Black Petals Issue #90 Winter, 2020

The Soul Destroyer
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The Return of the Ferryman-Serialized Fiction by Roy Dorman
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The Sea-Poem by Jason Rice

90_bp_souldestroyerafknott.jpg
Art by A. F. Knott 2019

The Soul Destroyer

 

By James Flynn

Parasiti-chology?

 

 

The car pulled up at the curb in the middle of the sleepy, residential street, then came to a gentle stop. On each side of the road, amid the neat rows of trees trailing off into the distance in either direction, brown semidetached houses sat behind their well-tended gardens and tidy driveways. When the driver’s door opened a stout, suited man climbed out, his neatly-combed head turning left and right as he looked for a door number. Once he found what he was looking for, he straightened his tie and proceeded to walk up one of the gravel driveways, his polished shoes crunching the small stones as he went.

Inspector Griffin was the Chief Inspector at HCQ, the organisation responsible for investigating hospitals and mental institutions across the UK. His visit to this leafy, suburban street was regarding an ongoing investigation at Bryson Psychiatric Hospital, a secure facility for the mentally ill situated out in the Kentish countryside. It’d been a very bad few months for the hospital, what with an unusually large amount of staff members either leaving or being struck off sick. A wave of resignations and sicknesses of this size and magnitude was virtually unheard of, and so it soon prompted an investigation.

The address he’d just arrived at belonged to a nurse who was currently on sick leave from Bryson Hospital due to severe stress and anxiety, and according to the latest reports her condition wasn’t getting any better. Her situation was beginning to become a very common one for nurses working at this particular facility. Just a few days ago, Griffin had visited the home of another nurse who’d swallowed a bottle of painkillers in an attempt to end her own life. She’d been in a catatonic state when he’d arrived, her family attending to her needs and feeding her, and so his efforts to get some useful information from her had been futile. He’d sat there in that house for over an hour, listening to the woman’s distraught husband describe her strange behaviour while she herself sat in the corner staring out of the window, her glazed, unblinking eyes filled with a haunted look that Griffin could still see now in his mind’s eye. He’d listened as her relatives described in detail the wails and cries that came out of her room at night, as well as informing him that they now had to keep all sharp objects and harmful medicines hidden from her at all times. After making some notes and thanking the family for their time, he’d left the house with a deep-set belief that the nurse was never going to return to work again.

Despite the peculiar nature of this recent spate of absences and resignations, its actual cause wasn’t a complete mystery. Griffin knew the basic reason why the staff members were leaving and falling ill, but at the same time he just couldn’t quite believe it. Several senior nurses and lower-level managers were being very bold and forthright about their opinions and theories, but neither Griffin nor his seniors at HCQ could take them seriously. Most of them were claiming that employees were leaving due to a new patient who’d been admitted to the hospital five months ago, and that a brief look into his eyes was all it took for one to lose their mind.

Griffin found all of this ridiculous, but at the same time had to acknowledge that this new patient was indeed a unique case. The man was a biologist, specialising in parasitology, with a distinguished career; he was Cambridge educated, had several scientific articles in well-respected journals published under his name, a list of degrees and accolades as long as his arm, and a legacy within the scientific community that even Charles Darwin or Isaac Newton would have been proud of. Griffin doubted that any mental institution in the land had ever had anyone of such status under their roof, and his sectioning was indeed an enigma.

The biologist, known to all as Professor Avery, was sectioned under the mental health act following a state-funded work expedition in the tropics of South America. Griffin had personally gone through his hospital file with a fine-toothed comb, reading everything he could about him. Details of the expedition were fortunately made available for him to read, and he’d scoured them obsessively, trying to gain some kind of clue as to what had happened. According to the files, Professor Avery had travelled to a jungle region of Panama to study a certain type of parasitic nematode. A small team of coworkers and biology students had flown out there with him to assist him in the process of recording data, but Avery had been the main figurehead of the project.

It became apparent after reading the file that the professor had seen something out there that had made him lose his grip on reality. Officers from a tiny local constabulary out in a Central American village were called when locals reported a foreign man behaving erratically and attacking several residents, and additional charges were put forward after the professor made violent advances towards officers in the station. Photographs of bite marks on one officer’s arm were attached to the report for Griffin to see, as was the bruising to one officer’s face who had to open Avery’s cell door when he attempted to hang himself with his own belt. UK officials had been called in to assist with Avery’s deportation, and several more violent outbursts had been recorded during the process.

