 am, but Milly always rose at the ass crack of dawn. She should have called or at least texted by now. Something didn’t feel right. Teagan considered calling and reached to dial.

          Before she could, an alarm rang out! Teagan refocused, pocketing her phone. The bacon grease bubbled black, the strips shriveled and burnt. She dialed off the heat and scooted the pan onto a stack of dirty plates covering the back burner. As she scraped at the charred mess, she shouted into the living room over the cacophony of the peeling alarm, music, and TV.

          “You like your bacon charred, right?”

          Teagan received no response. She turned, but couldn’t get a good look into the living room. Her world swiveled some as she shifted for a better vantage. Sinuses, my splitting head, and a case of the dizzies, she thought. This is going to be a fun hangover.

          “Henry?” she called again. The least he could do was respond. Instead she received still more nothing beyond the hideous racket drilling into her frontal lobe – not even a single acknowledgment that she had spoken.

          “Hey, a little help here, damn it!” Her head pounded as she screamed, but Henry was starting to piss her off. When he still didn’t answer, Teagan finally dropped the spatula into the pan and charged into the living room, dizziness and spinning rooms be damned.

          “Hey, cock hat, you could at least get the smoke detector?”

          Henry shot her a pained glance from the couch, where he lay with a beer in one hand and his tablet in the other. He looked about as grisly as she felt. He tilted his headphones back to hear.

          “What was that?”

          “You dick!” She braced herself against the wall, fighting the pain of the headache, and screaming through it. Bad move, bad move, bad move, she thought, but continued anyway. “You can’t possibly be paying attention to all these screens.”

          Teagan clicked off the television.

          “Hey,” Henry shouted, then stopped and jammed his palm into his eye socket. Good, at least if she had to suffer so did he. “Not cool,” he continued more softly.

          “Get off your lazy ass and do something about the smoke detector.”

          “Why don’t you do it?”

          “Because I’m busy cooking your breakfast and trying not to die from this hangover. Where the hell did we end up last night?”

          Henry casually glanced about the apartment, his eyes squinting together with concentration, as if truly considering Teagan’s question. His scan complete, he shrugged. “Here, I guess.”

          “No shit. Before that.”

          “I don’t know.” He winced again, covering his ears, as the detector continued its warning shriek.

          “What about Milly or Aaron? Have you heard from either?”

          “Milly or Aaron?”

          “That’s what I said.”

          Henry shifted, blinking and wincing at the light as he tried to wake from his deadened state. As he did, he shifted, and his hair flopped into his face. He flicked it aside, and flashed a questioning, half-asleep look at Teagan.

          “Why would I have heard from them?”

          “Never mind.” Teagan turned to leave. “Just do something about that smoke detector.”

          Finally, Henry sat up, downing the last of his PBR as he did. “Wait… what? Did you burn the bacon?” The PBR done he slouched back into the couch.

          “Oh, I’m so done.”

          Teagan left and grabbed the broom, which was leaning against the kitchen table from the last time she had used it. Properly equipped she stormed down the hall and inspected her adversary. It continued its shrill ring, its red light flashing mockingly at her.

          She tapped at it with the broom handle, trying to find a stop button. No luck. She shouted back down the hall. She knew it would hurt, but it couldn’t be as bad as this stupid ringing alarm.

          “Where’s the off on this thing?”

          Oh hell, it was worse. Much worse. Don’t scream. Gotta stop doing that. She held her head. It hurt so bad she could almost cry. What’s more, Henry had gone back to not answering her, most likely having finished that slouch taking it to its natural conclusion and shifting back down for a nap. Faintly, she could hear voices from the TV, again, which had been turned back on. She shook her head.

          Another bark sounded from the smoke detector and another ripple of pain shot through Teagan’s skull. She tried to focus, but between the headache and the rest of the hangover, the whole world had gone muddled, soft and linty, like a worn blanket had been laid down over it. Well, soft other than the relentless din turning the apartment into a sonic hellscape. Unable to focus, Teagan decided to go with her gut.

