Evita was busy making the bed when Aaron opened his eyes; she went about her work without looking up at him as he stirred in his chair, watching her arrange the clean white sheets into a firm, crisp layer of cotton across the bed. He wasn’t sure what had happened to mess the sheets in the first place as, judging from the stiffness in his neck, he’d been asleep in his chair all night. He arched his neck sideways one way then the other, trying to touch each of his ears on their corresponding shoulder, which seemed to trigger another vision; a scream rang through his ears deafening him briefly, causing icicles of pain to shoot through his skull as he saw, just for a moment, a bloodied pile of loculated fat flanked by a pair of broken, ragged, dismembered arms. The light shone off of the yellowy segments of the fat giving it the appearance of a cross-sectioned slice of orange glistening in the sunlight at a picnic as streams of blood writhed their way between the pockets of adipose. The image disappeared from his mind as quickly as it had entered, leaving Aaron dumbstruck, confused, and a little scared. Evita finished her chore and made for the door, swinging it open and leaving room 114 without casting so much as a glance in his direction. As the door slammed shut behind her Aaron closed his eyes, frowning as he waded through his memory, desperate for some explanation of this unusual circumstance and the visions that had been haunting him; he saw Evita standing next to him washing his hands, her face melting away like a reflection in a lake disturbed by the ripples of a thrown rock. In its place, when the rippling settled, was Melody smiling at him like she had done on their wedding night. Spurred into action by the memory of his family, and that he was unsure of their whereabouts or safety for that matter, Aaron rose so briskly from his seat that his eyesight blurred and the room began to spin. He stood, lightheaded for a moment, allowing the sensation to fade as the blood flow returned to his brain, and made purposefully for the door; he would accost Evita and demand any information she had regarding his wife and daughter and, if she didn’t know where they were, he would question Elvis or at the very least demand to use his telephone. His footsteps crunched on the pristine tiled floor like he was walking on a fine layer of breakfast cereal but, when he looked down, there was nothing to account for the sound. He reached the door, growing ever more confused by his surroundings, and extended a hand towards the handle. He stopped himself mid-grasp, suddenly arrested by the limb he saw stretched out in front of him; his hand was wet and glistening as if recently washed, but in light of his other observations this fact bothered him relatively little. What terrified him, stealing the breath from his lungs and sapping the strength from his legs, was the intense pallor of his skin. He held his hands out in front of him, carefully examining their backs and palms, and noticed his deathly white skin was wired with thin, unnaturally blue veins; gone was the usual pattern of thick spongy vasculature and in its place was a network of slim cerulean lines. His skin looked like it belonged to the dead bodies he often saw washed up on the shore in television detective shows. As he stood staring at his hands, turning them over repeatedly in front of him, Aaron noticed movement in his skin; tumescent worm-like filaments moved independently of his own will, their squirming undulating his skin as they appeared to be reaching for the door handle. Aaron’s anxiety over this infestation was short-lived, he steeled himself and focussed on finding Melody and Jemima. He couldn’t be distracted until he’d found them. He remembered learning something about certain types of tapeworm in medical school; if they couldn’t scavenge enough nutrients from living in your intestines they would burrow out and live entangled in muscles, where the energy was plentiful. If he’d picked up a rogue wandering tapeworm or two, after all he couldn’t remember the last time he’d put any food into his gut, he could get that dealt with in time and would have to endure the awful writhing in his hands until after he’d found his family. He lunged for the door, swinging it open and stepping out of the room into the car park. It was night and a rainstorm was in full swing; rain fell in a thick, relentless sheet, the droplets moving in unison as they were diverted to and fro by the wind. Thousands of tiny aquatic explosions dotted the forecourt as each drop hammered against the unforgiving concrete and Aaron had to catch his breath against a similar assault as he stepped into the shower; he felt the sting of each raindrop as they collided forcefully with his face, and the cold trails they left in their wake as they meandered down across his features. His hair promptly stuck to his skull, matting on his forehead and cheeks and obscuring his view of the rest of the building, a view already made bleak by the heavy downpour. He ran a spindly white hand back through his hair, feeling the skin of his palm writhing against his scalp as he slicked his hair back. A strong gust of wind caught the door and wrenched it from Aaron’s grasp causing it to slam open against the building with a crash where it then continued to knock aggressively against the concrete as if the weather was using Morse code to warn Aaron of impending horror. None of the lights were on in the room next door; Evita must have gone out for the evening. He cast a glance over his shoulder back into room 114 and, through the thick curtain of rain, thought he could see a spattered pattern of red covering the bed and walls. He blinked rainwater from his eyes and the room resumed its pristine white sterility. Leaving the door flapping open in the wind, Aaron headed for the employees’ booth.
