It started with the pepper seeds.
They looked so strange, hugging the inside of the stem. Nestled together but not quite touching; little round, disturbing oddities that had no right to be inside a perfectly delicious pepper.
The sight of them surprised him. Looking at them, really and truly examining them, didn’t quell the nausea that churned his stomach. They looked as if they’d move unexpectedly. Too much examination, he found, made sour bile rise in the back of his throat and the edges of his vision go a little wavy.
He stopped being so particular about de-seeding peppers after that, and mama cuffed him on the ear for it.
He averted his eyes whenever he was asked to do the job. He knew those seeds were still in there, though, and wondered, now that he refused to look, whether or not they took the chance to move. To move minutely closer to him, to touch him . . .
Same thing happened with corn. The rows of kernels weren’t right somehow. They fit together in a way that may seem orderly but was slightly off, as if someone put them into place deliberately, for show, to make sure no one noticed something was wrong. Like they were pale dead eyes, ready to open and look at him if he stared too long. He didn’t take the chance and refused to look at the cobs.
None of it made any sense, really, because he was the one who planted the original kernels to begin with, and tended the plants as they grew. There was no reason for his sudden revulsion.
No reason at all.
But now that he’d seen, now that he’d uncovered something wrong with them all, now that he’d been unsettled by the off-putting sights, they were everywhere.
When his mother asked him to help with lemonade—she made hers fresh, from real ingredients, she was known for it—he started to, but had to quit. Mother made lemonade by squeezing fresh lemons the old-fashioned way: By using a fork to break the delicate cells that contained the juice, then squeezing the liquid from the pulp by hand. When the juice extraction was done, the lemons looked like mouths. Alien mouths, maws open and soft; not containing razor sharp teeth like so many seemed to think, but with hairy appendages reaching out to pull a body in towards their throat, to be digested in their acid that smelled like citrus.
He made excuses not to help.
His brother didn’t make things easier. He’d gone walking the fields that day, agreeing to take his turn to keep groundhogs and crows away from the crops. He’d shot a groundhog and hung it on the fencepost to warn the other rodents away.
When he saw the thing, the wind blew its hair, and the undulating motions it created were unnerving. There was almost a pattern to it, and if he stared long enough, maybe he’d be able to see--
“Hey! Mom said you won’t help her with the lemonade!”
He shook his head. He didn’t want to explain; he’d never be able to explain to someone who was too concrete, too grounded.
“I took your chore of makin’ sure the crows don’t git in the corn, and you just laze around?”
He was knocked with a fist alongside the head, like so many times before.
“Git inside and help mom!”
With a bizarre fascination he wanted to be able to read what was written there in the dead groundhog’s fur, but being twelve meant he had to do what his seventeen year old brother said.
The dog vomited up a ball of worms.
He’d almost vomited too, watching the animal drop its head and pull its lips back and retch hard, retch long, before a white mass fell out of its mouth. The dog walked away stiff-legged afterward, not worse for wear.
He, however . . .
As if a puppet on a string, he moved with the same stiff leg movements the dog displayed toward the vomitus. He didn’t want to, not really, but sometimes not seeing things and imagining them was worse than just facing a fear, so he ignored the prickle at the back of his neck that warned him this wasn’t what he should do; he ignored the tiny voice from somewhere behind his ear that cautioned that this was a bad idea.
He looked and saw.
The long thin worms were tangled around each other, not moving like earthworms but twining amongst themselves and not nosing the dirt for sanctuary. They only pushed against each other, wet from the dog’s stomach juice and their own secretions. They were the pale white of the pepper seeds.
If he looked close enough--he didn’t want to, he didn’t want to do that! that tiny voice in his head shouted--he thought he could see their tiny mouths open and shut. It looked just like the alien lemon-mouths, spongy and moist.
One of the worms flipped upward, away from the pile, towards him.
He jerked back and away, stumbling over his own feet, sitting down hard in the dirt before it could touch him.
He barely had the wherewithal to lean over and vomit on the ground beside him instead of down the front of his shirt.
He wished he knew what to do.
Mama would never believe him. His brother would never believe him. He didn’t have the words to make them understand the wrongness around here now. He was just a kid, he knew he was just a kid, and like in all those horror movies and horror comics his brother watched and read and didn’t care that he didn’t want to see, no one would listen to the one with reason.
He considered his alternatives. He thought of ignoring everything. (When everything started showing signs of being just a little off, the act of ignorance was impossible.) He thought of running away. (Where would he go? What if the rest of the world was exactly the same?) He thought of biting the bullet and just telling his family. (They would laugh and think he was crazy. They’d send him away like they did Granddad, when he started saying things weren’t the same as they used to be, when he started shouting in the middle of the night.)
There were other, more permanent and decisive options too. Those ideas came in the middle of the night, when it was dark and still and he strained his ears to make sure nothing was dragging itself across the floor, nearing his bed.
He thought if he didn’t see the things, it would be better.
He thought about putting his eyes out.
But it hurt when he pressed against his eyelids with just the meat of his thumb, so he didn’t know that he could actually go through with stabbing himself. Maybe if he fell on one of the pitchforks in the barn . . . but he wasn’t sure he could be accurate enough to strike both eyes with tines at the same time.
And even if he could be blinded, he realized, not being able to see things didn’t mean the things weren’t there. They’d have the advantage then, wouldn’t they! They’d be able to be right against him, right on him before he would know it, and then where would he be?
He gave up the idea of losing his sight.
So he was right back to where he’d been: Confused, scared, and trying not to look at anything that might show him something deeper, something he never guessed existed, something beneath the surface that just wasn’t right.