          Whack!

          She smacked the smoke detector with the broom stick, and smiled as she heard the plastic crack. She took another go, slamming the handle once more into the interminable offender. Caught in the moment, propelled by an irresistible drive to kill that ringing before it did her in, she swung again and again, a child with a piñata, only her candy was silence.

          “What the hell, Teagan!” At last Henry had come stumbling drunkenly and bleary-eyed down the hall.

          “I couldn’t reach it.”

          The smoke detector dangled lifelessly from the ceiling as Teagan, smiling victoriously, supported herself with the broom.

          “You’re buying me a new one,” Henry said, then covered his mouth and ran to the bathroom.

          “Whatevs.”

          The alarm let off one last defiant squawk, and Teagan bashed it in retaliation, snapping it from the wire tendons that held it to the ceiling like a poorly severed limb. It clattered against the wood floor and settled at last to a silent stop.

          Teagan breathed a sigh of relief. As she did, Elder rubbed against her leg.

          “What do you want?”

          He meowed back at her, his eyes set angrily.

          “Fine, I’ll get your damn treats.” She tapped on the half-open bathroom door before heading to the kitchen. “Henry,” she said softly (she had learned her lesson on screaming). “Your cat’s a jackass.”

          “I know,” he muttered, then waved for her to walk away as he kneeled by the toilet.


***


          Elder fed, Teagan plopped into a chair in the kitchen, gulped down a glass of water, and shoveled her breakfast down, burnt bacon and all. The breakfast helped settle her roiling stomach, but did little to dissipate her headache or her worries about Milly and the night before. It nagged her, something begging for her attention, but simultaneously forgotten. She had to get rid of this hangover and focus. It had been years since she felt this terrible after a night of drinking. Well… weeks, anyway.

          Try as she might, she could only recall flashes after the last shot at the Whiskey a Go Go. After the final band had finished its set she, Henry, Milly, Aaron, Erika, and, and… oh hell, who else had been there?

          Focus.

          Whoever it was, the lot of them had hit the street. She remembered another Lyft. She could picture the signature pink mustache on the dash lit up as it had pulled to the curb, but she couldn’t picture the driver or getting in. Then another flash. She could see her, Erika, and some dude in the backseat. Those last two were doing some heavy petting and she could remember pressing herself tight against the passenger side trying to get away from the makeout session. Then a heavyset bouncer. A jukebox. Dancing. Shots. Nothing clear, just snippets.

          Teagan fumbled in her pocket and pulled out her cell, tapping over to Milly. She waited, her phone held just far enough away that she could hear it without it wailing in her ear. It rang again and again, then clicked over to voicemail. She hung up and tapped over to Aaron. She wanted to talk to Milly, and where one went the other always followed. She also figured it was best to talk to one of them before calling Erika. She didn’t know who that guy was that Erika had been groping, but she felt fairly positive it wasn’t her boyfriend.

          Aaron’s line rang unanswered as well. Teagan tapped out a quick text asking where they’d gone after the Whiskey, then slumped deep into her chair.

          “Our friends are useless,” she yelled, slipping right back into the same mistake again. She sat her head in her hands, massaging her temples. This time she cried.

          Her phone rang, Henry’s picture flashing onto the screen. In the photo he had one arm draped over a plastic statue of Scooby-Doo, while he leaned forward, mid full-rocker headbang, hair whipping every which way.

          She tapped it to speaker.

          “Yep,” Henry said, his voice soft and weak. “Completely useless. Can you grab me some water?”

          “Seriously?”

          “It hurts to yell.”

          She couldn’t say he was wrong.

          “Sure. Anything else?”

          A long pause, then Henry chimed in his voice half question, half serious.

          “A beer?”

          “You’re going to die of liver failure, you know that?”