The light in Elvis’ booth was on but he was nowhere to be seen. The reflection of light against the harsh red walls made the booth glow red in the darkness like a giant stop sign, a signal Aaron would ignore in pursuit of his family. He pressed his hands and face against the Perspex, breaking the vertical rainwater river that ran down it, but could not see into the room behind the booth. He banged his hands aggressively against the plastic, splashing in the chilly flow and causing the screen to recoil against his nose sending stinging sensations up into his skull and watering his eyes. He ignored the pain and thumped again, this time harder, screaming Elvis’ name over the din of heavy rainfall against the Perspex. Still there was no answer from inside and, despairingly, Aaron slumped against the booth’s exterior, turning his back to it as he slid down to sit in the puddle accumulating at its base. The rain continued to pummel him, sticking his shirt to his torso and deepening the water he sat in as he began to weep. He felt as though something was preventing him from finding his family, purposefully opposing him at every turn and throwing obstacles in his path. He began to despair that he would never see his girls again, that he would be stuck in this motel forever and that they would find a new life with another man who could love and protect them better than he had. He felt a lump growing in his throat as he wept, a lump the size of a grapefruit that extended down into his chest consuming him in desolation, and he began to panic, fighting for breath between sobs. He couldn’t feel his tears on his cheeks due to the rain, but he could taste their saltiness as they were washed down past his mouth. He raised his head to the sky, eyes closed against the rain, and could feel the skin in his neck squirm as if his jugular veins were alive and reacting to the droplets thumping against them. He raised outstretched arms in a pleading gesture to some higher power, and held them high despite their saturated heaviness as he screamed into the sky; a hoarse, bubbling scream that deepened in tone as several large protuberances advanced under the skin of Aaron’s neck and over his jawline, adding to those already present. As this tubular swelling reached his lower lip, his gums receded rapidly until they were barely visible in his gaping mouth; his teeth fell from their housing and toppled down his throat, causing barking punctuations to his scream that sounded like a dog dying of a severe pneumonia. As his jawline remodelled, similar protuberances appeared at Aaron’s hairline and worked their undulating path down to his brow, curving round the upper opening of his eyes, and entering his head. Aaron’s arms slumped back down to his sides and his head fell forward as his lungs emptied of air and his scream terminated, he felt invigorated by this outburst, and he felt a familiar need. An overcoming, all-consuming need. He didn’t need his mother to tell him what to do now; he knew exactly how to assuage his bloodlust.
Harlan Hughes and Tammi Rivera were on their way home from the homeless shelter; they’d spent the evening making soup and doling it out to the less fortunate people who frequented the shelter. Tonight it had been pea soup and they’d eaten with the residents then hung around after dinner to talk, spare what change they could and listen to stories; some had become addicted to drugs and outcast by their families, some had lost everything with misplaced business ventures or gambling. Harlan and Tammi were both orphans and had lived on the streets as children, and both had fought and clawed their way into employment and into their own homes. They shared a passion for helping others like themselves overcome their adversity, and had first met at ‘The Tardigrade Shelter’ two years ago. Their empathy had been directed at one another as well as the other residents, and they had soon started dating. Now living together, they spent many of their evenings back where they had met one another; they felt a sense of duty but also felt they were an example to follow and a sign of hope for everybody there. Now, they sat together on the train back to Phoenix, Tammi’s head nestled into Harlan’s neck, his blonde dreadlocks tied into a ponytail to keep them from scratching at her olive skin. Both of them were slim and Tammi, at five feet six inches, was a full foot shorter than her boyfriend. They wore thrift shop clothes; Harlan an ill-fitting, faded black blazer and beige cargo pants, and Tammi an old dark green chiffon ball gown that she’d cut short under a threadbare black cardigan.