Since his arrival at Bryson Hospital, however, Avery had slipped into a prolonged bout of silence and withdrawal, with not one single word being heard from him during the five months of his incarceration. He refused to eat, drink or communicate with anyone; despite the adoption of this antisocial behaviour there had been no reports of abusive or threatening behaviour of any kind, no cases of injuries sustained to any of the nurses who tended to him. On paper the professor was a harmless patient, a physical threat to no one, but his presence within the hospital was still dangerous somehow. Trauma and torment seemed to ooze from his every pore, and those who had gazed into his deep-set, wizened eyes claimed to have felt his pain on a kind of telepathic level. And, as if this wasn’t strange enough, these claims went even further. One nurse, in particular, the second one to resign after the professor’s arrival, claimed to have seen a mental image after making eye contact with him, as though some kind of grainy picture had been transferred across to her through his stare.

Indeed, it was this atmosphere that Avery had created within the facility that was supposedly responsible for the numerous resignations and absences, this profound effect that he had on those in his close vicinity. Griffin had not yet been granted permission to see Professor Avery in person due to this risk of health, but apparently, according to certain rumours, his face was now permanently covered up to prevent any more incidents of this nature. Descriptions of some kind of bag had been spoken of unofficially, a kind of thin veil secured around his head and neck to protect nurses from his dangerous stare. In addition to this the professor was on constant suicide watch, the small metal hatch on his cell door left open to allow the wardens a clear view of his movements and actions.

Putting aside the brief, violent outbursts in Central America surrounding his arrest, Professor Avery didn’t seem to want to do anyone any harm; his suicidal tendencies were simply contagious to those around him, whether he wanted them to be or not, and it was for this reason that he was considered very dangerous.

 

Griffin approached the front door of the suburban house, then rang the bell. After a few moments a blurred figure appeared behind the stained glass, then a polite, unassuming man opened the door and welcomed him in.

“She’s upstairs,” said the man, who was obviously the nurse’s husband. “Do you want to go up and see her?”

“Yes, please,” said Griffin, before following him up a dim, carpeted staircase.

“I’m not sure how much you’ll be able to get out of her. She’s been very quiet today.”

“What has she told you?” whispered Griffin, lowering his voice as the two of them reached the upper landing.

“Very little. She’s hardly spoken to me at all since it all happened. In fact, she speaks more in her sleep than she does during her waking hours.” The man paused for a second, rubbing the bags under his eyes. “There are noises in the early hours of the morning: screams, yells, swearing. She sleeps in the spare room now. It’s...It’s better that way.”

“She has nightmares?”

“Every night.”

“Do you know what they’re about?”

“Every time I try to speak to her, she switches off.”

Griffin noticed a faint quiver in his voice, a light trembling, and decided not to press him any further. The distress of it all was evident on his face; the screams and sleepless nights had etched lines around his brow and temple.

“Where’s the...spare room?”

“It’s over there,” he said, nodding his head towards the end of the hallway.

“Thank you.”

The woman’s husband forced a smile, then skulked back towards the staircase. As soon as he was out of sight Griffin put his ear to the bedroom door and listened closely for any sounds. Hearing none, he then knocked on it a couple of times. The room sounded echoey from the other side, his knocks ringing through the air for longer than they should have. Out of politeness and courtesy he waited a long time for a reply, but, hearing none, eventually turned the handle and let himself in.

 

The room was bare and empty, with just a single bed and a chair in the corner. The curtains were half-drawn, casting a faint grey light over everything, and the air was still. A woman was lying on the bed, her head propped up with two pillows and her body covered with a thin bedsheet. She didn’t move or stir when Griffin entered the room, nor was there any noticeable change in her blank expression. He almost felt alone as he walked in and stood by the end of the bed, like he was in a room with a mannequin or a waxwork model in a museum. Eventually, after several polite attempts to communicate with her, he quietly sat himself down on the chair in the corner, watching her the whole time.

Her face was so pale that it blended and merged with the pillow, her bloodshot eyes the only thing with any real colour to them. She was floating somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, awake and not awake, lost in her own lonely realm. In fact, she was so utterly unresponsive to Griffin’s presence that he wondered, for a brief second, whether she might have passed away without her husband knowing. This suspicion didn’t last too long, however, because upon close inspection he could see that a slight tremor ran through her body at regular intervals, a kind of shudder that shook her torso and made the bedframe creak. It was so minute and subtle that it could’ve easily been missed, but now that he was close to her he could see it.

“What happened to you? What made you ill?” he whispered into her ear.

There was no response to these words, no flicker or flinch in her countenance.

“Did Professor Avery do this to you?”

The faint creaking of the bed frame was still the only sound in the room, but even so, Griffin detected some kind of shift after he’d mentioned the professor’s name, some alteration deep within her.