          “Yeah, but I’ll take you with me.”

          “Well, that’s sweet.”

          “So can I get that beer?”

          Teagan clicked off the phone and reluctantly hauled herself up and over to the sink. She pushed a few discarded dishes aside, turned on the tap, and filled up a glass. Done, she drank that one, then filled it back up, grabbed a PBR from the refrigerator, and made her way down the hall past the remains of the smoke detector.

          The things I do for love.

          Teagan sniffed, trying to breathe through her clogged sinuses. It didn’t go so well, snot rolling back down into her throat. She gagged, the feeling of bile on the rise returning, and paused to resist the also returned urge to vomit.

          Finally, reaching the bathroom, she toed the door open and held out both drinks to Henry. He was hugging the toilet. The water was clear so she figured he hadn’t vomited yet, though the porcelain was covered in muck. We should probably clean that, she thought absently, then thrust the idea to the bottom of her discarded mental to-do list.

          Henry reached for the beer. That done Teagan set the water glass on the sink and perched on the edge of the tub.

          “Your allergies acting up? Mine are wreaking havoc right now.”

          “Eh…” Henry grunted.

          “Is that a yes?”

          “They ain’t great. Probably the weather change. It always does this crap.”

          Every time they shifted out of a hot spell in LA the allergens killed the both of them. Sometimes Teagan thought it was enough to drive her back to the east coast, but those were always idle daydreams. She liked the music scene here. Though New York could be fun, too. Come to think of it though, it was hot as balls out.

          Teagan squinted into her phone and opened up the weather app.

          “It’s supposed to be 94 today.”

          “I don’t know. I’m not a weatherman.” Henry shrank his head back into his neck, holding something in. “Oh God. Can I get some privacy?”

          “Yeah, no one wants to see that. Yell if you need anything.”

          She shut the door on her way out, Henry mumbling behind her.

          “I’ll call. Thanks.”

          Dumbass.

          She sniffed again. She needed some meds – something to kill the pain, and something to fix her allergies. A glass of water wouldn’t hurt either.

          She stumbled back into the cramped kitchen, almost tripping over Elder. He scattered, then assured she wasn’t going to step on him, returned and meowed pleadingly.

          “I already fed you.”

          He meowed again, unphased.

          “Damn it, Elder.” She hadn’t meant to raise her voice, but when she did the world flickered and it felt as if a searing hot poker had just stabbed through her eye.

          “Holy shit, mother, cock, ass!” She fell to her knees grabbing at her head, tears streaming and let out every obscenity she could think of, which was a long litany. She had learned from her grandfather and he’d been a swearing pro.

          She continued, muttering through a second and third verse and rocking back and forth on her knees until the pain subsided. When she opened her eyes, Elder had bristled up, tail straight and back arched. She reached out to calm him.

          “I’m sorry, buddy,” she started. “I didn’t mean to –”

          He hissed and swiped at her face. She heard the skin pop first, then felt the flesh tear and flare as he caught her upside the cheek.

          She shot back banging against the washer. Her head hit first, as she had fallen as she went back, and as it jolted into the wash the jenga set of dishes clattered to the floor. Elder dashed off down the hall.

          Holy hell, this is a shitty morning, she thought, then fumbled to her feet, avoiding the broken plates and glasses. Still rocking to a stop from the fall, she spotted the bottle of aspirin. At least she could do something about that headache. She tapped out two pills, paused, then tapped out three more.

          Carefully tiptoeing around the disaster that was now the kitchen, Teagan made her way to the sink and filled up another glass of water. She gulped it down, and the pills with it, then tried to sneak a look at the scratches on her cheek off the glass of the window. She couldn’t see herself. The daylight streaming in whited out everything else. It hurt her eyes, so she made her way back into the darkness of the living room.