It was late and there were no other passengers on the train, they were in the middle of the car and Tammi sat contented by the comfortable nook in Harlan’s neck, she was in the seat by the aisle and stared at the blackness outside the window, which was broken only occasionally by a light on the wall of the tunnel they were passing through whizzing by. The interior of the train car shone metallically under its own artificial lights, which buzzed on and off periodically casting the carriage into paroxysmal darkness. The seat pads were navy blue, and were depressed and worn in the middle by thousands of previous commuters’ rear ends; they looked as though they were constantly occupied by invisible travellers. Above the windows were posters advertising various products, holidays and colleges, and on the steel window frame, below the glass, somebody had etched the words ‘I love cock’. Tammi smiled, maybe she would get some when they got home, but judging by the heaviness of Harlan’s head on hers, and the way it was bobbing around when the train passed over a bump, it seemed he was asleep and would likely be too tired for sex. She didn’t mind though, there was always tomorrow and she had relished that fact ever since she’d saved herself from a life on the streets.
They were passing through Tucson when a man boarded their carriage; he ambled awkwardly through the open doors, shuffling his feet until he stood in the centre of the aisle. He was thin and pale, with a misshapen head and long, unkempt hair that hung freely in front of his face obscuring his expression. Dressed in an oversized trench coat, Tammi recognised all the components of a man who’d lost everything; a sight she saw daily and even once saw in her current partner. He stood in front of the door to the train scanning the carriage from one end to the other, droplets of rain shaking loose from his hair as he whipped his head from one side to the other and, seeing no one else, fixed a stare intently in the direction of the couple seated halfway down the car. Tammi, in anticipation that the man would approach and ask for some spare change and knowing that she had none, grasped Harlan’s arm and shook him awake as the train pulled away from the station. He grunted and snorted as he caught his breath, familiarising himself with the chrome environment once more before catching sight of the dishevelled man who was now inelegantly but determinedly making his way towards them. He too recognised the man as an unfortunate soul in need of help and, as if silently sensing Tammi’s urge to offer aid, squeezed her hand before rising from his seat and shuffling past her to meet the man in the aisle.
“Hey, dude, we don’t have much left but boy did you get on the right train today. What’ya need?”
Harlan’s approachable smile disappeared as he caught sight of the man’s empty eyes just before the stranger clattered into him, knocking him down onto his back in the aisle so that he landed behind his girlfriend. The man had bundled into him so forcefully that he too had fallen onto the floor, and was now on his hands and knees in front of Tammi and, faster than seemed possible for someone so emaciated, he reached into his coat and withdrew an industrial nail gun. Harlan watched, frozen to the spot, as the man applied the barrel of the gun to Tammi’s left foot and pulled the trigger; a sound like a huge piece of wood splintering echoed through the carriage, closely followed by his girlfriend’s screams. She reached for her impaled appendage, trying to withdraw it to her chest, but it was fixed to the floor and so she arched forward to grip her ankle as her cries rang out through the steel sarcophagus. A small pool of blood began to seep out from under Tammi’s sneakers as the stranger transferred his weapon to her other foot and again fixed his target to the metal floor with a sickening crack and a scream from his victim that penetrated Harlan’s eardrums with such force he expected the windows of the train car to shatter. She fell forward onto her knees, both feet now cemented in place, clutching at her heels and ankles trying to free herself as she cried aloud. Harlan’s senses returned to him and he found his feet, his expression of shocked disbelief giving way to one of extreme anger and vengeance as he approached the stranger, his stride widening with each step, ponytailed dreadlocks swaying from side to side behind his head. As he reached the man, Harlan drew his right arm back, balling his hand into a fist and snarling as he brought it forward arrowing downward towards the stranger’s nose. Aaron reacted speedily, ducking to the side of the intended blow so that his attacker was propelled beyond him by the inertia of his efforts; he grabbed the man’s hair and yanked sharply downwards with a cracking sound, like a Christmas cracker, bringing the back of Harlan’s head abruptly into contact with the metal floor of the carriage while his feet continued their forward propulsion momentarily before being snagged back by the rest of his body. Harlan’s head landed with a dull, lifeless thud by Tammi’s knees and she could see that he was still conscious but not moving, apart from his eyes which were desperately fixed on hers and beginning to water as his breathing hastened, coming in short bursts. His face reddened and his eyes bulged with strain, but it was clear that his neck had been broken by their assailant, and that he was paralysed. Tammi watched as her boyfriend’s eyes pleaded with her for help, she watched as Aaron knelt the opposite side of him and placed a wasted, gnarled hand across her lover’s forehead, holding his head firmly to the floor before bringing the nail gun to his neck and placing the barrel against his Adam’s apple.
“Stop, don’t. Please mister leave us alone, we won’t go to the cops. Please!”