“Did you...interact with him in any way?”

Now there was noticeable movement, so noticeable that it made Griffin jump. The nurse’s breathing became heavier and audible, her chest rising and falling under the sweaty sheets. He was sure that she could hear him now, sure that he wasn’t just talking to himself. It was the mention of the professor’s name that had initially gotten through to her, so he deliberately mentioned it again in an effort to open her up some more.

“Did you...look at Professor Avery?”

A pinprick of light glistened from somewhere in the pale folds of her face, and Griffin realised, with tense surprise, that it was a tear in the corner of her eye. The grey light seeping in through the curtains was just bright enough to reflect against it, exposing some inner emotion the nurse was evidently experiencing. She was about to crack, and Griffin moved in closer.

“Speak to me. Nobody can help you unless you speak to them.”

Her thin lips began to tremble and blubber, and with a weak cry she said, “There...There’s no helping this.”

“There’s no helping what?”

Her face was screwed up in pain now, and she turned her head towards the window.

“What did he do to you?”

“He didn’t...didn’t do anything,” she sobbed, “just...made me see.”

“See what?”

The tears were rolling down her cheeks now, and she brought one of her hands up from under the covers to wipe them. As she did so, a pungent odour wafted out across the room, hitting home the fact that she hadn’t washed or left the bed in days. Her torment was detectable in every aspect of her being; when she spoke, it was like she was speaking from the depths of a deep cave within her mind, a cave that she’d carved out for herself to escape whatever was haunting her.

“I...I won’t talk about it! I won’t! It’s...just too horrible!”

“How did he make you see? How did he do it?”

The tears and chokes were coming on strong now, too strong for the woman to answer coherently, but Griffin wasn’t going to give up.

“Did you look into his eyes?”

In between the heaving sobs and shudders, the nurse managed to nod her head in confirmation.

“And then what? What happened when you looked into his eyes?”

“They...They were just so full of...misery. The...The way he looked at me...sucking me into those two black pits!”

“And what did you see? Tell me what you saw!”

The nurse was now hysterical. Her sobs had turned into high-pitched wails and cries, echoing around the bare, empty room and shaking the walls. The door burst open unexpectedly, and the woman’s husband leaned in with a stern look about him.

“I think that’s enough,” he said. “She’s not well enough for this.”

With the nurse shaking and hollering next to him as she was, Griffin couldn’t protest. He rose from the small chair and made his way out, leaving the husband to tend to her. Outside, standing by his car next to the road, he could still hear the woman’s screams.

 

Visiting the two nurses had unsettled Griffin. He’d still been very skeptical after seeing the first one, despite her chronic state, but after seeing both of them and witnessing their compounded trauma and distress firsthand, he was left with no choice but to at least consider the farfetched theory that the professor was somehow contaminating people with his thoughts. Whether there was a supernatural element to any of it, he couldn’t be sure, but there was certainly no denying the fact that the two employees had seen something whilst in his presence—something that’d destroyed their souls and made them lose the will to live.

He knew what had to be done next. It was an inevitable, unavoidable task that simply had to be endured if he was to get to the bottom of this case: he was going to have to visit the hospital and meet Professor Avery in person. The senior staff at Bryson Hospital had not been allowing any visits to the professor for quite some time now, not even to HCQ inspectors, but with enough persistence on Griffin’s part, combined with a firm letter from the Chief Executive, he knew that they would have to eventually give in. Sitting in his home study, in front of his thick wooden desk piled high with folders, Griffin resolved to get this process in motion today. First though, before he could even begin to prepare himself for the daunting, intimidating prospect of meeting Professor Avery in the flesh, he wanted to go through his file one more time.

He had a decent amount of information at his disposal, a large stack of papers about an inch thick. The sequence of events that’d happened during the professor’s expedition were already known to him, almost committed to memory, but Griffin wanted to learn a bit more about the actual parasite that Avery was studying at the time. Flicking through the assortment of papers, he found the typed-up notes that the professor had made prior to, and during, his expedition.

He read slowly and carefully, taking his time, eager to learn more about this bizarre creature.

 

Classification: Parasitic nematode/roundworm.

Habitat: Tropical forests of Central America/South America.

Known hosts: Cephalotes Atratus Ant. Bananaquit bird. Tryant flycatcher bird.

Life cycle: The host ant, Cephalotes Atratus, gets infected by the nematode after eating the infected fecal matter of either the Bananaquit bird or the Tryant flycatcher bird. Once infected the ant falls prey to the parasite, displaying a sluggishness and change in behaviour. As well as this, the ant also undergoes a physical change. Its abdomen (usually black in colour) will swell up in size (due to being filled with nematode eggs) and take on a bright shade of red; then, after this transformation of its body is complete, the ant will feel compelled to climb up a long blade of grass in the near vicinity and stick its red swollen abdomen up in the air. To passing birds (namely the Bananaquit and Tyrant) the ant’s swollen abdomen will strongly resemble a ripe berry, tempting the bird to swoop down and consume it. Once the bird has been tricked into eating this infected section of the ant’s body, the eggs will pass through its body and get excreted out, therefore spreading the eggs out into further ant colonies.

 

Griffin slapped the papers back down on his desk, then ran a hand through his hair. He was at a loss at what to make of this. This parasite, or nematode, or whatever it was, sounded vile, but he still couldn’t imagine how or why someone would go insane after seeing it. The professor had completely lost it out there in the Central American tropics, running around attacking people like a wild man, and although the details of this ant-infecting parasite were ghastly, they just couldn’t account for such dramatic behaviour.

Pulling out his phone, he scrolled down until he found the Chief Executive’s number. He knew that he would have to get the professor to open up to him if he was to solve this riddle, but before that could happen the Chief Executive would have to persuade Bryson Hospital to allow a visit.

 

The psychiatric facility had a cold, austere look to it, the iron gates and brown brickwork completely unwelcoming and featureless. There was an uncanny stillness to the air, and, as he parked, Griffin looked up at the rows of reinforced glass windows, wondering whether the atmosphere was any better inside. The receptionist told him to sit down and wait for a senior nurse who’d escort him through the building, and he did so without complaint.

The senior nurse was a petite woman with mousy hair and a familiar-sounding voice. Griffin had never met her before, but was sure that he’d spoken to her over the phone at some point. She was accompanied by a heavyset man who wore a similar white uniform to hers, and after a brief exchange the three of them swiped through a set of security doors and made their way down towards the maximum security wing.

“The professor’s been transferred to maximum security following the recent problems,” said the nurse, as they walked down a sterile-looking white corridor with cells on either side. “He’s not displayed any violent behaviour, but...well, he’s proven himself to be a threat in his own way.”

“So I’ve heard,” replied Griffin.

“We’ve also taken the precaution of covering up his face. This may seem a little unnecessary, but we think it’s a sensible move.”

“So it’s true then?”

“I’m sorry?”

“It’s true that you’re covering up his face?”

“Inspector Griffin, we had to do something. Several staff members have fallen ill after looking—”

“I know, I know,” said Griffin, interjecting politely so she didn’t have to go through all of the grizzly details, “I just wasn’t sure whether it was true. There’s no mention of it in the report.

“It’s a spit hood,” she said, candidly. “It’s a thin mesh spit hood. It doesn’t cause him any discomfort of any kind, other than maybe restricting his vision a little bit.”

“Has he been cooperative with this decision?”

“Yes, he certainly has. He hasn’t protested about anything since he’s been here.”

Griffin nodded, thoughtfully. “And he’s still not speaking to anyone?”

“No. You don’t get a single word out of him all day. He’s been here for five months now, and I don’t even know what he sounds like.”

“So, have people tried speaking to him?”

“We did when he first arrived, but...” The woman’s voice trailed off for a second. “...but not anymore.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence, an uneasiness lingering between them as they descended farther into the building.

 

It took about five minutes to reach the professor’s cell. Griffin knew that he’d arrived before being told, the open hatch on the metal door being the main giveaway. There were two other beefy-looking male nurses outside the cell, one crouching down to look through the hatch. The men had obviously been informed of Griffin’s visit, because they prepared themselves to open the door without being told, one fumbling for a key on his hip, the other searching for a set of restraints in his pocket. Once everything was in place and the key was being inserted into the lock, the senior nurse turned towards Griffin with a serious look in her eye.

“Don’t get too close to him. As I said, he’s not known to be violent, but you’ve seen the damage he can do to people.”

“Yes,” said Griffin, trying his best to cover up his shaking hands.

Sensing his nervousness, she added, “We’ll be right here the whole time,” before dutifully giving a nod to the big nurse with the key.

The lock snapped open, the door opened wide, and Griffin, sweating under his shirt collar, took a few deep breaths and then entered.

 

The cell was a stark contrast to the corridor outside. It was dim and stale, with just a single overhead bulb for light. A dark mound sat slumped in the corner, shrouded in shadow, and Griffin stood there for a few long moments watching it, paralysed with tension and fear. The professor looked thin and frail under the hospital gowns, his delicate frame barely visible under the baggy folds. His head was no different, of course, the mesh hood concealing everything from the neck up. It was unclear whether the professor actually knew he was there or not, as there’d been no movement from him at all. The mesh spit hood sat over his head like a starched pillowcase, giving absolutely nothing away, its stiff creases concealing its contents.

The silence in the cell was so all-encompassing, so total and complete, that it felt wrong for Griffin to break it, but he had to start somewhere.

‘Professor Avery?’ he said, squinting into the shadows.

The words came out as a croaky whisper, and he had to clear his throat before he went on.

“I’m Inspector Griffin, Chief Inspector at HCQ. May I speak to you?”

He received nothing by way of reply. Complete silence resumed, broken only by the faint sound of distant shouting from somewhere down the corridor outside.

“Do you mind if I sit down?”

There was no response, but at the same time there was no objection either, so he sat down and leaned back against the opposite wall. There was still a safe distance of about seven feet between them, but Griffin was now close enough to see the professor more clearly, the shapes and contours of his form coming into focus. The thin veil of the hood did its job of hiding the professor’s face, but rather worryingly, didn’t obscure it completely. Bony, chiseled features were discernible through its thin material, and Griffin had to make a constant conscientious effort not to stare at them for too long. The dim outlines and crevices enshrouded within the hood were so starved and gaunt in their appearance that they resembled a skull rather than a living human head, the bridge of the nose and cheek bones protruding through pale skin.

“Will you talk to me, Professor?”

Again, there was not so much as a flicker of response.

“What happened to you, Professor? What did you see out in the tropics?”

It was hard to believe that this introverted, crumpled figure opposite him was the same man that Griffin had read about. The numerous mentions of exemplary conduct rose up to the forefront of his mind, graduation photographs accompanied by pages of accolades, acclaimed published scientific articles, too many degree certificates to count, and it all came from this mute, incarcerated mess sitting before him, this absolute wreck of a human being. His fear was rapidly turning into sympathy the longer he sat opposite Avery, but at the same time, the memory of the two sick nurses he’d seen forced him to keep his guard up.

“I want to understand what happened to you. I’m not here to judge you on anything. Why don’t you talk to me?”

Another bout of silence tested Griffin’s patience even further, but he wasn’t done yet.

“I’ve read a lot about your career, Professor. There are many people out there who have much praise for you.”

For a split second Griffin thought he saw movement in the professor’s hands, a slight tremble running all the way down to the fingernails that’d been chewed to stumps. It could’ve just been a trick of the light, however, because nothing else followed it. Five minutes passed by, then ten, with Griffin trying his hardest to break through the thick wall that the professor had built around himself, but it was to no avail. Reaching his limit of patience and perseverance, he made a few loose notes for the disappointing report he would have to produce at some point later in the day, then slowly rose to his feet. Turning to the professor one last time, he looked down at him with genuine sorrow and pity.

“Nobody can help you unless you talk to them, Avery. Just think about that.”

With a deep, heartfelt sigh, he finally walked away from the cloaked figure on the ground, making his way back over towards the cell door. With all hopes of solving the mystery dwindled away to nothing, he raised his hand up to give the steel door a couple of knocks. The knocks never came, however, because just as he was raising his hand, curling it into a fist, the most pained voice he’d ever heard in his life rose up from somewhere behind him.

“He...He was still alive when I found him.”

It was so unexpected that for a few seconds he thought he must’ve been hearing things. Slowly and methodically, he turned back around, staring wide-eyed at the lonesome figure on the floor.

“What?” he whispered. “What did you say?”

There was definitely movement down there now, a thin trembling inside the hospital gowns, just strong enough to make out through the murky dinge.

“He...He was...He was still alive.”

The voice went straight through Griffin, straight through to his core. Everything about its pitch and tone was laced with hurt, loaded and oozing with pain. Retracing his steps, he walked back along the middle of the cell, back to where he was previously sitting.

“Who was still alive? Who are you talking about?” he asked, planting himself back down on the dusty ground.

Two dark sockets stared out at him from the depths of the hood, two smudges as black as coal, but something had shifted in them now, some spark of life had been ignited.

“You...You want to know what happened?”

“Yes! Yes, I do! Tell me, Professor.”

“No. No, you don’t. Y...You—”

“I want to know what happened, Professor, and I want to help you. So tell me.”

A considerable amount of time passed before the professor spoke again. Shakes and tremors were still visible under the gowns, and the faint outline of his delicate jaw jutted up and down as though he was searching for some lost reservoir of strength that might’ve existed within him. He must’ve found some somewhere, because the words eventually came; they were strained and agonising to listen to, but they came.

“I...I was in a village one day during my expedition, out in Central America. It was a tiny little place, no more than a few dozen huts...”

It felt so strange for Griffin to sit there and hear Professor Avery speak. His voice sounded as withered and hollow as his body looked—inhuman, almost. He remained as silent as a mouse as he listened to it, however, not wanting to disrupt the flow.

“The heat...it was so intense that day, and we’d been out in it for hours. We had a guide, my...my team and I. He was an indigenous man local to the area, and he...he’d arranged a place for us to stay. We were all sweating and...and dehydrated, so none of us protested when we got to the village in the afternoon with a view to settling down early for the day. We all had notes to write up anyway, so we saw it as an opportunity to catch up with some work and recuperate.”

There was a lengthy pause from the professor. His pale, gaunt visage hung down towards the cell floor in deep contemplation. Griffin was still completely silent, making only rough notes here and there.

“It was a beautiful place, in its...own way. These huts sat along the edge of a warm river, wild palm trees and long grass as far as the eye could see. The natives were so hos...hospitable....so...so welcoming.”

The mention of the natives’ hospitality caused the professor’s voice to falter even more, and Griffin sensed a touch of shame in there as well.

“Th...They cooked food for us, prepared a big meal. It...It should’ve been a delightful evening, but...but there was something bothering the villagers, some kind of bad atmosphere. We all noticed it, and I...I eventually ended up asking the guide what was wrong. We were starting to get paranoid. We...We began to wonder whether it was something we’d done.”

It was hard for Griffin to tell whether the professor was actually looking at him, or whether he’d even looked at him at all since he’d entered the room. The hood sat over his head like a baggy fly net, continually reducing his features to a vague blur.

Realising that he’d fallen silent again, Griffin gently coaxed him on. “And what was it? What was wrong?”

“It turned out that...that the problem wasn’t anything to do with us. A child h...had gone missing from the village, and they were worrying over him. He’d disappeared the evening before, and...”

“And what?” whispered Griffin, as the professor drifted off into yet another bout of silence.

“And...nobody had seen him since.”

“And then what? What happened next?”

“After dinner we...all retired for the night. It was still early, probably about seven o’ clock, and it was still light, but we all went back to our little shacks that they’d...kindly prepared for us. It felt so good to lie down. I...I didn’t have much of a bed in there, but to me, at...that moment, it was like a luxury hotel. My legs were aching from days of trekking through the jungle; j...just resting there on the thin bed was bliss. I eventually began sorting out some notes I’d made over the previous few days. I was just lying there, putting everything in order.”

“Notes about the parasite, you mean?”

“Yes. That...That thing.”

The professor’s twig-like fingers clutched at his knees at the mention of the parasite, as though he was speaking about something that went beyond evil.

“And then what?”

“I was busy organising my notes, and then...then this...this noise drifted in from outside. At first I thought it was an animal, a...a bird, maybe. It was like a…high-pitched wailing coming from somewhere out in the trees, a whining sound in the distance that drifted in through the open window of my hut. I seemed to be the only one who could hear it. I...I eventually got up and had a look outside, and...there was nothing there, nobody else around. B...But still, this horrible noise went on and on, and I...just had to find out what it was. It seemed to be coming from...the river, so I headed in that direction, following my ear. The evening was just beginning to close in by this point, and the sky was shifting into a deep, deep amber. I still had plenty of light, but...I also knew that I had to move briskly, nonetheless. After pushing through the long grass for a while I could see the river appearing up ahead of me, the gentle waves reflecting through the foliage. The...The screaming had also grown more acute, and...I could tell by this point that it was coming from somewhere up in the trees. F...Following this sickly noise, I...ended up at the base of a dead tree by the river embankment, a flaking old thing with not a single leaf on it. The faint squeals were...were coming from somewhere up in this tree, and now that I was close, I could...I could tell that they were...”

“They were what?”

“They were...human.”

Griffin’s handwriting was becoming messy as he continued to jot down his notes, his fingers shaky and out of his control. “What happened next?” he said, after scrawling down the last word.

“T...There was a shape in the tree up above me—a round silhouette set against the amber sky. I stared at it for some time, knowing deep down what it was but...not wanting to believe it. It was a child! No more than...six or seven years old! He was up there in this tree...c...clinging on to one of the dead branches about thirty feet up, wailing and...wailing. His pudgy little arms and legs were wrapped around this branch and it was...dangling over the river! I...I have no idea how he managed to get up there, but...but there he was, as naked as the day he was born, screaming and yelling up into the dimming sky. I thought about calling for help, but...but I couldn’t risk startling him and making him fall. Instead I...silently began climbing up the tree myself, grabbing on to the flakes of dry bark and hauling myself up. It took me five minutes or so to get up there, but...I did, and...”

