I need a doctor, but I am afraid. I woke one morning and thought it was flu or diarrhea. I rested in bed. I nursed myself with herb tea and chicken broth. I waited for my body to purge. But no vomit came, no stool. I waited over the toilet, my belly full of strange writhing, but nothing came.
The internal wriggling never stopped. I returned to work and resumed my routines. I tried to ignore it.
But sometimes there was no pretending. Sometimes I could feel it swelling. It pushed upwards with surprising force, from my intestines into my stomach. I struggled for breath. I promised myself to see a doctor. But then the worst of it passed. I shivered and sweated. It shrank and settled back in my gut. I knew something was wrong, but I denied it. I told myself "nerves," or "indigestion."
The worst time was at night. During the day, work, chores and television distracted me. But at night its continual turning kept me wide awake. I would lie in bed electrified, touching my lower abdomen. It was twitching. I switched on the bed lamp to inspect myself. My abdomen bulged and turned red, somewhere between my navel and my privates. I panicked. But then the bulging subsided and the redness faded, leaving just the slithering motion inside. I should not have denied it. Every night I told myself a little lie that I would get better if I just let it be. That was my first sin.
My second sin was to accept Brent's invitation.
Brent was my best friend. He had a desk at work just across from mine. He had thick, dark hair, pale, blue eyes, broad shoulders and a smooth baritone voice. He was shy. He never went when other co-workers invited him to join them for beer after work or for parties on the weekends. He ate lunch alone. He usually ended any attempt at conversation with a polite excuse. None of our co-workers disliked him. They just considered him a mystery.
He liked poetry, and that is how we became friends. He caught me reading a Baudelaire anthology one day in the break room. "What is your favorite poem by Baudelaire?" he asked.
"Carrion,' of course," I declared.
He laughed, "Yet you will come to this offence, this horrible decay, you, the light of my life, the sun and the moon and the stars of my love!'"
He invited me to attend a poetry reading with him. And we went from attending poetry readings together to meeting Saturday nights at Wyrd, an uptown coffee house, to read each other's poetry.
I shivered the first time he asked me, "May I read you one of my poems?"
"I would love to . . . hear you read, if you want to . . ."
glistens in the sun.
Cool, moist breeze invites.
It's not too cool.
I take my shirt off,
wade barefoot in the snow,
taste the end of winter,
smell the thawing mud,
and feel my body waking.
Brent had a passion for the outdoors. He spent all his vacation at a secluded lake near the north shore. After we had been friends a few months, he asked me to go camping with him on the next July Fourth weekend.
I imagined a muddy lake infested with leeches, hiking through underbrush teeming with spiders and ticks. I pictured a rickety pine shack perched over a dark cesspool as the best sanitary arrangement; or worse, squatting over a makeshift hole dug behind a rock while mosquitos feasted on my exposed calves. I recoiled most at this prospect of being naked, of being exposed in too close quarters to Brent, unable to keep my secrets, some unknown thing clawing at me from inside, squirming its way out.
"I've never been camping," I said.
"I have. No better way to learn the ropes than with a pro."
"I don't have a tent!"
"You can share mine. There's room for two."
"I don't know . . ."
Brent's soft smile faded, he fell silent and looked away.
His awkward silence haunted me for days. If anyone else had invited me I would never have reconsidered. The last week before July Fourth, I asked him if his invitation still stood. He laughed, "We're going to have so much fun!"
Friday evening of the weekend of the Fourth, I was peering out the passenger window of Brent's small Palomino, at glass and steel stretching above the roof of the car, upwards, blocking out the sky, rush hour traffic crawling down clogged streets past storefronts and skyscrapers. The window was half open, drafts of warm air washing over us. Determined to make the most of our weekend and leave directly from work, we had packed the car the night before and changed into our travel clothes tank tops, sneakers and shorts in the men's room just before departing. I watched the city, stopping and going, slowly receding.
