Horla Fiction (January 2022)

 

WORMS

by CECILIA KENNEDY

My worms came in when I turned eighteen. I’d seen them when my parents were getting dressed, when I was five years old. Ringed tubes stretched in every direction, from head to toe, and when my parents found me, wide-eyed and hiding behind the door, they put on their flesh and told me that everything would be all right. They were still my parents, and I was special because one day, my worms would come in too. I was terrified.

Every day, I checked for worms, but eventually, after not seeing any for years, I figured I wouldn’t grow any, and that would be fine by me. But my first one came in, near the centre of my stomach, just over the belly button. Mom and Dad taught me how to hide it with patches of flesh, cut from excess parts of my body, but I would feel it wriggling underneath.

“Someday, you’ll find someone exactly like you, and you’ll understand each other. You’ll fall in love,” Mom told me one day.

“How will I know?”

“The worms inside will tingle. They’ll tell you.”

That sounded absolutely disgusting, but with time, I wanted to go out on dates. However, there was no way I’d ever get close enough to anyone for them to feel me against their skin because my skin moved.

*

The Lane is a long stretch of restaurants and bars, just beyond the edge of campus, steps from the dorms. It wasn’t exactly easy to get into college. Maintaining good grades, participating in sports, and filling out applications—with all of those worms inside me—was nearly impossible. They took up every part of me, including my thoughts. The amount of flesh I needed to cut from my body increased, but luckily, I was growing.

When my parents dropped me off at college—the same one they attended—Dad stayed in the lounge on the second floor of the dorm, and my mom took me for a walk along The Lane.

“There’s something I have to show you,” she said.

I couldn’t imagine why she wanted to take me here. The Lane smelled like urine and crawled with spidery alleyways darkened by shadows. Trash littered the streets and sidewalks. This was a place for throngs of college students with an appetite for adventure among drug dealers and murderers. This was no place for my mother.

“Over here,” she said, with authority, pointing me towards the darkest street I’d ever seen, veering from the light of The Lane. I just stood there, unable to move.

“Come on—let’s go. Now.”

*

Wondering what had gotten into my mother, I followed her down the street, straight into faint echoes of grunts and screams.

“This is where you’ll meet a nice man, with worms—like you.”

“On this street?”

“There’s a restaurant—and a lodge. And when you meet the right one, you’ll know—”

“Because the worms will tingle, but they’re not tingling right now, Mom. They’re squirming, like they sense danger—like they’ll crawl out of my skin.”

“Look,” she said, suddenly turning and blocking my path. “You’ll look into his eyes, and you won’t say a word when he takes your face in his, like this.”

I stepped back when she reached for my chin.

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “You look at him and press yourself up against him and sink into his body, and when he kisses you, well, I’m just letting you know, if he’s the right one—the worms will want to tear right through your skin—and if they do—it’s okay.”

“Eww! Mom!”

“Listen! It’s perfectly natural.”

The last thing I wanted to do was go on the prowl for men with my mom, but here we were, looking for other worm people, and if Mom could find her mate, I could too.

On the opposite sidewalk, there was a lone shack thumping with loud, club music, but the place was dark.

“That part’s the restaurant,” Mom said.

I became aware of a strong smell of grease and meat as my mother led me to the staircase, under the shack, which burst to life with pots and pans that clanked. The stairs led to a bar, glowing with green light. A fish-like smell permeated the place packed with bodies, pressed up against one another. My mom unzipped her skin.

“Come on,” she said, urging me to do the same, and I just didn’t recognise her anymore—not because of the worms, which pulsed wildly to the music, but because she was swaying her hips in time to the music and ordering whisky shots.

“What about Dad?” I asked.

“I’ll behave. But you—you don’t have to. Take that stuffy skin suit off and get out there and make your worms tingle.”

I’d never taken off my skin in public before, but here, I stood out with it on. Mom winked at me, and I thought I felt the worms crawl back up inside me. Why did she have to be so disgusting?