Inside, outside; it made no difference now.
The clouds in the sky became less amorphous and more deliberate, unearthly figures. They undulated above him while he was supposed to be tending the chickens, and he saw their damp, misty appendages reach down towards him, boldly attempting to touch him in broad daylight, ready to engulf him and fill him and--
His scream brought mama running out of the kitchen.
He crouched on the ground, trying to make himself small and flat in the hen coop, trying to be less of a target for those tentacles made of something more than water-droplets.
His terror was so great he tried to explain to mama about the clouds attacking him, about the clouds wanting in him.
She hauled him up by the elbow out of the chicken dirt and scattered feed and smashed eggs, and demanded he be less babyish. It was time for him to be a man. Shut up your yelling.
She shook him, for good measure, and ordered him to go clean up.
He did, but kept his eyes shut as he showered in the basement, because the water going down the drain opened to a place that was rapidly becoming wide enough to suck him in, and he couldn’t see the bottom.
Then mama told him to get to his room. No supper for him tonight.
He would have been fine with that, if his room hadn’t been paneled in dark wood. The grain visible in the wood didn’t undulate as smoothly as the clouds; it heaved and creaked and made strange whistling sounds as it closed in around him.
He bit his lips till they bled, to keep new screams in. When that wasn’t enough, he shoved his fingers in his mouth and bit on them hard enough to draw blood from there too. The smell and taste of old copper pennies surrounded him, soaked him, and he cowered under his sheets to try and hide.
He did what he could, but it wasn’t much.
He stayed as still and quiet as he could, trying to avoid everything’s attention. He kept his eyes closed as much as possible, to not see. There were sounds now too; chittering, whispering noises just at the edge of hearing that he knew no one else paid mind to.
Did his brother and mama see? Did they hear? How could they not? Maybe they did; maybe they already knew about it all; maybe they had dull white nodules on their insides, like pepper seeds, maybe that was how people were, and he didn’t know, he hadn’t considered, he didn’t know, he didn’t know--
On the fencepost, the groundhog’s innards rotted away. He watched a crow pick at the carcass. When the bird saw him looking, its glossy black feathers shifted a bit and became inky tentacles, writhing in the air and down into the groundhog for their own dark purpose.
He didn’t even blink at that.
He became dull and thick. Things were becoming emboldened now; they no longer tried to hide as other objects. They’d given up on being clouds and wood grain. Now murky blobs hung in his peripheral vision, nosing the air, waiting for a signal he couldn’t fathom.
Soon, he knew, they wouldn’t just hide in the corners. Someday, soon, they’d catch him.
They still infested corn kernels and seeds hidden in vegetables, though. He didn’t know if it was because that’s where he first saw them and maybe they had a deeper hold there; maybe it took longer for them to throw off that camouflage.
So his only recourse to that simple: he gave up eating.
Black globules out of the corners of his eyes he’d grown used to. Cataractous alien eyes hiding as pepper seeds he could not.
That caught mama’s attention, and his brother’s too.
They pleaded with him. They threatened him. But their threats were laughable compared to the unknown that only he could see and hear. Finally he had an option. Waste away to nothing, so there was nothing to be touched or engulfed.
Now it was a waiting game.
At first hunger was a constant companion. It gave way to a dull, empty ache that he could ignore if he concentrated on sitting as motionless as possible. His vision became more and more tunnel-like, closing in on the edges. When the darkness was complete, he sensed they would overtake him and drag him under.
It was slow going, this waiting. He was sad that he heard his mama crying, and sad that his brother looked beaten. He wished there’d been some way to explain to them.
Then, as those first fingerlings of black were starting to wisp across his vision, he realized something. He didn’t want to die. He hadn’t known what sign everything was waiting for to consume him, but this was surely it: his surrender, his final succumbing to what it made him believe was inevitable.
With that sudden realization, he was hungry.
He found himself outside. He’d been so weak he wasn’t quite sure how he ended up there, but that was a puzzle for later. The wind picked up, blowing the scent of decay from the dead animal on the fence to him. His mouth watered.
But he’d allowed himself to grow so debilitated he had no way to get all the way across the field. He almost cried from the hunger now driving him.
The dog came up to him and leaned against him, as dogs do. Its weight, combined with the frailty he’d brought on himself buckled his knees and he toppled. The dog wagged its tail and licked his face, but it was too strong for him to drag down and bite.
So he lay there, not wanting to give in but not having much choice now.
Bored at the inattention, the dog took several steps away. He watched as it ate some grass, then saw its stomach contract and push. In a few moments, it heaved up a new mass of worms. It sniffed at the ejection for a moment, and then wandered away.
He dragged himself to the pile.
Just like before: The soft and slimy white parasites squirm against each other. They are not attempting to escape. He could see their tiny mouths open, just like before, and down their gullets was as bottomless as the water spiraling down the drain.
Unlike before, all of them in the mass strained upward toward him.
From his open mouth a thin line of spit fell out.
He wouldn’t be hungry anymore! He’d beat these things, because that which does not kill him would make him stronger! Granddad used to say that, before he was sent away, before he screamed there were things all around, things that tried to touch him, to reach him, to fill him—
A very small voice, the softest voice ever audible in his head, whimpered that this was their trick all along; that they wanted him weak so they could get inside; that he was playing into their trap; that it was better to die and not let them win, it was better to die human than to give in to them and become more and less than he was—
The thin worms, the worms the pale color of pepper seeds, slavered and stretched towards him. With a last burst of energy, he dipped down and swallowed the mass of them. They writhed just as much in his gut as they had in the air and he smiled.
They and it would be part of him. Now he had nothing to fear.