“And what did you see?” Griffin whispered, watching the blurred, shadowy recesses of the professor’s countenance as he relived his story.

“And...it was the strangest thing. T...There was no movement coming from him at all. The screams continued to come...in abundance, but...but his body was rigid. He was as still as a statue up there! Like a screaming statue! And...And there were flies on him! Dozens and dozens of flies! They were buzzing and crawling all over his little body! Buzzing all over him as he...clung onto this flaking branch!”

The professor was moving now, moving more than he had since Griffin had entered the cell. His thin arms were wrapped around his knees, hugging them tightly, and he began to rock backwards and forwards in erratic jolts, like a trauma victim pulled away from the scene of a fresh accident. His gasps and sobs shook the stiff folds of the spit hood, giving it the appearance of a deflated balloon caught in the wind.

“I...I had to get closer to him. I had to do something! Up until this point I...I’d only seen him from behind. I was looking up at him from some lower branches, look...looking up towards the back of his neck and head. The...The branches were getting thinner the higher I climbed, but...but I had to get up there. I...I almost fell into the river at one point, standing on a dry branch that snapped as soon as I put my foot on it, but...but I carried on. Wh...When I finally got up to his level I was...clinging on for dear life! The river glistened and splashed underneath me. It was...so far down.”

“What had happened to the boy, Professor?”

The hood bobbed and shook in time with the professor’s tremors; he was hugging himself tighter and tighter, rocking. With a strained voice, he continued, “It was like...an invisible force was holding him in place up there, gluing his body in this rigid fashion. He...He was screaming but wasn’t moving, not even his face. And...And it was then that I saw them! H...His eyes! Oh, God, his eyes! They were open wide, looking up towards the distant clouds overhead, but...they were...”

“They were what?”

“They...They were hideous! Big, red and bulbous! His face and eyes were...it was a scene from a nightmare! W...Worse than anything anyone could imagine! I...I was close at this point, high up in the tree, and...I could see it all. S...Something was going on under the surface of his eyes. S...Something was writhing and...wr...wriggling!”

“Wriggling?”

“Eggs! Eggs and larvae! They were crawling around in his eyes! H...Hundreds of them! Th...They were moving around in there! Swimming and...moving around!”

Griffin suddenly felt nauseous. A sickness rose up in his gut, a sickness so intense that he had to put down his notepad and pen so that he could lay a hand over his stomach.

“You’re not honestly saying that the parasite...”

“The parasite was in him! It’d infected him! I...I still have no idea how it could’ve happened. M...Maybe he drank some infected water somewhere, or...or ate some bird droppings from the ground, I don’t know, but...but the point is that somehow that thing managed to get inside him and use him as a vehicle. It swelled his eyes and made them bulbous, turning his once-white sclera bright red—as red as...as red as...berries.

Griffin was silent. He felt giddy, and the room seemed to tilt and turn around him.

“But...But the worst part of it all was...that there was still life in those young eyes! There was still a person looking out of them! And...And as I hung there, holding onto the thin branches of that dead tree, he suddenly...he suddenly turned those red eyes towards me! He was looking at me! Oh, God, he was looking at me with those eyes! He...He could see me there next to him, but...but he couldn’t move from his branch. His stubby arms and legs were glued in place, stiff as boards...he was...trapped inside his little body. That moment when...that moment when I caught his gaze...when our eyes met, it was just....His pupils were like...tiny black islands in seas of red larvae...moving, bubbling, writhing red seas. He was...fully conscious in there, looking out at me through this hive of eggs! I kept telling myself that it couldn’t be real, but...but there it was! Right in front of me! And...And then...’

Avery slipped into another bout of silence, another pause, but Griffin couldn’t bring himself to urge him on any further, as his own voice was now reduced to a mere croak. He could do little more than wait and watch the professor, unconsciously bringing his own knees up to his chest as if mirroring his pose.

“...then there was a flash of movement, a...a flurry of wings and feathers.”

“Oh, no,” mumbled Griffin, only to himself.

“When...that bird came down and plucked at him he was looking right at me! That eye was looking at me as it was pecked open, the beak sinking straight into the soft jelly, sending eggs dribbling down his cheek. It...It was...”

There was some kind of eruption within the professor’s hood, some kind of gurgling explosion. Suddenly, in less than a second, the thin mesh was sprayed from the inside with a rush of vomit, the hot liquid collecting into a pool as the professor hung his head over his knees. Two scrawny hands reached up and took hold of the dripping fabric, clutching it like talons. With a quick sharp tug, a reflex action, the professor ripped the wet hood from over his bony head, bile dangling from its folds. His sunken features were now completely visible and exposed, the yellow light of the overhead bulb illuminating his scalp and chiseled temples.