Moving into the crowd, brushing myself up against all of the other bodies, I forgot myself and danced. I looked for someone who would light the spark—the one who would electrify the worms inside, but there was no one. By the time I was forty, I stopped going to places like the one on The Lane and settled down, moved into the suburbs, lonely, following the rules of the HOA regarding fences, trash cans, exterior paint colors, plants, and parking.

*

The neighborhood Facebook page is raging with comments about the bobcat someone saw in the green space behind my house. A still-frame from someone’s security camera shows a blurry, gray outline of a feline creature stalking the dead of dark, its eyes glowing. What they don’t see from the grainy footage are the webbed feet—or that the tiny points of his ears are rays from a starfish—and I think he’s the most handsome thing I’ve ever seen.

*

During the day, I work my 8-5 job, but I have a side business baking bread to sell to the neighbors, which is perfectly within the HOA guidelines. However, I’m supposed to clear everything with the health department and buy a business license, but I haven’t done either one of those things. It’s the same as a bake sale, the way I see it, and churches all over the place have their bake sales without any problem. Sure, I’ve seen snippy comments on the Facebook page, such as the following: Shouldn’t people selling food they’ve made in their own homes have business licenses? Does the health department inspect their kitchens? Most people look the other way. They’re not supposed to have fireworks, either, but they light them and set them off the entire week leading up to the Fourth of July. They also light them on Christmas, New Year’s Eve, and after every touchdown from the local football games. All of these things are illegal, and I’ve said nothing. I’m a good neighbor. I wouldn’t dare.

*

Growing older means I’m supposed to come to terms with the fine lines, wrinkles, and sagging skin I see in the mirror, and for the most part, I have. But I’ve never accepted the worms crawling around inside me at all hours of the day and night and covering them up with skin. (There is more skin these days, for which I’m grateful.) Yet, I’ve craved companionship—not from other worm people or non-worm people—but from company I create myself.

It all started with a loaf of bread. I baked it in my oven, and when it started to rise, I thought I saw a dog’s shape take form. I’d never baked a bread-shaped dog before, and I considered adopting one from the local shelter, but the possibility of creating one—with my own hands—seemed more appealing.

*

On an overcast day, I walked up and down the sidewalks near the centre of town, where all of the boutiques and bistros huddle together, wrapped in brick and glass and gingerbread trim. People walked their dogs past cafes, and I studied them—the dogs—each muscle, the gradations of fur, and I sketched them out, under a tree near a park. The antiques shops were just about to close, so I picked one that seemed to call out to me with its Tiffany lamps and beaded glass goblets in green and pink. Inside, the place smelled musty, but I pressed on towards the back where they kept the books—all kinds of books, many of them mildewed. But on a table, near the middle, I spotted a faded black book of spells. When I picked it up, I didn’t know why, but I flipped through the pages and settled on page 56, which just happened to include a spell for making creatures. It seemed simple enough. I had everything I needed, including flour, water, and yeast—and my own hands. I could make any creature I wanted—something outside of human composition—worm or non-worm. And for the first time, I thought I felt the worms inside me begin to tingle, faintly.

In my kitchen, I followed a basic bread recipe and molded a creature that looked exactly like one of the dogs I’d seen downtown. While it baked, I said the incantations forwards and backwards, just as the book of spells directed. After just fifteen minutes at 450 degrees, I heard barking coming from the oven, and when I opened the door, a golden retriever leaped into my arms, nearly knocking me over. I let him play in the yard, fenced in and away from prying eyes. He played out there all day, and then I brought him in at night to snuggle with me. But my bliss didn’t last long. One night, when I woke up to stroke his fur, I only found crumbs. He had disintegrated. The book of spells didn’t mention anything about this, so I didn’t know how to fix the problem, and my heart was broken.

*

In the antiques store downtown, I searched the book tables in the back for more spells, but I couldn’t find any. Instead, I found books with curious pictures of animal hybrids. They were fused together in unique and fantastic ways. A swan’s neck curved into a lion’s body, and a giraffe’s head fit tightly onto a zebra’s middle. Animals with stripes, patches, wings, and scales fit together in ways that brought me hope. Perhaps one animal strengthened the other, so I experimented at home.

