© 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
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.”
Teagan tapped over to the other call. “More water, love?”
No response, just a sort of a throaty murmur.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.