          The TV and music were still blaring. That had to be fixed. Teagan shut both off and melted down into the couch. Half dead and her cheek now stinging in addition to her headache, she poked her hand over the end of the couch, casting about the floor until she gripped a discarded shirt. Satisfied, she pulled it up and pressed it to her bloody cheek.

          The sounds diminished, her headache eased off ever so slightly and she shut her eyes. At first a comforting blackness met her behind her closed lids, then pops of light, and finally more snippets from the previous night.

          Henry had his arm flung over her neck and was trying to cop a feel. She brushed him aside. Stupid drunk Henry was a pain.

          “But…” he muttered pathetically and motioned to their friends across the table. Erika and the mystery guest were buried in each other’s faces with way too much PDA for even the most desperate of couples, let alone two perfect strangers.

          Time lurched forward.

          People laughing. People leaving.

          Just the four of them now, Teagan and Henry, and Erika and what’s his face. More laughter. Then Milly and Aaron slam into the booth beside them, Aaron missing his seat entirely and taking a few beers down with him.

          A bartender shouting. Telling them they were cut off.

          That stranger, finally unlocked from Erika, trying to calm the man down. That pale, weird stranger. Dapper clothes and effeminate features, but something so charming. At last the bartender relented.

          “Fine. It’s last call anyway.”

          The stranger nodded to the others.

          “Take a seat. I got this round.” His voice rang with a lyrical quality and a tinge of reverb. His face skipped forward, then back, like the flicker of a film reel, or another jump of time. They really needed to stop drinking.

          Teagan opened her eyes. Last call. The words stuck with her. She tried to picture that mystery man, to get a firm grasp on his face, but it would never lock in. Just something evocative and pale, and fueled by nightmares. It didn’t make sense, and her thoughts seemed to worm around him, sloshing about in either direction unable to hold. Somewhere deep down her mind connected him to an abstraction, an idea more than a physical thing, but that had to be the alcohol talking. His face flashed one more time, a stretched and distorted nightmare pulled from the fuzzy edges of her vision.

          Last call, she thought again. She needed to reach Milly, and she needed to reach her right now.

          She checked her phone. Nothing back from Milly or Aaron. She rang again, but still they didn’t answer. At last she tapped over to Erika. As the call rang through, she snorted again, swallowing back more snot. Her head was so stuffed.

          She pulled the shirt back from her cheek revealing three small lines of blood. Not bad. She’d had worse scratches from cats before, though never like this from Elder. It wasn’t like him. The way he had puffed up —

          Erika’s voice broke through Teagan’s thoughts. “Hello?”

          “Hey, Erika. You sound like hell.”

          “Sure. The same could be said…You know.”

          “Yeah. We might should lay off for a while.”

          “Good by me.”

          “Have you heard from Milly?”

          “Not since, like, last night.”

          Damn it. One line of questioning closed. Next up…

          Teagan strained to push on. The effort of speaking, and more of listening, did her and her obvious migraine no favors. “And your mystery bae?”

          “Oh God.” Erika’s voice dripped with regret. “Don’t even go there. Like, I don’t know what I was thinking. I was so mad at Mike and then this guy, he just like…he was so there… and can we just forget he ever existed?”

          “I almost got you covered there. I can’t remember jack. All flashes after the Whiskey, then him grabbing the last round.”

          “Oh, hot hell. The tequila.”

          Teagan shut her eyes, ready to drift off, but another flash lit up. The stranger coming back with a tray of shots – tequila shots. She had had tequila. Lime chasers by each. Something else. Something pulsing. His hand so pale.

          “You get Goth boy’s number?”

          “Jerk ditched me after those last shots. All hot and, like, heavy all night, like he could just play me. I don’t even let Mike do half of… I just couldn’t… he was so… I can’t even put words to it, you know?”