When I’d finished mixing the water, yeast, flour, and salt, I placed the dough head of a dog onto a flamingo’s body, delighting in how the long, tan canine fur flowed effortlessly into pink feathers. I called him Kirby and kept him as close to the house as possible, but sometimes he’d escape. Luckily, I’d catch him in the act and bring him back inside the yard. He didn’t bark. He just made a strange cooing sound, which I adored. It lulled me to sleep at night. At ten days, he’d already outlasted the other dog I’d made, so I figured I’d found the right formula, when I chose this combination.

Around day sixteen, though, Kirby stopped making his cooing sounds. Instead, he limped on his flamingo legs, and his gaze grew more distant. Eventually, I saw that he was leaking. A green substance seeped out from the place where his neck joined to his flamingo body. Every day, I cleaned up green fluid that dropped onto the floor. It smelled like bile and made me want to retch. Kirby looked so miserable I knew exactly what I needed to do. Pressing gently on the leaking seepage, I managed to dislodge his head from his body and gather the parts in a cloth to bury in the backyard.

*

The key to building a stronger companion, I figured, was tightly knitting hybrid forms, and that’s how I came up with the bobcat—the one that prowls at night—and brings back presents of others’ pets. At the last HOA meeting, the neighbors suggested that animal control stake out the neighborhood, but animal control had better things to do.

“Keep your pets inside at night,” they said. “Don’t leave small children unattended outside.”

My bobcat Laurel is sturdy because the hybridization is subtle. I only grafted webbed feet onto him and the tips of starfish rays for the points of his ears. The rest of him is pure, but he’s quite legendary in the neighborhood. Stories abound. Neighbors call him the “Long-Toothed Monster” that looks for children who are disobeying their parents’ curfews. Or for pets to eat in order to punish careless owners. They say he hides in the shadows and smells fear up to ten miles away, and when he has his prey in his paws, the claws stretch, growing into snakes that strangle and suffocate; venom pours from his eyes. I laughed inside when I first heard this, because I’ve made him, and the neighbors have no idea. They just stop by to pick up my bread and suspect nothing.

*

Little Myra Penton on 152nd, just two streets up from my house, has had quite the scare, according to her mother, who posted onto the neighborhood Facebook page. She and Myra were taking an evening walk to look at the stars because Myra’s second-grade teacher told her to be on the lookout for a falling comet at precisely 9:30 p.m.—well past a second-grader’s bedtime. This is precisely the “witching hour” for the Long-Toothed Monster (LTM) according to the neighbors. Apparently, LTM jumped out at Myra and slashed her face. Her mother posted pictures of the scars, and the comments section erupted.

*

“Laurel! Laurel!” I call, at 3 a.m., which is my custom. Laurel likes to roam, and I let him. I trust him, but he always comes back home early in the morning, hungry, and I feed him, and the worms inside me don’t tingle, exactly, but they grow warm, and then, I forget I have them. I like to forget that I have them, and Laurel helps me.

Something like a popping sound crackles in the air, and I immediately think of fireworks. The neighbors must be lighting them. More sounds of loud popping follow, so I look up, expecting to see showers of green and red sparks, dissolving into thin wispy plumes of smoke, but I see nothing, and Laurel never comes back.

I go looking for him, near the green space, just outside my fence. The iron smell of blood and the sweet odor of flesh rise up from the air. With my flashlight, I search the grass, and the light falls on Laurel’s sloping back, his webbed feet spread outward. The neighbors took it upon themselves to shoot their urban legend—to see if it was real—to end the terror.

Great sadness, at the loss of a companion, is one thing, but I can’t even begin to describe how I feel, when I walk around to the other side of Laurel’s body, which has been gutted, and see all of the worms inside, squirming.

***

Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio, USA, for over 20 years before moving to Washington state with her family. Since 2017, she has written and published short stories in journals, magazines, and anthologies online and in print in the United States, Canada, England, and Ireland. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. She is also a proofreader for Flash Fiction Magazine, an editor for Running Wild Press, an adult beverages columnist for The Daily Drunk, and she writes a weekly humour blog: fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog

Title photo credit – David Clode on Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction