It was still dark when Connor awoke with a shock. He had been dreaming that he was covered with bugs, suffocating as their tiny bodies filled his mouth. The dream was so real that he had leapt out of bed and ran his hands all over his body in a desperate attempt to fling the attacking insects off of him. The sharp pain at his side as it had stretched in his flailing brought him out of the hazy nightmare and back into reality. At least he hoped this was reality, there were no massive piles of bugs here. But if a guy made up of rats and bugs was his new normal, then wasn’t a lack of insects a sure sign of somnolence?
The continued throbbing in his guts told him that this world was no illusion. He pulled up his rumpled shirt and pushed his hand up against the startlingly clear bruises on his side, trying to dull the pain. It didn’t provide much succor, and for a moment Connor wondered if he shouldn’t try to find a doctor. Gritting his teeth, he walked over to the bathroom to shower. Maybe some nice, hot water would help ease the pain, not to mention work out the kinks in his sore leg muscles.
The first shock of the water hitting him right in the abdomen told Connor this probably wasn’t going to be as helpful as he had hoped. He drew in a sharp breath and tried to let the his side grow accustomed to the sensation of the water slapping into it. The wounded area screamed plaintively at the contact, and Connor was forced to turn so that the bruises were away from the cleansing stream of the shower. He had intended a good, long soak, but the dull throb whenever the water got anywhere near his bruises finally convinced him to wrap it up early. He dried himself off gingerly with the towel.
Coming out of the bathroom, Connor nearly screamed like a little kid. On the wall, with apparently nothing better to do than have a little chat, were three cockroaches. Had it not been for the previous night’s events, it wouldn’t have been so disturbing. This tenement building was a pit, and it probably had more roaches in the wall than insulation. He kept the place tidy to discourage the little pests, but that hadn’t stopped them from poking their heads in every once in awhile to double check.
He tried to remind himself of this as he put on his clothes. He had seen a ton of bugs in here before; he had probably even seen three of them holding insect congress on the wall just like they were doing now. Hell, this whole building was probably filled with bugs; it was nothing to freak out about.
That last thought had the opposite effect on him. His mind was consumed with the image of a building-sized mountain of roaches chasing him into that warehouse. He imagined their bulk piling into that terrible space, choking out the light and available air. He decided this wasn’t the kind of place he wanted to be. A fourth cockroach joining the party put Connor’s heart into overdrive, and he nearly tripped over the black bag left over from the job. All the tools were still left in it, Connor having nowhere else to put them, so he added the pain of a stubbed toe to his list of aches and pains as he limped over to the dresser. He hastily slapped on some fresh clothes, transferred the items from his pants pockets, and grabbed his coat as he booked it for the door.
Had there always been this many bugs? Connor couldn’t help but notice every single roach, ant, and snail as he hurtled down the stairs. It felt as if there were more of them than usual taking up the floors and walls of the hallways in the apartment building, but he had never paid so much agonizing attention to their presence. He could feel their eyes turning to watch him as he passed and knew he had to hurry. Was he going crazy? It felt like he was, but he had no time to stop and inspect his deteriorating mental state. A millipede snaking across the wall almost froze him in his tracks. He sidled along the handrail opposite the foul creature, slamming open the front door as he finally made it past.
The front of the apartment was also conspicuously beginning to fill with bugs. Connor hurried down the sidewalk. Looking left and right, he couldn’t see the shadowy man anywhere. He was relieved to know that his number wasn’t quite up yet, but it also left him with the problem of not knowing which direction to go. He decided on left, since that was the direction the bus normally came from. With any luck, he would be able to catch it as it reached one of its stops. Luck, Connor thought, yeah right.
Connor passed two bus stops before he caught sight of the bus. All the while, the number of bugs was growing. A few cockroaches on the sidewalk was just a normal morning, but then he saw a rat darting here and there and a few spiders speeding across the street. It felt like the arrival of the chariot of heaven when he saw that large brick of a vehicle wheezing and groaning its way towards the next stop. He reached the little signpost that marked the location and waited. The tension started causing him to shake.
Roaches were covering the nearby bench now. A rat climbed up and sat in the middle of the bench, staring at him. An arachnid crawled up the pole right next to him. It was so close that Connor could make out each of the compound eyes and every individual hair on the mandibles that worked thoughtfully while it stared at him. Why do buses have to move so goddamn slowly?
Connor’s escape was only thirty feet away now. The roaches were starting to coalesce into a pile. Twenty feet. Some millipedes and ants were crawling into the pile. Ten feet. Rats were coming in droves to join the mass. The swoosh sound of pressure being released and the squeak of an old, poorly greased bifold door caused Connor to turn around with a start. He darted onto the bus in an instant, swiping his pass so fast that he almost didn’t get his fare credited. If the bus driver saw the alarming corpus on the bench, he didn’t say anything. Connor could hear the ragged, unsteady breathing coming through his nostrils as the bus sped off away from the danger. He forced his shaky legs to move as he found his way onto one of the faded, orange and brown seats near the back of the bus.
He had to make two bus swaps to get to the part of town where Lizzie had told him to seek Charise Blackwood. Each stop involved an incredibly tense, nervous wait. Every little bug that crawled sent his heart racing.
At one of the stops, a little, old Korean lady sat at the bench, groceries in hand. She had observed his scared overreaction to a line of ants that were trailing along the sidewalk nearby. She started laughing at him. It didn’t appear as though she spoke English, but Connor thought it was more likely she was just making fun of him in a language she knew he wouldn’t understand. She made a little game of herding a cockroach here and there at him. She definitely had guts on top of one twisted sense of humor, because she finally resorted to picking up the bugs and putting them on Connor’s shoulder.
This did nothing to help his mood. He had been feeling like a crazy person for awhile now, the way the Korean woman laughed at him was a clear sign that he looked like a crazy person also. As the bus finally came rolling in, Connor debated internally whether he shouldn’t wait for the next one. He decided it was too much of a risk. Better to deal with the derision of an old woman than to die by … whatever it was that a bug guy did. He followed her onto the bus and swiped his pass; she laughed at him the whole ride.
Fortunately there was a merciful lack of shadowy men and their fabulous talking cockroaches. As Connor got off the last bus, he was thankful that, for now at least, the bugs all seemed to be normal. Their skittering serving no other purpose than to look around for their next meal. He turned up the collar to his jacket and walked the last couple blocks, telling himself to relax all the while. Even with the coast being apparently clear, it was hard to shake the feeling that, every once in awhile, one of the bugs he passed was looking at him. He tried to brush it off, but it was hard to lose the paranoia when something was, in fact, trying to get you.
It was still quite early when he arrived at the rather cryptically named ‘Success is in Your Hands College.’ He had seen a bunch of little trade schools and faux community colleges pop up here and there in his time. Most of them were a swindle, promising extensive ‘career’ training in exchange for a boatload of money, for which they would kindly give you a loan. Pretty much all of them were unaccredited and the degree they gave was worth less than toilet paper.
This wasn’t that kind of place. Those kinds of places didn’t usually hire a history teacher. They also didn’t sit strangely nestled between several stands of trees and hedges which hid them from all but the most discerning eye. Neither did they generally consist of several well kept, Victorian-style buildings with brick facades and an extremely picturesque fountain. As Connor cleared the hedgerow to come into the main campus, he had to double check that he was in the right place. For a second he wasn’t even sure he was still in the same city.
It was a modestly sized campus, but there was an air of regality about the place that actually made Connor nervous. He tried to walk nonchalantly amongst the sidewalks that crisscrossed between the buildings, weaving through shadows and blind corners even though there were no students milling about at this early hour. He had this gut feeling that, if anyone caught him there, he would be promptly tossed back out onto his backside while a person with a snooty, northeastern accent told him that people of ‘his type’ were not allowed. It felt absurd, but he carried his cat-like tread through to the very end. He placed his back against the wall and looked side to side before knocking on the door to the office that had the sign with the word ‘Blackwood’ on it.
“Come in.” The voice on the other side of the door was alto and a little raspy. He had actually expected to have to wait around for her to arrive. For as little as he had set foot on college campuses, Connor had the impression that they kept hours somewhat on par with the average high school. In his mind he had conjured up an image of a fussy old lady who turned up every day promptly at 7:30. Given that it wasn’t even verging on seven, he wasn’t even sure exactly what the professor was doing here already.
Opening the door and walking into the tiny office, Connor realized that all his preconceptions were completely unfounded. The lady who sat at the desk was scribbling away in a small composition notebook about halfway through a page. The look of deep concentration on her face told him that she had probably been here quite awhile, maybe even all night. She was black, truly, deeply dark like bitter chocolate with round features and eyes that were the same color brown as his own. Her hair was done up in braids that were then tied back away from her face. She wore thick frame glasses, a plain, white blouse, and a tweed jacket with elbow patches. Aside from the attire, which felt stuffy to Connor, she was actually a fairly young, attractive woman. As she looked up at him, Connor suddenly found that he didn’t know exactly what to say.
“Who are you?” She finally broke the silence when it became clear that Connor wouldn’t speak.
“Uh...Ummm… I’m … well, my name is Connor. Connor Donnelly, Lizzie O’Shea sent me. And you’re Charise Blackwood, right?”
“Doctor Charise Blackwood. That is correct.” She waited for him to continue, then gave up again, “What are you doing here?”
“I … well … that’s kinda difficult to explain.”
“How about you start from the beginning.”
Connor tried to start, but quickly realized how much of his story revolved around illegal activity. “Hm, is this one of those things where you can’t squeal on me if I tell you about things I’ve done? Like with a lawyer?”
Connor felt crestfallen. “I can’t really start from the beginning then.”
Both of Charise’s eyebrows raised in the center. “Maybe start just after the beginning then?”
“Ok, well, through a series of circumstances, I find myself being chased by … a really weird guy.”
One of Charise’s eyebrows raised. “Okay.”
“I mean, not your garden variety, crazy homeless guy weird. This cat is something entirely different.”
Charise sounded irritated. “Yes, I understand that. How is he weird?”
“He is sorta, made of bugs and rats.” Connor muttered the last bit under his breath.
“He’s what?” She strained forward to hear.
“Made of bugs and rats.” Now he felt like he was yelling it out. He felt like a nincompoop. There was no way this lady was going to believe him.
She looked thoughtful for moment, then went back to her scribbling. “You mean he had bugs under his skin instead of blood?”
“Was he made of mostly worms?”
Connor was astounded at the clinical manner with which Charise Blackwood asked the questions. It was as if crazy were just an everyday thing for her, and she was just getting a gauge for how deep the insanity ran. “No, no worms at all. Mostly cockroaches.”
“Did he have any skin? Any shape other than being made of bugs?”
“No skin, but he did appear shadowy when I first saw him. I just couldn’t get a handle on what he looked like at all.”
She concentrated very hard. “Shadowy …. Let me look in a few books.”
Charise stood up and perused the long line of shelves that made up the entirety of both walls in the cramped office space. Looking at them, Connor could discern no order at all to their layout. The titles, which were all bizarre, weren’t arranged alphabetically, neither were they ordered by the author’s first or last name. “Would something like this really appear in a book?”
“Why wouldn’t it? Everything has appeared in a book somewhere at some time. If creatures like the Chupacabra and Bigfoot have literature about them, why not the thing you saw?”
“Yeah, but those aren’t real.”
She looked at him coolly for just a moment before returning to her task, “As you say, but, if there’s whole books devoted to things that aren’t real, it stands to reason there must be at least one book devoted to a real man made of bugs.”
“I hear ya,’ sister.” The look she gave him said that ‘sister’ was not on the list of acceptable jargon.
“What is it you do, Mr. Donnelly?” She asked absentmindedly, reading through a musty book called Arcane Iconography that she had pulled from a shelf.
“I’m in … acquisitions.”
“Don’t get any bright ideas while you’re here, then.” She had looked up from the massive tome in front of her.
“Wouldn’t dream of it, sis...Charise.” He had almost slipped. He hoped that his transition to her name was smooth, but he doubted it. “Books are hard to move anyway, and that’s really all you got.”
“Books are the greatest treasure there is. You’d do well to remember that.” Charise snapped the book shut and put it back in its place. “One of these books is probably going to save your life.”
“We’ll see. I ain’t seen a book yet that could save me from anything.”
“It could save your grammar and diction, at least.” She looked just a tiny bit playful, but mostly catty, with that remark.
“So what do you do here exactly?”
“I teach history.” She pulled another weighty volume, but decided against opening it. She put it back on the shelf.
“I may not have the best book-learning, sweetheart, but even I can tell you ain’t no history teacher.”
She looked at him cautiously, as if he had said something potentially dangerous. “It isn’t what I majored in at college. I studied the occult. I’ve always had a fascination with the strange and paranormal. This is a small school, so the number of courses I have to teach is minimal. That gives me plenty of time to keep following my passion.”
“That’s something else, what about this school? I’ve never heard of it before.”
She pulled out another old, leatherbound book and studied it very closely. “It’s like a community college, but it’s meant to give you the highest degree of preparation for advancement in big universities. For that reason, the list of students is quite small, and we only seek out the very best.”
This didn’t sit quite right with Connor, so he decided to use a little trick. “How many people teach here?”
“How many courses do they teach?”
“Three each, so about forty five.”
“How many students?”
“It ranges from two to three hundred usually.”
“So how many graduate?”
“Twenty to Thirty a year.”
“And how many of them go on to a big university?”
“.... Maybe fifteen.” There was a long pause that told Connor something was off. He had perfected this technique when he was younger. He had found if you got someone going on a chain of questions they could answer easily, usually they would answer a question they weren’t supposed to at the end. Only people who had a really closely guarded secret wouldn’t slip, but you could always tell which one was the lie. The look they exchanged told him that she knew he had caught her.
“So what do you guys really do at this school?”
“I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”
“Maybe not. Guess I always was too curious for my own good.”
“That is the kind of attribute that can get you killed, especially with what is chasing you.”
“You found it?”
“I think so, at least a small reference to it.”
“Way to go, Doc! So what the hell is it?”
“It’s called an Om de Daunatori.”
“Awwm day Dawn-uh-tore-ee?”
“Om de Daunatori.”
“Great. Got anything more than a name, like how to get rid of it? I really doubt, if I see it again, I can address him to death.”
“Not much, I’m afraid. There’s not really any way listed of killing it. Apparently it’s some kind of spirit or vapor. It’s true form is the shadowy, non-descript man you saw. When it wants to take physical form, it constitutes itself from any pests in the area.”
“Lovely. So I should stay away from poisonous snake territory. Why is it chasing me?”
“I have no idea. It looks like Om de Daunatori are a form of curse originally from Romania. It will keep hunting you until it kills you. Have you wronged any witches or gypsies lately?”
“I don’t know. Maybe?”
“Did anyone look you in the eyes and mutter funny words at you?”
She looked dissatisfied with the answer. “There are other ways to spread a curse. I will have to do some research.”
“If you figure out how I picked up this curse thingy, is that going to tell you how to break it?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes they can’t be broken.”
“And what happens if it can’t?”
“Let’s just say you should start taking care of any unfinished business you might have.”
“There’s gotta’ be more than that. Please, give me something, anything.”
“I didn’t say it was hopeless. You might have a curse we can counter and you might not. Let me look into it. There’s no point in giving up before I’ve actually started.”
“But what am I supposed to do in the meantime? This thing has almost caught me twice now.”
“It says that the presence is an earthbound one.” Connor raised his eyebrows in confusion. “It means it can’t hop from place to place. It has to go from one location to the next, just like you or I.”
“And how does that help me exactly?”
“If you keep moving, it shouldn’t be able to catch up to you.”
“Keep moving? That’s the best advice you got? What about when I need to sleep?”
“I wouldn’t recommend sleeping, at least not for very long.”
“This doesn’t sound like that great of a plan, doc.”
“Just do what you can to stay on the move. I’ll try to find out what cursed you as fast as I can. It will be two, three days at most.”
He thought about Joey and his deadline to pay up the ten grand. It was two days off as well. Life seemed to be conspiring against him. “Okay. Here, let me give you a number to call.”
He pulled out his little notebook and handed her a sheet with a number scrawled on it. He gave her the same number that Lizzie had, that way he could keep his crazy calls segregated. “Take care of yourself, Mr. Donnelly.”
“Yeah, you too, Ms. Blackwood.”
As he cut across the campus to head back for a bus stop, he felt disappointed. He had hoped that she would have some better answers for him. He tried to look on the bright side, at least now he knew how to keep away from the weird creature. He kicked a rock. What he really wanted was a way to get rid of it though. A cockroach crawled out of a gutter, and he almost jumped into the air. Just keep moving, he thought to himself, easy for her to say when she gets to just sit in her cushy office.
He really wanted more information. All that Charise had was what she pulled out of that old book. He needed somebody with more firsthand knowledge of the situation. Just then he realized there was someone else who did know what he was up against. He started pulling things out of the pockets he had inside his jacket. When he found what he was looking for, he thought to himself: Connor, this may be the dumbest thing you’ve ever considered doing.