          “Yeah, I do.” Every time Teagan tried to picture him his face still shifted. That thought of an abstraction returned. All she could capture were those snapshots, that smooth, icy skin. A fair image, but always blurred or jerking in and out of focus. And a sense of something primal. He had oozed with an irresistible charm. And his eyes…

          “Oh, hell.” Her head shrieked, another stab of pain slicing back through the cornea, right through the soft tissue and back to gray matter. “I can’t.”

          “Yeah,” Erika said. “We so outdid ourselves last night. It’s never been, like, this bad.” As she finished she sniffed, then sneezed.

          Alarm bells went off.

          “You don’t have allergies, Erika. Right?”

          “No. I’m just coming down with something I guess. There’s just so much pressure. It’s like it’s all swelling up behind my eyes and my nose. Just this constant pressure, you know?”

          Teagan panicked. Her heart went racing and she could feel the sweat already beading on her forehead. What exactly had happened last night? The thought held a new level of urgency.

          “Teague, are you there?” Erika’s voice drew Teagan back to the phone. “You’re cutting out.”

          Caller ID showed Henry’s headbanging profile beeping in.

          “Hold that. My lazy ass boyfriend’s calling from the bathroom.”

          “He’s what?”

          Teagan tapped over to the other call. “More water, love?”

          No response, just a sort of a throaty murmur.

          “Henry?”

          A loud pop sounded and then something sloshing in water.

          Oh hell. Here we go.

          “Henry, did you just throw up? I’ll get you some water. I’ll be right there.”

          With effort, Teagan rose, grabbed what was left of her water glass and made her way down the hall to the bathroom. She tapped back to Erika briefly.

          “Hey, Erika. I’ll have to call you back. Henry’s pretty bad off.”

          “Join the club.”

          “You good?”

          “Yeah, yeah. Call me back.”

          Teagan pocketed her phone once more, and approached the shut door.

          “Love, are you okay?”

          She toed it open, again, then everything stopped. Time. Her heart. Her breathing. She died. Everything died, and her hands loosed, the glass falling to the tile. Then everything snapped back into focus. Her breath came out in a huff, and her heart pounded and skipped like a broken record.

          Henry was dead. He lay, his head hanging into the toilet, only you couldn’t rightly call it a head anymore. The skull, his skull had cracked right open, his scalp and face scattered, and hanging, and torn, and floating like chunks of viscera in the bloody water, now not so clear. And there were things floating there, things, bits of brain, and bone, and ….

          “FUUUUCCCCCKKKKK!” She screamed, dragging the word out, and living it, and feeling it in a way she never had before, but completely lost in it – in the hurt of it, the pain and the frustration, and every emotion roiling together and bubbling like the grease in the pan.

          “What the holy hell!”

          And the tears flowed now, they streamed an epic river, dripped and splattered mixing with the snot now oozing from her nose, and all mingling in a slime-salt cocktail that she sucked down as every emotion tore for attention.

          She couldn’t believe he was dead, and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t see what had happened. As if…

          Elder hissed and yowled from the bedroom, giving her something, anything other than this sick shitshow on which to focus. Teagan fumbled back and peered into the room, holding onto the doorframe lest her legs give out. There stood Elder puffed up as before, hissing and panicked on the top of the headboard.

          “Hey, buddy…” She attempted a calming voice, but she lost it mid-way through. Her body spasmed with a wracking sob.

          Henry’s dead. He’s so fucking dead.

          They had been together for four years. They were supposed to be together. Always together. Henry and Teagan, just like Milly and Aaron. The names were one, they didn’t exist without the other. She was strong, and she had never needed him – it wasn’t that urgent I can’t breathe without you love – but the concept, the idea… they belonged together. Like milk and cereal. Rock and roll. Fucking chutes and ladders. None of it made sense.

          Try as she did, Teagan couldn’t hold her thoughts together. They sped off in every direction, bounced out and snapped back. And then Elder yowled again, and she zeroed back in on the cat.

