by Chris Griglack
Who knew cockroaches could be so sinister?
Normally he would have simply rolled over and fallen back asleep, but as he cracked his left eye open to check the red numbers of the digital clock on his nightstand, he noticed a cockroach calmly sitting just a few inches from his gaping mouth. For a brief moment, the two just stared at each other, each puzzled by the existence of the other.
The moment faded, and Jay jumped out of his bed, landing painfully on the hardwood floor, shattering his personal record for least time spent in bed after initially waking up.
From the floor he stared at the cockroach, who waved its antennae at him from its perch on the bed. Disgusted, he brushed himself off with his hands, hoping to remove any bugs who were a bit bolder in their approaches. There were none. He inhaled with a long yawn, and exhaled with a sigh of relief, then he turned his eyes to the lone roach on his bed.
They locked eyes. Jay could have sworn the roach was giving him a quizzical look. It wasn’t anything in its face, but something in the way it moved its antennae spoke of a higher intelligence than any insect should possess.
Jay backed away from his bed, keeping his eyes on the roach until he reached the shared doorway of his bedroom and kitchen. Grabbing a nearly empty Chinese takeout container from his counter, he returned to his bedroom, intending to capture the cockroach and set it free outside his apartment. He returned to find it sitting in the same spot, looking as bored as a roach can. He slowly approached the bed, afraid that it might pick up on his intentions and scurry off, but its only movement was an intrigued quivering of its antennae. Jay raised the container over it, spilling a few grains of white rice on his sheets, and slammed the box over the roach, trapping it inside.
He slid the carton across his bed to the edge where he met it with his hand, preventing the roach from falling onto the floor. He could feel it scurrying across his left palm as he rushed towards the already open window in his bathroom, and he squirmed inwardly at its touch. Reaching the bathroom, he thrust both hands outside and removed the one cupping the bottom of the container.
A few more grains of rice fell to the well-kept lawn two stories below the windowsill, but no roach dropped out of the box. Jay checked his hand to make sure it was not somehow clinging to him, and then shook the carton violently, dislodging a small storm of rice. When these actions failed to produce any trace of an insect, he brought the container back into the bathroom and peered into it, finding it completely empty. Puzzled, he returned to the kitchen where he threw away the empty container before fixing himself a bowl of cereal.
He poured milk over the cereal and let it sit while he went to put on some clothes. Throwing on a clean-smelling T-shirt and the pair of jeans he had worn the day before, Jay returned to the kitchen for his breakfast.
While shoveling the fruity children’s cereal into his mouth, Jay stared at the back of the box of cereal, mentally working his way through the various kindergarten level puzzles. He was about halfway through the bowl (and a five time champion of the box’s maze) when he happened to glance down at his food, and immediately froze in the middle of raising his spoon to his mouth.
There, protruding from the milk like a pair of submarine periscopes, were two quivering brown antennae. He watched, too horrified to move, as the head they were attached to slowly emerged from the milk, like a miniature kraken.
It was the same roach that had been sitting on his bed, Jay knew. It had no markings or distinguishing features, but he knew it was the same one by the way it just sat there, staring at him while the colorful loops of cereal drifted about, as if taking pleasure in his squeamishness.
For another moment neither of them moved, save for the slight bobbing of the cockroach’s head as small waves rippled through the bowl. Then, in a single jerking motion, Jay grabbed the bowl and darted to the kitchen sink, spilling milk and a few pieces of cereal onto the white tiled floor. Upon reaching the sink, he turned on the water, then the garbage disposal, dumped the contents of the bowl and listened to the satisfying grinding which assured him that the roach would now be just several dismembered pieces.
But he never saw it fall down the drain with the stream of milk and cereal pieces.
Worried, Jay remembered a fact he had heard: that roaches can live weeks without their heads. The thought of the headless cockroach crawling up the drain pipe to lounge again in his food sent a shiver down his spine despite the beads of sweat pooling on his forehead from all the excitement.
Worry became outright paranoia as Jay dumped the remainder of his gallon of milk, plus the last serving of cereal down the disposal after the roach. He let the disposal run a full 30 seconds after all the food went down, listening to the blades protest as they ground against each other. He thought briefly about leaving the disposal on all day in case the roach ventured up the pipe, but decided that it was not worth breaking his sink.
Feeling that he would soon go completely insane if he didn’t get any closure, Jay strode to his utility closet and returned to the sink with a bag of assorted tools. Though he had no plan, and no plumbing expertise, he figured it would be easy enough to take apart his drain pipe and see whether the roach was still somehow inside.
Selecting a large adjustable wrench from the bag of unsorted tools, he crouched under the sink and began to loosen the stretch of pipe directly above the U-bend. At first the wrench refused to turn, but he was so frustrated that he gripped it with both hands and threw all his weight against it. With an unexpected lurch the nut spun, throwing him off balance and causing his right hand to slip off the wrench and slam into the wall of the cabinet.
