Anna sat on the bed, staring at the worm. It looked remarkably like an earth worm – but it was thinner, longer, and redder. It writhed in the box, pressing its skin against the sides. Two sharp, fang-like appendages poked out from either end.
The pills weren’t pills.
They were eggs.
She ran into the kitchen. She threw the cabinet open and grabbed a can of Raid.
The worm still wriggled, looking a little more angry. She stood up, bringing it over to the kitchen table. Anna grabbed the moose-shaped salt shaker and vigorously coated the worm in the white grains.
Maybe it’s like a slug, and the salt will kill it.
It pushed a slimy, pointy end forward, wriggling out of the salt pile.
Anna threw open the cabinets. Garlic. Nope. Chili Powder. Nope. She sat the box on the floor, bringing her heel down squarely on the worm.
She didn’t miss, but that didn’t kill it either.
She sat at the table and stared at it. It writhed around in the box, hooking its red tail around the class ring, as if caressing it. She sighed and stared blankly at the open cabinet, not sure what to try next.
Then her eyes fell on a small, thin box.
Her lips curled into a smile.
The Accord roared underneath her. A jug of gasoline sloshed in the passenger seat. Jackson slept in his car seat, oblivious to it all.
She glanced at the clock. 12:17 AM.
Remember the plan, she thought, as the CVS rolled into view. Beyond it, the orange-and-white barricades flashed back. Several police cars were parked behind them.
She picked up the radio.
“This is Barker, do you read me?” she said, making her voice an octave deeper. A flimsy plan, but better than nothing.
The voice came back staticky and annoyed.
“Barker’s dead. Who the hell is this?”
“Uh, sorry. I was joking… too soon?” She coughed and brought her voice up to normal tone. “It’s, uh, Isabelle.”
“Yeah, I’m new. Just took the pill a few days ago. Listen, I’m coming back into the city, could you tell your guys to –”
The police cars behind the barricade were empty.
Anna clicked the radio off.
She drove onto the grass, weaving around the barricades and the parked police cars. They must go to sleep early, she thought. Either that, or… everyone’s with Luke, Mom, and Dad. Her stomach turned at the thought.
The streets were empty. The shops lined the streets, completely dark, their doors flapping in the wind. A few abandoned cars sat near the gutter, along with endless clumps of grime. Save for her headlights passing over the street, everything was pitch black.
She turned onto Egret Street.
The darkness was broken by dozens of glowing windows, running up the height of an office building. They shimmered in the sea of black like thousands of eyes, attached to some monstrous creature.
Anna recognized it.
451 Egret Street.
She cut the headlights and rolled to a stop on the street.
Jackson on one arm, a jug of gasoline in the other, she silently approached the building.
Luke and Kevin had rolled the ball two and a half feet. The basement temperature had risen 30 degrees. Luke’s shirt was drenched with sweat. Kevin’s face glistened in the dim light, his muscles straining. “Just a little more,” he grunted.
It was still about ten feet to the door that lead to the elevator, but Luke placed his hands into the slimy ball and pushed forward. Dozens of worms shed to the floor, most of them rolling forward into the hideous, slimy glob.
Since starting the process, the sphere had lost about two feet in height.
I don’t think this is working. And it’s so, so hot.
Luke had taken another step forward, pushing the ball with all his might, when a blinding pain seared through him.
“Are you okay, Luke?”
But then Kevin shrieked too.
The pain was excruciating. It felt as if someone stuck a knitting needle into the fire, gotten it red-hot, and then pierced it through his brain.
He fell to the ground, unable to control his screaming. The pain traveled from his forehead to the bridge of his nose. He could feel something moving, turning, shifting.
“Help! No, no, no…”
His body seized up. An incredible itch grew in his nose.
A red worm dropped to the floor, thrashing about wildly. Luke stumbled up, trying to keep the blood from dripping out of his nose. Kevin was lying on the floor, staring blankly at the misshapen glob of worms. “They’re dying,” he said, his voice tremulous.
The worms were twitching madly, as if electrified. They shed from the ball in writhing clumps, like disgusting rain.
Splat, splat, splat.
The door swung open. A beam of light illuminated the room.
Anna stood in the doorway, Jackson tied to her hip. When the boy’s eyes fell on the worms he started giggling, pointing at them and laughing.
“Come on Luke! We’ve got to go!”
Luke turned around. Kevin was still on the floor, staring at the worms and muttering incoherently to himself.
“Now!” Anna screamed.
They raced out of the room and up the stairs. The ground level was even hotter than the basement. Smoke clouded the air, swirling in the flickering lights. Orange flames licked at the corners of the room, slowly spreading towards the center.
“Did you do this?!” Luke yelled, through a coughing fit.
Anna didn’t reply – she just yanked him towards the exit. In seconds, they were standing out in the darkness, gulping in the cool night air. The building was surrounded with hordes of people, their faces lit orange in the fire’s glow.
Evan the intern was standing in the shadows, holding his phone up to film it. Judy the secretary was crying tears of joy. Myra was sitting in the grass, a small smile on her face. Priscilla ran towards them; Avery limped behind her.
“The fire kills them,” Anna said, her dark eyes dancing in the firelight. “The heat is enough to get them out.”
“How did you figure that out?”
“Trial and error,” she said, laughing.
“All of these people – they’re cured?” Luke stared at her, smiling. “You’re a hero, Anna.”
“Please,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I always wanted to burn down a building. The pleasure was all mine.”
Luke broke her gaze and looked at Jackson. Hanging from his nose was a tiny, shriveled red worm.
He plucked it off.
Jackson stared at him.
Then he broke into a wide grin.
“A thousand dollars. Can you believe it?”
“We had to get the fence removed, Avery. It was an eyesore,” Priscilla said, flipping the pancakes. “Not to mention the birds that kept flying into it. Three dead sparrows and a snake, can you believe it?”
“I could’ve done it myself!”
She rolled her eyes. “No, you couldn’t.” She gestured to his leg. “Doctor said six weeks. If you were more careful in escaping, then maybe.”
“Bah. Should’ve made Luke do it, then.”
“Nope,” Luke called from the table.
Jackson opened his mouth for a bite of cereal. “See-wul,” he babbled, with a wide, toothy grin. “See-wul, see-wul, see-wull!”
Outside the window, Anna kneeled in the dirt. The red coral bells surrounded her, their vibrant color bringing life back into the backyard. She wiped her brow, brushed off her hands, and plucked one.
Then she walked to the corner of the backyard.
Under the shadows of the trees, a small, gray tombstone stood. The name Amelia was hand-carved into the front, by her father.
She lay the coral bell over the grass.
If only I’d kept you safe, she thought, bitterly. Maybe you could’ve been cured. She took a deep, shuddering breath, and then whispered: “I love you, Amelia.”
Then she walked back to finish the coral bells.
“Hey! Anna!” Luke said, as she entered the house. “Jackson says ‘cereal’!”
She smiled. “That’s awesome. Mom, I’ve got your coral bells re-planted, Mom!” she said, peeling off gloves caked with dirt. “And I found something interesting out there in the dirt.”
She laughed and held up a small cup. Inside was a thick, healthy earthworm.
“What do you think – should we burn it?”
Priscilla glared at her. “Put that back in the garden, you nut.”
“Fine, fine.” She slid the door open and walked back down to the garden. The soil was moist and freshly turned, and the red flowers stood out like fire against the green foliage.
She turned the cup over. The worm thrashed and wriggled, then dug its way back into the soil.
“Don’t go into any brains, okay?” she laughed, before heading back into the house.
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