          His ears were pressed back and his head pointed down, following something on the floor – something between the bed and the nightstand. As Teagan tried to catch a glimpse of what had cornered Elder, she noticed a wet trail on the bedroom carpet. Blood, and water, and muck, tracked in, leading all the way back — Teagan turned — to the bathroom.

          “Oh no. No, no, no.”

          Teagan backed out of the room, as Elder hissed and yowled some more, angry and desperate for help.

          I can’t.

          She continued to back up, bracing against the wall as her head began to throb. Oh, it hurt so bad. Her hand slipped into open air as she reached the hallway, and she fell with a resounding thwack against the wood floor, but she didn’t notice the pain of it. No all of the pain surged from her head, from her sinuses and her stupid, drumming, wailing brainpan.

          She slid back then, spider-walking down the hall, unable to turn her gaze from the direction of that room and moreover from that thing, whatever it was, that had dragged itself across the floor and currently had Elder in a panic. Focused back as she was, she didn’t notice how far down the hall she had fled until her right hand brushed against the broken plastic of the smoke detector.

          Oh, hadn’t that been a better time, smacking her silence piñata? Those were the days, right? She and Henry had been happy then. Him ignoring her and running off to vomit, and her reveling in her victory over the evil beeping detector of doom. She missed those days.

          Elder yowled once more and Teagan stopped. Elder belonged to Henry. Henry’s cat. Teagan and Henry’s cat. He was a part of them, and whatever that thing was, it had killed Henry. It had splattered his head open and it had gone after Elder, and she’d be damned if she was going to lose that bastard of a cat, too.

          Her hand gripped on the broken plastic and one of those light bulb moments went off like a bomb. Oh it was no grand plan, not even a fraction of one, but she knew what she had to do. Teagan reached out and found the broom still leaning against the wall. She gripped it and she stood, and she headed right back to that bedroom.

          As she passed the bathroom she averted her eyes. She couldn’t stand to see Henry that way again. Her migraine pounded, but she plowed on, wielding that broomstick in front of her like a knight’s sword. Her Excaliber. Hell, her Gibson Les Paul and nothing would stop her from crashing it down on that obscenity.

          She turned the corner into the bedroom. Elder had backed to the far edge of the headboard, but on the other end, it waited. IT. That thing.

          Teagan vomited, blood and pad thai, and way too much liquor finally flooding out of her. She wiped her mouth, vomited again, then forced herself upright. She would see IT, look at IT and know IT – that thing that had killed her Henry.

          IT slithered up the bedpost, a wet mass of tumorous lopsided nightmares, with protuberances jutting from every which spot wriggling and gripping, as if a knot of a thousand tiny legs tied and glued together and bound by some viscous muck. Jaws snapped out at random, from that mass, between legs and on legs and as legs, teeth clacking together, in some macabre unfathomable design that had no right to exist.

          Yet IT did, and IT hauled itself up that bedpost, an eyeless, shapeless, abomination trying to kill their cat. She tottered forward, weakly. Her foot pressed down onto the muck IT had dragged into their room. Her bare foot. On that trail. That IT trail. That Henry trail. That mix of blood and gore and whatever IT was.

          That’s when Teagan snapped. She could feel Henry’s blood on her skin, soaking into her foot, and that burning ooze that IT had left behind, mixed with the toilet water, and something spongy and organic, something she could not stop to think about. She snapped and she charged. The broomstick smashed down repeatedly, hitting into that soft tissue and IT fell to the floor between the bed and the nightstand.

          Still Teagan hammered home whacking at that thing. ITs teeth clattered and those mouths let forth a screeching, vile, hurt yowl, and IT dragged itself under the bed.

          “No.”

          Teagan dropped down and reached under and yanked IT out. Those teeth, those many-mouthed teeth – or many-teethed mouths, or was it both – bit down, as ITs stubby legs-things wriggled against her and she flung IT across the room, as her skin bubbled and blistered around each bite. IT screeched again as IT hit the wall with a wet smack.