Eventually the traffic broke and we cleared the limits of Minneapolis. We passed suburban pit stops and sped past grassy fields and patches of trees.
I began reading poetry out loud. But the farther we drove, the more the monster in my gut scratched. My breathing tightened. I stopped reading. Brent said, "You look pale. Are you all right?"
"I'm OK," I grimaced.
"Are you nervous?"
"A little," I replied, "I feel strange."
He rested his hand on my shoulder. "You'll be fine."
I never should have gone.
After a few hours of driving we passed a tangle of intersections and ramps and overpasses, and beyond, nestled between the horizon and the highway, we saw endless blue gray waters, a slaty shoreline occupied by rust tinged warehouses, factories, elevators, mountains of broken rock, and barges docked at loading piers: Duluth. As we traversed the highway boundary, the city opened to us like a flower, to the left Victorian houses and church spires stacked on steep hillsides and ahead rows of waterfront shops and restaurants.
"Are you hungry?" Brent grinned.
I shook my head. "Let's keep driving."
After Duluth the flat, grassy landscape of central Minnesota gave way to rocky hills, cliffs and pine forest to the left and vast steely waters to the right. "Lake Superior is like an ocean," I said. Brent nodded. We passed tourist outlooks and cozy vacation towns filled with cars and trailers and buzzing with site-seers. Eventually, Brent took a left turn onto a narrow road climbing a steep hill into dense, unbroken forest. I turned back and watched Lake Superior retreat. Then we rounded the top of the hill, the lake disappeared and we were surrounded by trees.
Another turn and the car jerked a bit, the tires growled, and Brent slowed down as we hit dirt road. For an hour, the shadows of the trees lengthened, enveloping the landscape. A dust cloud trail spread behind us as the car tore onward. The sky turned angry red. And another hour of driving, and then suddenly another turn, and more lurching of the car and then we stopped at the edge of a narrow, muddy trail, dark and brush hedged, leading somewhere unknown through a gateway of birch and pine trees.
"We're here," announced Brent.
About a mile and a half down the trail was a clearing on top of a hill overlooking a small lake. On opposite edges of the clearing were two enormous stones, like nipples rising out of the earth, and another trail leading down from the clearing through the forest toward the lake. It took two trips and more than an hour to move our supplies and equipment to the clearing and set up our tent.
We had pulled on jeans and wind breakers and sprayed each other with Deet against the mosquitos, but they still buzzed around our faces and necks, mercilessly attacking when our hands were occupied, and always more to replace the ones we killed with impatient slaps. When Brent finally built a fire the blood-suckers retreated from the smoke.
We sat near the fire on a round log stripped of its bark. For a long time we kept silent, transfixed by the amber flames, absorbed in our individual worlds of thought. Occasionally we watched the stars, and, carried heavenward by a current of black smoke, the stream of crimson and gold sparks aspiring to starhood. Brent occasionally ventured into the shadows and brought back thick, dead branches or small logs to feed the fire. Each time he reemerged from the dark, I shivered as it clawed at me.
Brent said, "It's so peaceful. There is no judgment here. Just the earth, just life, embracing us, welcoming us into the cycle of birth and death and rebirth." He held his hand up in the light of the fire and laughed, "The blood that the mosquitos take from us feeds others: the spiders that eat the mosquitos, and the birds that eat the spiders, and the plants that grow out of the earth where the birds fall. Our blood makes the rounds here. So the great Mother is just welcoming us home with the kiss of the mosquitos." He laughed again.
He put an arm around me and pointed up. "Aren't the stars incredible?" he grinned, "You can see ten thousand times more of them here than you can in the cities. Isn't it spectacular?" For a moment I smiled at the thought of no judgment.
I huddled against Brent's chest, his arm around my shoulders, watching the stars and watching the fire flicker into scarlet embers and gray ash. Brent said, "Let's see if the two of us can get into the tent without letting in any mosquitos!"
