Ben’s tires rumbled as his car drifted over the white line and onto the shoulder of the road. His Hyundai’s lane departure warning beeped insistently, screaming at him to wake up.
Ben’s eyes snapped open. His foot jumped to the brake. Grit and gravel rattled against the underside of his car as he swerved to avoid a Deer Crossing sign that had materialized in his path. The back tires fishtailed along the crumbling blacktop, momentarily threatening to send him into a spin before regaining traction.
Ben glanced into his rearview mirror at the twin spirals of road dust swirling in his taillights. The smell of burnt rubber singed his nostrils. His heart pounded like a double kick drum in his chest. He shook his head and laughed nervously. Holy shit, that was close.
Ben poked at the touchscreen on the dashboard until the opening riffs of “Master of Puppets” by Metallica filled the car. He nudged the volume a little higher, then began drumming his fingers against the steering wheel in time with the music. He glanced in the rearview mirror again, this time examining the smooth curve of his bald pate. A swell of sadness tightened his throat. His hair band days—and his hair—were long gone.
Ben sighed, then turned his attention back to the black stretch of asphalt racing under his headlights. The road was a long, winding scar carved through miles of otherwise unspoiled forest. It was completely deserted, which was exactly why Ben liked it. It gave him plenty of time to think. There were no other cars. No houses. Not even a street lamp. The sky offered a breathtaking display of planets and stars, as if someone had scattered a bucket of silver glitter on a black velvet tablecloth. The full moon was a perfect circle surrounded by a halo of soft white light that cast an eerie glow on the low ground fog drifting between the trees.
As Ben’s car rounded a curve, his headlights illuminated a woman shambling along the side of the road in the distance. She was of medium build and was wearing an oversized white t-shirt and what looked like boxer shorts. She walked with an odd gait, sort of a shuffling stride, her bare feet kicking up little clouds of dust that danced in the glow of the headlights. A silver bracelet with a small heart charm dangled from her wrist, under a tattoo of an angel that stretched up her forearm. Her legs were crosshatched with fresh scratches, as if she had just stumbled out of the woods through a wall of thorns.
Ben’s foot drifted to the brake, slowing his car as it drew closer to the girl. He reached out and killed the music, leaving only the shushing sound of his tires on the blacktop to fill the sudden silence. His eyes scanned the trees for a driveway, a mailbox, or any sign of civilization that might indicate where the girl had come from. There was nothing. He hadn’t passed any disabled vehicles either, at least not that he could remember. He supposed her car could have broken down somewhere up ahead, but then why would she be walking back in that direction, on his side of the road? And why was she dressed—or undressed—like she was? It looked like she had just climbed out of bed by way of a briar patch.
Ben’s tires crunched in the dirt on the side of the road as he rolled up beside the girl. He lowered his passenger-side window, leaning over from the driver’s seat so he could see her better. She seemed to be in her late teens. Her teeth were chattering. No wonder—it was 40 degrees outside. She was definitely not dressed for the weather. Hell, she was barely dressed at all.
Ben called to the girl through the open window. “Hey, there. You okay?”
The girl stopped walking. She didn’t respond; she didn’t even look in Ben’s direction. She just stood on the shoulder, staring straight ahead into the distance.
Ben brought his car to a stop and put it in park. He briefly considered shutting off the engine, then decided it would be safer if he kept it running. He opened the driver’s side door and stepped out onto the road. The car warned him about the open door with a persistent ding-ding-ding. He closed it, then walked around the hood of the car. The headlights threw his shadow far down the road as he crossed in front of them.
“Hey,” Ben said again, waving his hand to get the girl’s attention. Her eyes darted in his direction. Ben recoiled slightly. She was looking at him, but she didn’t seem to be seeing him. “Everything all right?”
“No,” the girl replied. Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Did something happen?”
Not yet? Ben thought. What kind of answer is that? He wasn’t sure how to respond. Instead, he asked, “You have a name?”
“Hi, Amy. I’m Ben.” The girl just looked at him blankly. Ben blew warm air into his hands. “Listen, it’s freezing out here. Can I give you a ride somewhere?”
“No.” There was no concern in her voice. No sense of danger. Her response was simple, matter-of-fact.
“You sure? You’re gonna get sick dressed like that.” Ben waited for an awkward moment to see if the girl would respond. She didn’t. “What’re you doing out here anyway? Your car break down, or …” He trailed off, then tried again. “You live out here somewhere?” The girl didn’t answer. Ben shrugged. “All right, well … I’m gonna go then. Good luck.” He took a step back toward the driver’s side then paused, chewing on his thumbnail for a few seconds while he stopped to think. Finally, he turned back to her. “Look, I don’t feel right leaving you out here all alone like this. It’s not safe.”