Tammi pleaded with the stranger through streams of tears, her own pain now forgotten at the peril of the man she loved, and she moved her head forward into Aaron’s eye line to try and get his attention, but he was fully focussed on Harlan’s face, as if studying his suffering. She grabbed at the stranger, striking his face and arms over Harlan’s prone body, and scratching at his cheeks. Her blows went unnoticed as Aaron continued to regard his paralysed victim, even when Tammi scratched thin chunks of flesh from his face he remained unmoved. Even when Tammi, on seeing the white tendrils wriggling inside his facial wounds and the wormlike structures infesting his trigger finger, gave a shriek so penetrating it tore the blood vessels in her throat, sending a fine spray of blood out with the sound, Aaron remained motionless, poised to strike.
“Honey, you’ve got to go!”
Harlan’s voice was quivering with fear through his tears, and hoarsened by the pressure of the nail gun on his voice box.
“Tammi, forget about me, get your feet free and run. Find the driver, lock yourself in the bathroom, just get away and be safe until you can get off the train!”
Tears now streamed down his cheeks, leaving tracks in the grime that had settled there during the day. Tammi, too, was sobbing uncontrollably, her tears falling from her cheekbones onto Harlan’s face as she shook her head, refusing to leave her love in his final moments. She closed her eyes and put her cheek against his, waiting for the end, and flinched slightly at a noise similar to a train wheel clacking over a join in the tracks. She knew that the noise hadn’t come from the train though, and refused to look up at her lover or her assailant as she heard Harlan’s breath begin to whistle through the accessory hole made in his airway by the nail. Soon after the sound of the nail gun, Harlan began to splutter and choke as blood filled his windpipe, his choking sent jets of blood out of his mouth that spattered Tammi’s hair, and she could feel them as warm droplets connecting with her face and pooling at where her cheek lay on his. She wept forcefully, her arched back seizing with every sob, mixing her tears with the pool of blood and, as Harlan’s breathing gurgled then began to quieten, she felt him turn his head and kiss her cheek softly before the energy left his lips and she felt his final breath warm against her face. Tammi went limp, overcome with hopelessness but accepting what she was sure would come next; without Harlan, her love, her soul mate, she had no desire to live and, if this is what happened to good people, she wouldn’t want to survive any longer in this world. She lay for a moment, waiting in silence to be attacked, listening to rustling sounds and dull thuds emanating from the dead man beside her. When nothing happened she raised her head to see Aaron standing over Harlan’s now naked corpse, smiling maniacally like an evil cartoon villain; the thin white skin on his face almost splitting under the stretch of his smile, he still held the nail gun in one hand and his smile, impossibly, seemed to widen despite his eyes remaining expressionless as he looked at her and saw the panic return to her eyes. He grabbed a fistful of her hair and pushed her head forward into the seat opposite hers, her yelping was muffled by the foam which smelled of damp, old sweat, causing her to wretch and fight against Aaron’s grasp but she could not break free. She felt cold metal against the back of one of her knees followed quickly by another clacking sound, which was accompanied by a cracking, like breaking a wishbone, as a nail shattered her kneecap on its way through to the carriage floor. Tammi was numb to the pain in her legs, flinching only slightly as a second nail fixed her other knee to the floor; she felt a throbbing, and her legs felt swollen as if they were about to burst, but the insertion of each nail felt more like a pressure than a kind of pain. Her head was then forcefully pulled backwards, sending a sharp pain down her spine as she was held looking upwards, the back of her head now in contact with her erstwhile seat. The way she had been fixed made her look like she was begging, perhaps praying, for mercy and, unable to escape, her hands were taken one by one and fastened, outstretched, to the seat either side of her, nails shot through her wrists so that she resembled a kneeling crucifixion. She felt the bones in her wrist separate as each nail passed between them, straining her tendons and skin to breaking point, her fingers in spasm as the steel rubbed against her nerves, and her muscles tearing as the nails took the weight of the arms she was now too weak to hold aloft herself. Two more nails, these through her shoulders, pinned her firmly against the seat in her kneeling position, dislocating the joints and shattering her shoulder blades with a loud splintering so that her arms hung loose from her torso, displaced unnaturally backwards. She felt burning in her shoulders that radiated throughout her chest and up into her neck, and she felt her breasts pressed into her sternum as the skin over them was stretched. Every inflation of her lungs stretched her torso further, and felt as though her skin would tear from her breasts and shoulders and she would exude her chest cavity outwards. Tammi’s vision was