The tent was small, just barely large enough for two men, our back packs and supply bags crowding us around the edges. We unzipped the flap and tumbled in and hurriedly zipped it closed behind us, and then, fumbling and bumping into each other in the dark, we undressed and crawled under our blankets.
Brent's voice was just next to my ear, "Sweet dreams," the last thing he said to me.
I thought it might have been a nightmare, in the dark, something like shiny tendrils entwining my legs, slowly wrapping around my thighs, twisting around my knees and calves; something reaching up, tightening around my torso, cutting my breath, grabbing at my elbows, my wrists, wrapping around my neck, and filling my lips with a bitter taste. And in my gut, the writhing crescendoed into convulsions. The thing was hatching out of me.
I heard a slithering and a rasping, and then a cry. Brent was shrieking. I heard him clattering, fumbling blindly through his stuff, his breathing rapid. Then a tearing noise and a click, and then the blinding beam of the flashlight. At first I saw only electric white glaring into my eyes. The light jerked frantically around the tent, taking stock. Brent and I were both wretching from a salty, putrid smell. I saw a dozen black tentacles, slimy with blood, growing out of me, out of gouges in my body, and a shiny black head with a hundred eyes, a sideways gnashing maw with jagged, steely teeth, and Brent scrambling back, his eyes wide with astonishment, snapping poles and knocking the tent over as he thrust himself away from me and the thing sprouting out of me.
The claws snatched him. It was stronger and larger than both of us. I was helpless, paralyzed as it grasped him with its tentacles and snipped him up. And when it was done, I shuddered violently as it shrank back and pulled itself inside of me. I watched myself close up like a utility blade with a dozen knives, and the sliding and writhing inside of me receded and for a moment there was just breathless quiet, inside and out.
I fled from the tent where Brent's blood-soaked remains lay, lit by the dying flashlight. I stumbled down the hill, scratched by branches along the narrow path, until I reached the lake. I waded into the muddy, shallow water through reeds and water lilies, and tried to wash off the blood. Then I took Brent's car and drove away.
It was strange how I could just go back to my life in Minneapolis as if nothing had happened, how my old routines resumed with cold, nightmarish regularity. I was haunted by memories of Brent's face filled with terror and betrayal, and the dreadful, helpless way he flailed as it grasped him. I considered suicide, the only kind of justice I might find the courage to face. He and I might have been lovers but for this thing inside of me.
There were questions about what had happened to Brent. There were phone calls, police visits. My co-workers told the police, "He's the hardest hit by all this. Brent was his best friend." All I could tell them was, "I haven't seen him since our July Fourth trip to the north shore."
My co-workers told each other, "It's so sad . . . He lost his best friend." And that was explanation enough to them why I grew silent and withdrew, why I became edgy if anyone came physically near me, why I never went out, never accepted invitations, never had anyone over.
One of my co-workers, Chris, who'd always been decent to me, said one day, "You need to move on. You need to make friends again."
As I turned toward her I could feel the blood pounding in my head, the muscles in my arms tensing, and my breath shortening. I said, "I have moved on. I don't want friends." That was the last time Chris spoke to me. No one else talks to me any more either.
I cannot sleep without nightmares about Brent. In my dreams I am speeding down abandoned roads, from the skyline of Minneapolis across the plains, past Duluth, past the Great Lake into the heart of the forest, down a dark, overgrown path into a clearing between two outcroppings of stone like nipples of the earth, and a small lake below. I find the tent torn open and flattened like a broken pustule, and what is left of Brent, green and black, rotting into the breast of Mother Earth, buzzing with insect life, his bloodstained bones bleaching in the open air. I wake in a fright, wondering when someone will find it, knowing that soon the doorbell will ring and the police will come to take me away.
The monster grinds and pullulates inside me, spitting out poison. My routines and my solitude are all that keep it in. In my dreams it wakes and murders whomever I touch.