“You’re all by yourself?”
The girl shook her head no.
Ben looked around, suddenly wary. There was nobody else in sight. “Someone’s coming for you?”
The girl stared down the road past Ben. “Them.”
Ben turned, expecting to see a car approaching. There was nothing, just the yellow-lined blacktop disappearing into the darkness. He looked back at the girl, ready to ask what the hell she was talking about.
She was gone.
“Hey!” Ben blurted out. He came around the front of his car to the passenger side, thinking maybe she had passed out on the side of the road. She wasn’t there. Where’d she go? He scanned the nearby woods. The tree line was too far, across an expanse of knee-high grass. She couldn’t have gone that way. There was no sound, no movement. “Amy?” He half-jogged a few steps along the passenger side and around to the back of the car.
The girl was on her knees, crouched low behind the rear bumper. Exhaust swirled around her, lit up a hellish red by the glow of the taillights. Her hair hung over her face in damp ropes. Breath steamed from her nose in short, rapid bursts. She looked up at Ben. Her eyes were wide with terror. “Hide,” she whispered.
Ben ducked down behind the car with her. He could feel his pulse hammering in his ears. “From what?”
The girl didn’t answer. She peered around the edge of the trunk, then quickly drew back. Ben listened and waited. After about a minute, he started to feel foolish. There was nothing out there. The girl was just paranoid. She was probably strung out on meth or something. She was hallucinating.
Ben raised himself up until he could see through the rear window and onto the road in front. He could dimly make out the silhouette of a deer grazing on a spray of dandelions on the shoulder of the road. As if sensing Ben’s gaze, the deer looked up at him, chewed lazily for a moment, then it bolted off into the woods.
“Seriously?” Ben mumbled to himself. He gave an exasperated sigh and stood up. “Look, this is ridiculous. Do you want a ride or not? Last chance.”
The girl stood and stepped out tentatively from behind the car. “No,” she replied. “They’re coming for me.”
“All right, then.” Ben threw up his hands in defeat and headed back to the driver’s side. “See ya.”
“And for you too.”
Ben stopped. He walked back toward the girl, his eyes narrowing. “What did you say?”
The girl looked at him. Through him, it seemed. “They know.”
Her words sent a shot of adrenaline through Ben’s body. He masked his alarm with an air of casual dismay. “Oh, yeah? What do they know?”
The girl started laughing. It was a broken sound, joyless. She covered her mouth with her hand. The silver bracelet slid down from her wrist to her forearm, the heart pendant glimmering red in the reflected glow of the taillights.
Ben felt a familiar anger surge within him. “Something funny?”
The girl shook her head. She was still laughing though. Tears streamed down her cheeks, tracing fresh tracks through her smeared mascara. She pulled her hand away from her face, revealing yellowed teeth slicked with blood and saliva. Glistening strings of bloody drool stretched between her lips and dribbled down her chin. She laughed even harder. There was something else in her laugh, underneath, a gurgling, liquid sound, phlegmy, the sound of pneumonia, of fluids pooled in lungs, of drowning from the inside.
“I see her,” she whispered.
Ben’s stomach lurched. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I see you, too.”
“You’re nuts. Okay?” He began backing away from her. The girl matched him step for step, advancing. Ben held out his hand as if to ward her off. “Just stay away from me.”
“You’ll do it again.”
“I didn’t do anyth—”
Suddenly, the girl let out an animal snarl and lunged at Ben. She swiped her arm, raking her nails across Ben’s cheek and opening a gash under his eye. Ben instinctively dodged to the side, simultaneously tripping the girl and pushing her. The shove accelerated her forward momentum, sending her headfirst into the corner of the car’s hood. Her skull hit the metal with a sound like a rotten melon dropping from the sky.
The girl crumpled to the ground, collapsing into a tangled pile of limbs. Her head lolled to the side at a grotesque angle. A thick river of crimson spilled from her hairline and pooled in one of her open eyes, filling the socket with blood.
She didn’t blink.
Ben paced in front of his car, mumbling under his breath as he played out the inevitable police interview in his mind.
It was dark. She had come out of nowhere, had run right in front of his car. He had tried to swerve, but it was too late. He thought he had hit a deer—he didn’t realize it was a person until he got out of the car and saw the body on the road.
It was an accident.
A terrible, terrible accident.
Despite himself, Ben imagined the cop’s response.
He looked down at the girl’s body sprawled in front of his car, then touched the gash on his cheek. Who was he kidding? Nobody would believe it was an accident. His car was undamaged. The road behind it was unspoiled. No skid marks. No burnt rubber. No indication that he’d braked or swerved at all.