By the time Griffin realised he was looking into the professor’s uncovered eyes, it was too late. When the hood came off, he’d been unable to look away, to divert his gaze. Like a motorist driving past the scene of a nasty accident and turning his head to take a look, he’d feasted his eyes on the spectacle before him, gorging greedily on its horrors. With the veil gone the professor’s face emanated something that could be felt but not described, an icy coldness that put an invisible hook in you. Up until this point the horrid description of what the professor had seen in the tropics had been confined to the medium of words, limiting the extent to which Griffin could visualise it and understand it, but now, with that face, that expression, right there in front of him in the cell, he could somehow see what the professor had been describing, as though the very image itself was carved into the contours of his skin.

He felt himself slipping, falling, and descending down into a hole. He was sinking down under an incredible weight, the weight of the image that’d just been transferred to him, the image that no human should be forced to endure, and he had to fight against it to keep himself above ground. Fists thrashing and lashing at the air, he struck out at this evil presence consuming him, fighting back against the horrific vision pushing him down. At first his hands and feet made no contact with anything, his punches and kicks stabbing at empty space, but then his blows began to land on targets, his knuckles striking the tall forms that’d gathered around him in a circle. Lashing out with frenzied fervour, he pounded away at these big white apparitions, attacking with all his might. With this vivid picture glowing and shining in front of him, haunting him with its detail, he was fighting for his life to get away from it, fighting for his very sanity, putting all of his strength into every punch and blow.

But then a tiny stabbing sensation put an end to his struggle, a single pinprick to his neck that penetrated the softness of his skin. He wasn’t sinking anymore, but was being lifted up, higher and higher, by these mysterious towering white forms, their strong arms carrying his limp body away from the dust and grime of the cell floor.

 

The room was dim, silent, and grey. Griffin didn’t know where he was, but couldn’t afford to try and work it out either. There was a dull ache stretching across his body, throbbing away in his back, but this too could be granted no attention. Neither could the fact that his old clothes were gone, replaced with a thin baggy gown that covered his trembling body like a crumpled tent. There was only one thing that he could concentrate on now, that he could afford to exert his energy into: pushing the image out of his mind. It wanted dearly to enter his psyche, and its determination was relentless. Every ounce of his strength, every fiber of his being, went into the task of keeping this horrific picture away, and diverting his attention away from it for as long as possible.

He’d been like this for hours, pushing it back and trying his best to look away from it. He was like a cornered mouse in his own mind, trapped, trying desperately to fend off the menacing claws of a hungry cat. He felt as though he was fighting a losing battle, but his survival instinct wouldn’t let him give up. But for how long can I actually keep this up? he wondered, as he sat on the floor of this strange new room, his head aching from the constant strain. And he had seen it after all, hadn’t he? He’d seen the image projected from the professor’s eyes, so wasn’t it already lodged deep in his brain, too firmly embedded in his synapses to erase? Surely it was, and he was now stuck with it for the rest of his days, stuck with it shouting for his attention night and day with its sadistic intent.

Yes, Griffin concluded. How could he possibly keep this up? The image, the picture, wanted him too much; its desire and hunger was simply too great. With a torturous cry, reaching his personal limit, Griffin finally cracked and buckled under the immense mental pressure bearing down upon him, letting the sickly, haunting image invade his senses and consume him, swallowing him whole. And, just like that, as he gave in to it, as he gave up the fight, all of the tension and struggling vanished. Leaning back against the hard concrete wall of this room he found himself in, his body slumped and his face sagged at the edges. Now that he’d succumbed to the image, letting himself get eaten and swallowed by it, all of his energy and life force drained away into nothingness. His past life, everything that he had ever wanted, everything that he formerly yearned for or lusted after, suddenly seemed pointless and trivial, nothing more than childish dreams. The image now hung like a curtain across his vision, a permanent backdrop against all that he saw, reducing everything else to monotony. The echoey sounds from out in the corridor sank away into tiny whispers, the stale smell of the room lost its edge, and the pain running down his back grew less acute. And then, once everything outside of the image was reduced to a mere sliver in his peripheral vision, a mere speck in his awareness, his eyes glazed over and his head bowed towards the floor in defeat.

 

The End

 

James Flynn, egorone@msn.com, who wrote BP #90’s “The Soul Destroyer,” is a self-published author, relatively unknown in the literary world, age 37, originally from England, and now living in Vietnam, where he works as an ESL teacher.

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