Dropping the wrench and removing his upper body from the sink cabinet, he stood and examined his wounded hand. A single drop of blood was forming on his scraped knuckles, and though he gripped his right hand firmly with the left to stem the flow, the bead grew and finally dropped, splashing in small puddle of milk he had spilled earlier. Cursing his luck, the roach, and just cursing in general, he went back into his bedroom to grab some tissues for cleanup. He wrapped one around his hand as a makeshift bandage and brought a few more into the kitchen with him in place of paper towels.
He froze when he started to enter the kitchen, dropping the tissues, including the one being used as a bandage, to the floor. There, sitting calmly in the tiny puddle of slightly pinkish milk, was the object of Jay’s obsession.
This time the roach did not seem to notice Jay as he stared at it. He imagined he could hear it greedily slurping blood and milk off the floor like a tiny disgusting dog.
This time there was no slow creeping, or plans for containment, there was no room for error. Instead, he dove at the roach from the threshold between kitchen and bedroom. He easily cleared the five feet between the door and the roach, and time seemed to slow for him in mid-dive, giving him an unnatural hang-time. Left hand extended like a baseball player attempting a particularly difficult catch, he landed hard on the cold tile floor, pinning his hand in the puddle while the rest of him skidded an extra half foot, miraculously stopping just before his head collided with his oven.
For a moment he just laid on the floor catching his breath, heart pounding wildly against the tiles. He allowed himself to relax for a moment while recovering, and wondered if the old woman who lived below him could hear his heartbeat through her ceiling. She would no doubt be making a complaint to their landlord about the noise from his dive.
Remembering the goal of his dive, he lifted his left hand from the small puddle which he had smeared, almost not daring to look for fear of his own disappointment. Examining his hand, he was delighted to find a disgusting cocktail of milk, blood, greenish goo, and one still quivering antenna.
Laughing deliriously at his victory, Jay slowly got to his feet and, using his right hand, brushed off the pieces of cereal which had stuck to his clothes. He held the other hand as far away from his body as possible to avoid getting the roach innards on his already filthy clothes.
Still laughing, he walked calmly to the sink and proceeded to wash his hands, cringing just a little as the dish soap entered the cut on his knuckles. He watched it all wash down the drain and out of sight. The sweat, blood, milk, bits of cereal, and, most importantly, the greenish slime from his hands, finally laid to rest. He even smiled as he felt a slight spray wet the legs of his pants from where he had loosened the pipes.
When he was finished, he turned the sink off and dried his hands on the dish towel hanging next to the oven. He examined the backs of his hands, making sure all evidence of the morning’s activities was removed. Finding them spotless he turned them over to check his palms, and a look of absolute horror overtook his smug smile.
There, on his left palm towards the base of his thumb, was an ugly black smear. It stood out in stark contrast to his pristine white hands, like an oil spill in the arctic.
He stared at it, disgusted and horrified, yet at the same time fascinated. Unable to avert his gaze even to blink, he watched as the inky anomaly pulsed in time to his rapidly increasing heartbeat.
This well of darkness on his hand frightened Jay more than anything else he had encountered in his life. Far worse than any childhood fight, or the pain of relationships gone bad. It made the threat of existential uncertainty look childish, and even dwarfed the fear he had felt when he had woken up from a routine appendix removal only to hear “there were complications with your surgery.”
It was a stain on his very soul.
He was interrupted from his terrified trance by a sudden lance of pain which shot all the way down his arm from the black spot. The pain itself was minor, about the equivalent of getting a shot at the doctor’s, but it was followed by a deep tingling sensation which numbed his whole arm. It reminded him of the feeling of hitting his funny bone, but there was nothing funny about his current predicament.
Though he could not feel anything but the tingling in his arm, he sensed the spot on his palm still pulsing with the same rhythm as his increasingly rapid heartbeat.
He attempted to raise his arm so that he could once again examine the malevolent spot, but he found that his normal motor functions in that arm had severely deteriorated. He could lift his arm a few inches but doing so took a great effort, and he was soon sweating from the strain.
After about 30 seconds of attempting to use his left arm, Jay gave up and used his right to lift his horrifyingly damaged appendage to eye level.
The black smear was definitely spreading, it had grown to take up the majority of his palm. As he watched, it crept slowly outward, stopping just before it reached his fingers. It was still pulsating rapidly in time with his frantically beating heart, but Jay could also hear a faint buzzing coming from the strange substance.
A single housefly sat on the edge of his hand where the black spot had originated, startling Jay with how well it was camouflaged. It just sat there, staring at him the same way the roach had. Normally he would have been disgusted and slightly worried about what diseases this fly might be carrying, but his fear of insects paled in comparison to his current situation. Still, he couldn’t help thinking how strange it was that he was hearing the buzzing when the fly’s wings were completely still.
As he watched, it crawled across the palm of his hand, intensifying the tingling sensation where it touched. he buzzing grew louder as it moved, and Jay slowly realized that it wasn’t the fly making the noise, but his hand. The fly circled the outside of the black area like a dog trying to determine where to sleep. It finally decided that the very center of his palm was the best spot, and with a jerky movement that looked more like a leap than a brief flight, it reached its destination.
Unable to move from panic, Jay watched the insect’s bizarre actions, his mind now softening from sheer terror. The fly landed, laid its head down on Jay’s skin, and proceeded to burrow into his blackened flesh.
In the back of his mind, a part that was still functioning screamed, but the rest of Jay’s brain ignored it. He wanted to dig the fly out of his hand and kill it, to cut off his own hand if he had to, but all he could do was stare dumbly at his own abominable limb as it pulsed and buzzed. He could not even unclench his right hand to drop the horrible view out of his sight.
That part of Jay’s mind was still screaming for him to run, to hide, to do anything that would get him away from this situation, but even it shut down as he watched the fly crawl out of his palm and buzz angrily around his head. It was followed by a dozen or so fruit flies which were nearly invisible against the dark area from which they spawned. Four mosquitoes soon joined the flies, emerging from his flesh and flocking to the open wound on his right hand. He watched as a whole swarm of insects crawled forth from the vast inky well to eat the untainted parts of his body. Wasps, hornets, horseflies, tsetse flies, a variety of winged ants, and insects of all kinds which he could not identify all wriggled out of his palm to feast.
As they devoured him, his body finally reacted as it should have long ago, and he let loose a howl of torment and agony. He attempted to close his left hand to keep the bugs from coming out, but it was so weak that he could not keep the fist clenched. As he screamed, the insects entered his mouth, where they began eating his insides as well.
He choked on their tiny bodies, consuming them as they consumed him. Not even his tears were wasted.
“Wake him up, Keltz!” Elsie called, as she rushed about the laboratory silencing the many warning noises from her instruments.
“He’s not responding, he’s under too deep!” Keltz was panicking, shaking the subject in a highly unprofessional attempt to wake him.
“Zap him again, dammit!” Elsie yelled without looking up from the EEG feed.
Keltz stopped shaking the subject, and dashed to the terminal which controlled the emergency abort sequence. He lifted the protective glass case to once again push the red button labeled “CHARGE.” The display panel lit up to show the level of the charge building. When it reached its maximum level, he flipped the switch to release the charge, and watched the subject for a reaction.
Once the current was released, it traveled through a series of wires into the electrodes connected to the subject’s left arm. The arm spasmed, and the man’s back arched briefly in response to the shock, but he did not wake up.
“It could stop his heart!”
“He’s dying anyway, do it again!”
Keltz performed the abort procedure again and was met with the same results. The subject’s heart was still beating, but it would have been a kindness if the shock had killed him.
The two scientists watched with horror as the subject writhed in silent pain. The electrodes attached to his arm fell and dangled loosely below the examination table as the flesh they were attached to slowly vanished into thin air. The various devices monitoring his health failed one by one as his internal organs were eaten away.
When the EEG finally stopped reporting, Elsie checked her watch and marked the time on the clipboard. She then moved to the camera which was recording the experiment and reported the end of the trial.
“4:52 and 16 seconds AM, test Subject J deceased. Cause of death, extreme psychological trauma resulting in physical manifestation of subject’s nightmare.”
“Physical manifestation of what?” Keltz interrupted, causing Elsie to turn from the camera and shoot him an annoyed glance. “What the hell was that?” he continued, ignoring her look.
“Entomophobia,” she replied peevishly. “Fear of insects.”
“I know what it means,” he said, flustered. There was a silence as the two thought about what had happened and how to proceed. Finally, Keltz broke the silence. “So this means the trial was a success?”
“Almost. We don’t want their dreams to manifest, we just want to bring their fears to the surface, see what makes them squirm. Maybe a lighter dosage would work, but at this level it can’t be used for any kind of psychological correction. We’ll have to do another round of testing, that one was a waste….” She trailed off, thinking of other ways to correct the formula, and finally leaned back in to the camera to finish her report.
When she felt she had addressed all the potential issues she signaled for the cleanup crew to come in. She and Keltz reviewed the information they had collected while the cleanup crew carted away the used equipment. Subject J, reduced to little more than a blood-stained skeleton with a blackened, loosely clenched fist, was unceremoniously dumped into a large bin labeled “BIOHAZARD.”
As the corpse was lifted from the blood soaked metal table a single cockroach scurried forth from the unnaturally dark fist to hide in the shadows beneath the table. From there it watched as Subject J’s remains were taken away for disposal, its antenna quivering in mild interest.
“Squirm” © 2012 Chris Griglack
Original fiction debuting at Fear & Trembling Magazine.
(Image Credit: S.E. Thorpe, Wikimedia Commons)