And how would he explain the cut on his face? She’d have his skin under her nails, his DNA on her hands. He could try to clean it off, but what if he missed some? Then he’d really be screwed. The cops would start to doubt his story. They’d question his motives, maybe look into his background. And what would they find …?
Goddamnit, he cursed to himself. How could he let this happen again?
Ben stopped next to the girl’s lifeless form. He wasn’t sure how she knew what she seemed to know—how could she know about Alexis?—but that didn’t matter anymore. He had to deal with the situation at hand.
Circling behind the girl, Ben slid his hands under her armpits and lifted. Her head flopped backward, her dark hair trailing along the ground as he dragged her through the tall grass and into the woods. He lowered her to the ground behind the trunk of a large, fallen tree. She stared sightlessly at the forest canopy above. Dirt and dried leaves clung to her hair. One arm was splayed out at her side; the other was draped across her stomach.
Ben rocked the fallen tree with his foot to see if it would roll. It was heavy, but he could move it. Kneeling on the carpet of wet leaves next to the body, Ben slid up his sleeves, then plunged his fingers into the dirt. The ground was soft and damp, with a dark, earthy smell that reminded him of the compost at his grandfather’s farm. It was the smell of decay. Of decomposition. The forest was teeming with life that fed on death. He would bury the body as best as he could with his bare hands, roll the fallen tree over it, then let nature do the rest.
As he began scooping handfuls of leaves and dirt onto the body, covering it with a thick layer of debris, the girl moved.
“Jesus!” Ben backpedaled away from the body, startled by the unexpected motion. His elbow slammed into the dead tree behind him. A chunk of rotten bark sloughed off, revealing a squirming, writhing mass of insects. Pill bugs and springtails and millipedes tumbled over each other, dropping onto the forest floor and seeking refuge in the shadows under the log. A giant centipede with dozens of pointed legs scrambled up and over the tree, disappearing to the other side.
Ben eyed the girl’s body warily. She wasn’t breathing. Her chest was still. Her eyes weren’t blinking. It certainly seemed like she was dead.
So, how did she move?
That’s when Ben realized: the arm that had been draped across the girl’s stomach was now at her side. It had slipped off her body and onto the ground. It was just gravity. No big deal.
“Oh.” He snorted out a short laugh, embarrassed by his skittishness, then scooted back closer to the body. The arm that had slipped was the one with the angel tattoo and the silver bracelet. Curious, Ben pinched the heart-shaped charm between his fingers and angled it so he could see it better. There was a name etched into it.
Ben furrowed his brow. Jessica? Hadn’t she said her name was Amy? He rolled his eyes skyward, then looked back towards the road, trying to mentally rewind their conversation. Yeah. It was Amy. She definitely said Amy.
Before he could fully process what the disparity could mean, the girl moved again.
Her back violently arched, then fell, then arched again. Her head rolled in Ben’s direction. A torrent of bright red blood poured from her mouth as her tongue emerged from between her lips and extended in Ben’s direction.
It grew longer.
That’s not her tongue, Ben realized with mounting dread. It’s … it’s a worm.
He watched in mute horror the worm expelled itself from the girl’s mouth. It was slick and tubular, as thick as his wrist, and was encased in a mucousy, brownish-red membrane the color of raw liver. At the end of its body was a gaping maw filled with concentric circles of pin-sharp, razor-edged barbs, all of them pointing inwards towards a hungry, pulsing mouth. The worm twisted and writhed as it emerged, coiling itself on the ground next to the girl’s head in a puddle of blood-tinged slime. It was hard to gauge its full length, but it had to be six feet long. Maybe ten. Maybe more. And still, it kept coming.
Finally, its tail end slipped out. Before Ben could react, the worm lunged at him, launching itself straight at his midsection. It was impossibly quick, more like the strike of a rattlesnake or a cobra than the clumsy wriggling you’d expect from a worm. Ben tried to dodge away, but the creature was too quick. Its razored teeth easily shredded and spiraled their way past his shirt, through the soft tissue under his rib cage, and into his body cavity. Ben screamed. He tried to grab the worm, but his hands just slipped uselessly down the length of its ooze-slicked form.
The worm’s body whipped and thrashed as it burrowed into Ben’s torso, corkscrewing past his organs until it reached his spine. From somewhere deep inside its length, it extruded a needle-thin proboscis and injected it into Ben’s spinal cord, running it up into his skull. The probe branched into thousands of individual filaments that burrowed themselves deep into the crevices and folds of Ben’s brain.
In an instant, Ben’s mind was flooded with a bright white surge of consciousness, a new form of hyper-awareness unlike anything he had ever experienced before.
He knew what the worm was. What it knew. What they all knew.