fading and she began to welcome death as she saw Aaron grab Harlan by the groin, picking him up by the scrotum; the weight of the body stretched the skin to breaking point, and the tightness of grip required to perform such an act caused Harlan’s testicles to squash through Aaron’s fingers like gruesome fleshy bubbles. Finally, Harlan’s genitals gave way to the strain and tore, dropping his body back to the steel floor with a thud, legs askew beneath his lifeless torso and leaving Aaron with a handful of wrinkled skin, hair and pulped testes. He looked at the ghastly handful ruefully, as though tearing off these genitals had ruined his plan, and stood for a moment regarding Harlan’s mutilated carcass. After a moment, he approached the cadaver and plunged his hands deep into the hole left by the crude castration; he inserted his arm up to the elbow and began to rummage around inside Harlan’s abdomen, squelching noises emanated from his entry point as blood eked past his sleeve. When Aaron withdrew his arm he held a length of intestine, which he proceeded to pull on, like a tug-of-war contestant, removing more bowel in great loops that nestled on the floor like a giant sleeping python. When his tugging no longer produced more innards, Aaron picked up one end of the organ, a thick, glistening rope full of faeces, and bit into it. Blood, fat and excrement doused his cheeks as he ground his teeth through the fleshy cylinder, squelching and crushing until it severed and he was left holding an open-ended tube. He fixed the now open end of bowel to the front of the nail gun and approached Tammi, who was helplessly bound in place and now gently sobbing, blood trickling from her wounds and soaking into the cushioned seat behind her taking her energy with it. Aaron put two faecal-stained and foul smelling fingers into her nostrils and pulled her head back, opening her mouth, before aiming the nail gun directly down her throat and pulling the trigger; the nail penetrated her oesophagus, making a hole through to her windpipe with a hiss and a quiet moan of protestation from his victim. He held the other end of the intestine high above his head and ran his hand down its length, milking its contents into Tammi’s lungs and stomach; the taste was bitter and metallic as excrement mixed with blood, but she could just make out the taste of peas as she coughed and spluttered against the filth in her lungs and, as some slid into her stomach, she vomited. Her stomach contents could not exit through her mouth given its occupancy by Harlan’s innards and so was propelled through the hole in her oesophagus and down into her lungs. The mixture of faeces and vomit burnt the inside of Tammi’s chest as much as it prevented any aeration, and she grimaced in pain feeling bubbles of acid and excrement bursting inside her chest as she choked to death.
Aaron stood regarding the scene he’d created, it seemed beautiful at first but the more he looked, the more horrified he became; is this why Mel had left with Jemima? He couldn’t believe that he’d killed two people, and in such a ghastly manner, but the evidence was overwhelming; he was covered in blood, holding a nail gun, and the girls greying eyes were fixed firmly on him as if he was the last person she saw. The train he was on was still moving, and he looked up at his distorted reflection in the corrugated steel walls, not recognising what was staring back at him; his eyes were emotionless and black, his face a deathly grey, the two deep scratches on his left cheek were not bleeding or painful. His skin moved, at first he thought due to the swaying of the train as it bulleted through a tunnel but on closer scrutiny Aaron could see his skin squirming with life beneath the surface; his face and arms rippled and, in the scratches on his face, he could see what looked like white earthworms wriggling to and fro under the exposed flesh. He tore off his shirt and stood bare chested in front of the reflective surface of the train interior; his entire torso was infested with movement, as though a thousand fingers lived under his skin and were caressing him over and over. Horrified, Aaron pulled a nail from its housing in the gun and stabbed at his arms repeatedly, trying to kill the tendrils embedded inside him. He stabbed so frequently and with such tenacity that he had soon created flaps of flesh on his forearms, he dropped the nail and dug his fingers under the flaps, frantically pulling chunks of meat from his arms; the wounds bled only slightly despite their depth, and every time Aaron grabbed at the tendrils they withdrew deeper into him, away from his grasp. He continued to gauge at his skin in pursuit of what lie beneath, cursing and shouting maniacally as he did so, until the train came to a stop. The doors opened automatically and Aaron paused, ready to flee if anyone were to board and see the shocking scene he had created, but no one entered the car and the train remained stationary as if beckoning him to alight. Slowly he edged toward the door, peeking his head out and scanning the platform from right to left; there was no one to be seen, and the signs hanging from the ceiling told him that this was the station that served the Garden Lodge Motel. Upon this realisation Aaron jumped from the carriage and made his way hastily toward the exit.