          Then, sensing some innate fight or flight necessity, IT hurled itself at Teagan. She barely had time to think. She just reacted. She pulled back and cleaved that thing in two, the broom handle meeting with IT and pinning the monstrosity to the wall as her momentum continued to carry through and that tumor burst and split.

          The cleaved halves fell to the floor, and even inside IT existed a further tangle of teeth and mouths and wriggling, now dying protuberances. No logic could explain IT, as if IT was inside and out, wholly this mass looping in on itself in some Escher-like insanity.

          Teagan vomited again, then forced herself to look one last time upon the dead thing. One last protuberance danced then went still.

          Teagan shut her eyes, and a final vision of the previous night burst into being like pyrotechnics bursting above a stage.

          The stranger held out the tray of tequila shots.

          “Go on,” he said in that lilting, melodic oddly reverbing voice, and they all did. All except for him. Five shot glasses and they each grabbed one: Aaron and Milly, Erika, and Henry and Teagan. Two each to the pairs. Erika eyed it oddly. They all did. Something wriggled in the bottom of the shot, something pale, and knotted. A tiny fleck twisting in the alcohol. Whatever it was, it was abhorrent, and Teagan had gagged, reaching to set the glass back.

          “It’s only a tequila worm,” the stranger said.

          You don’t drink the worm, Teagan thought. And isn’t that for mezcal, not tequila? That’s not something one actually does, right? Yet even as she questioned him, she found herself irresistibly raising the glass to her lips. They all did. She couldn’t understand how or why this man was making them do this, but she knew that he was.

          She looked at him, and his face did its usual lurch, a flash of pale skin, a gleam of an eye, his smooth features. Never all at once. Just a face. Faces? Mouths? An idea? An abstraction… His face solidified – like a Picasso, or some GWAR nightmare, everything at impossible angles, duplicates where they shouldn’t be and absences where something should be. Then he blurred once more and his face was once again that of the beautiful, mysterious stranger.

          “Down the hatch,” he said, and they all downed their shots.

          Teagan opened her eyes. She wanted to scream again. To yell more obscenities, but it didn’t matter now. She sniffed, and winced, and reached out to pet Elder. He shrank back from her. She would not be allowed that kindness.

          She thought about who she should call or what she should say, but she couldn’t imagine the words. Nothing she might say would explain it, nor would it provide her or anyone else any closure. It would just be torture.

          She tiptoed to the bathroom, stepping over Henry’s body, and looked in the mirror. Her face had reddened. She could see trace amounts of swelling around her eyes and her nose. Her cheek had puffed up around the claw marks from Elder. The cuts jiggled a little and another stabbing pain bore through her skull.

          Teagan didn’t have long now. She could feel her throat constricting as another mass grew inside her sinuses, some strange protuberance beginning to encroach on her airway. Milly and Aaron were already gone. That was clear now. Only she and Erika remained. She wanted to call and warn her, but in the end it was better if Erika didn’t know. Maybe she’d lie down and take a nap. Maybe she wouldn’t feel it happening.

          IT slithered now, those protuberances encompassing her throat. She couldn’t breathe, and she couldn’t speak even if she had anything to say. This must have been what it felt like for Henry, when he made that last call. He had tried to tell her, but IT didn’t let him.

          Teagan closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see anymore. She felt the pressure building in her head as that mass expanded and knew she had only seconds. She pictured Henry, smiling and headbanging, hanging off that cartoon statue. She pictured him lying on the couch, listening to his tablet, the cacophony of so many screens blaring around him. She pictured Elder meowing at her feet. She wanted all of them, so she focused further back. The three of them lying in bed, smiling and watching cartoons. Elder had curled up between them. Henry was scritching his head, and Elder purred. A small sliver of sunshine warmed the blanket and Teagan nuzzled up to her family, happy and safe in their embrace. Henry and Teagan. And even that ass, Elder.

          She smiled and the pressure burst.

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