There were millions of them, physically distinct but genetically identical, all of them connected at a quantum level to form a single superorganism with a shared universal consciousness. Every worm was linked to every other, through space and time, from host to host, across the globe. Each worm’s nervous system intertwined with that of its host, siphoning the host’s memories, filtering them, devouring them, digesting them.
The worms didn’t feed on just any memories though. They had no use for fond memories: no first words, or first steps, or first kisses. Those memories were worthless. What the worms wanted—what they needed, what they thrived on—was pain.
First, they consumed whatever painful memories were already there in the host.
Then they made more.
They drove their hosts to ever more horrible extremes, manipulating them like marionettes to create new memories upon which to feed—memories of tortures, murders, and worse—until the hosts’ minds deteriorated from the strain. The hosts would begin to hallucinate, haunted by ghosts, plagued by demons. They would become paranoid. Reckless. Insane.
Eventually, the worm would manipulate the host to help it find a new home, a new host. Someone with untapped reservoirs of suffering. Someone with deep wellsprings of pain.
Someone like Ben.
As the worm’s tendrils were assimilated into Ben’s brain, all the pain the creatures had consumed over millennia flashed through his mind in an endless stream of horrors. He saw warlords and murderers. Rapists and kidnappers. Politicians and priests. He saw them arm themselves with their weapons of war. Their guns. Their scriptures. Their checkbooks. He saw brothels and boardrooms. Slaughterhouses and sacristies. The pulpit and the Resolute. Nooses hanging. Ovens burning. Cities aflame.
Then the visions slowed, focusing on a specific memory. A recent one. The scene had a wavering, warbling quality, as if it was a movie being projected through half-melted film. The sound was muffled and out of sync with the visuals, but it was enough for Ben to make sense of what he saw.
He saw a heavyset girl with thick glasses and a round face, lured into the woods by a girl she thought was her friend. “This way, Jessica,” he heard a familiar voice say. “It’s back here.”
He saw the heavy girl’s smile turn to laughter. Her laughter turn to shock. Her shock turn to terror.
He saw a knife plunge into her chest. Her side. Her neck.
He saw her pleading, “Why?”
He saw her blood-soaked body rolled into a shallow grave, already dug, her arms flopping limply over her mangled chest.
He saw the silver bracelet with the heart pendant on her wrist, the one bearing her name: Jessica.
He saw it being unclasped, then re-clasped on a new wrist, a wrist with an angel tattoo.
Then the visions sped up again. Ben began to recognize some of them—they were snippets from his own life.
He saw himself at five, as his father threw him across the room in a drunken rage.
At eight, pounding on the locked cellar door, terrified that his mother had left him to die in there.
At sixteen, finding his best friend’s body three days after a heroin overdose had left him slumped behind the wheel of his car.
At twenty-one, arguing with his girlfriend in the bathroom of their run-down apartment in West Hollywood.
The vision slowed again, playing out like grainy VHS footage with distorted, underwater sound.
He saw Alexis jabbing her long red fingernail into his chest as she berated him, insulted him, told him he was weak, pathetic, a balding loser who would never amount to anything.
He saw his hands as he pushed her.
He saw her high heel boots skidding on the slick bathroom floor. Her temple smacking into the corner of the counter as she fell. Her face hitting the floor with a dull thud.
He saw the blood pooling on the tile.
He saw her mouth open. Her eyes close. Her breathing stop.
He saw her die.
He saw himself, looking in the rearview mirror.
He blinked, then rubbed his hands over his face. He was in his car, parked in his garage, at home. The ignition was off. The engine was cool. The garage door was closed.
What had he done last night? Where had he been? He couldn’t remember.
His head was pounding. His back felt like someone had shoved a red-hot wire up his spine. There was a dull ache in his side, just under his ribs, like that time in high school when he had been nailed with a pitch at baseball practice.
He looked at the clock on the wall of the garage. It was 6:15 AM. Shit. His wife and kids would be awake any minute. He didn’t have much time.
Time for what? He didn’t know. But whatever it was, it was urgent. He had to hurry.
As if on autopilot, Ben climbed out of the car, picked up a can of gasoline from the floor near the lawnmower, then grabbed a box of matches from the shelf by the grill. Entering the house, he splashed the gasoline around the living room, through the kitchen, and down the hall outside the bedrooms where his wife and children were asleep. Then he struck a match.
The gas ignited with a flare of light and heat that sent him stumbling back on his heels. The flames raced along the hallway, blackening the walls and filling the air with noxious smoke.
Stop it! he thought. Help them!
He tried to call out, but he couldn’t make a sound. He had no voice. His limbs felt heavy and useless. He was frozen in place, paralyzed, unable to move. The only thing he could do was watch. And listen.
Screams rose inside each of the bedrooms. Screams of panic … then terror … then pain.
The sound seared itself into Ben’s memory.
And the worm began to feed.
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