Black Petals Issue #98 Winter, 2022

David Starobin: Bug

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Regards to Buzzards-Poem by Meg Smith
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98_bp_bug_hlyon.jpg
Art by Hillary Lyon 2022

BUG


by David Starobin

 

 

          It was looking intently at him. He could almost see into the hexagonal soccer ball facets of its compound eyes. Certainly, he could make out the shape of its body. Broad and flat and reddish brown and no thicker than a razor blade. Because it hadn’t fed yet. It was waiting for him to fall asleep. He tried to get his nails in there, into that little fissure in the wood, to pull it out and squish it so that it couldn’t get him and make babies that would infest his mattress. Because if that happened, he would be utterly at their mercy. But the little bastard knew his intent and retreated further into the depths of its tiny chasm. Not a bastard, a bitch. This was a queen because she was broad and round. The males were longer and more tapered. But the lone queen didn’t need a king to reproduce. All she needed was a single blood meal.

          He’d checked the mattress, the folds of the sheets, all the corners, the undersides of the bed frame. For eggs, blood spots, fecal stains. Nothing. She was the only one. And they wouldn’t believe him unless he could catch her. It was proof of his sanity on the line.

          “Lights out, Julie.”

          The guards were usually kind enough to give him a warning so that he could get himself situated before bed. But apparently this guard wasn’t feeling magnanimous. The overheads abruptly snapped off leaving him in the abyssal dark. He was alone in his bed. With the bug.
          When he woke the next morning to the overheads snapping on, he saw immediately that the Queen had left her mark. In his experience they usually went for the belly, or an exposed forearm or thigh, but since she couldn’t latch there through his orange pajamas, she’d been true to her nature and gone for the neck. There it was. He could see it through the cloudy piece of steel mounted in the wall over the sink that served him for a mirror. A big blooming pink bite just beneath the jugular.

          Now he’d never be safe from the brood that would spring from his blood. They’d get into his mattress, infest his skin, drain him to a dry husk. They would take his whole world for themselves.

          He pounded futilely at the mirror. That was why they’d replaced it with steel. The glass had broken, and they’d had to get the medic in and transport him to the triage unit for the lacerations to his wrists and arms and chest. That had been in the Time Before the Queen Vampire. That had been during the Time of the Worms. He had stopped seeing those wriggling horrors burrowing into him about the same time they’d stopped giving him the pink pills. It was a side effect, they’d said. A very rare, extremely rare, side effect. They were just trying to make him better, the doctor had said. Yeah, right. Like the Queen hadn’t been artfully placed inside his headboard to consume him in the night, along with her thousand children, one cubic milliliter at a time. It was what they’d used to do with leeches, he seemed to remember. The medieval barber surgeons.

          “Good morning, Julie.”

It was a disembodied voice coming from a hidden speaker in the ceiling beyond his reach. The voice of the doctor that purred with the Ivy League refinement so lacking in the voices of the guards. This was followed by a knock at his door. Followed by the sheer slide motion of a view panel on the obverse side of the portal that allowed his handlers to peek in whenever they wished to see if he was up to something naughty.

          The eyes observing him through the slot were emerald green. Irish Eyes. The voice, the static overtones of the speakers removed, was deep but feminine. Those eyes peered at Julie who now stood in the center of his cell, then past him to the mess he’d made of his chambers during the nightmare night. The cinnamon brows arched in mute rebuke.

          “I see you’ve been busy, Julie.”

          He was scratching at the wound on his throat which was just now beginning to itch infernally. It was worse, more intense, than a mosquito bite but the cause was similar: The enzyme the bug spat into the wound to make the blood digestible to its system. There was a side effect for you, he thought. The bite must by now have looked like a giant lamprey had got him and he walked up to the door to show her what she’d done.

          “Easy, Julie,” she said. “It’s nothing to worry about. We’ll get it cleaned up for you. We’ll put the frame back together and get you fresh sheets.”

          “Don’t you get it? Of course, you don’t. What would you know about the Queen’s motives, unless it was you who planted her in the first place?”

          “I’m sorry, Julie. Just please calm down and we can talk about it.”

          “It’s too late for talk, Doc! She already got me!” He showed her the wound on his throat again and there was no mistaking it for anything other than what it was. Unless she was attempting to deceive him. She decided on misdirection.

          “Have you been picking at yourself again? You mustn’t, Julie. It’ll get infected.”

          “Infected!? She has come to drain me dry! And YOU put her here!”

          “Her? Who are you talking about, Julie?”

          “Her! The Queen! THE BUG!”

#

          They had given him something to make him sleep but when he woke up it must still have been daytime because the overheads were on. They seemed to switch on and off by timer as in a prison. They glared down at him, twin alien orbs of white fire. But they were his friends because they stalwartly held the bugs at bay fourteen hours per day.

          He was back in his bed which they had reassembled where he’d broken the plankboard in his mad search for the Queen during the night. Fresh sheets were on his mattress. And a fresh case for his pillow which smelled like lavender even though the coarseness of the wilted yellow cotton abraded his cheek. He couldn’t adjust his head just yet because they’d strapped him in like an astronaut. He could wiggle fingers and toes and that was about all.

          The doctor must have had one of the orderlies bring in a chair for her because she was sitting at his bedside with one critical eye on his chart and the other on him. Those Irish Eyes were sparkling emeralds set in a visage that could have been carved of alabaster.

          “Good, you’re awake. How are you feeling? A bit better rested, hmm? Sleeping on the floor all night didn’t do you any good, that’s for sure. We might need to keep you strapped in this evening too, so you can get your rest.”

          He was coming off whatever sleeping drug they’d administered and must have been babbling a mile a minute, but his words gradually came to his ears as making some semblance of sense.

          “NO! Don’t you understand? You just can’t do that to me, please!”

          “Why, Julie? After the mess you made? Why shouldn’t we?”

          “Because of the BUG!” He described the vampiric little wretch as best he could in the most minutely exacting detail.

          “This is a clean facility, Julie. We don’t have those here.”

          “Not unless you planted her yourself!”

          “Will you just slow down a moment and listen to yourself? You are here to be made better than you were. We are trying to help you. To what end would we do such a thing?”

          “To break me,” Julie sobbed.

          “Break you?” The doctor laughed and there was not a trace of empathy in it. “Break you of what?”

          He didn’t answer. He couldn’t. Only his cries issued forth. The doctor was scrawling something into her chart in red pen.

          “Don’t worry, Julie. This is just another side effect. Some of your medications are mixing unfavorably with the sleep aid we gave you. After an uninterrupted good night’s rest, you will feel MUCH better. Trust me.”

          She rose from her chair and there was the barest hint of a smirk marring her porcelain features. At the door she turned.

          “There’s nothing to break you of, dear. Because you were already broken when you came to us. We’re here to put you back together. Better than ever.”

          The cell door slammed behind her. An hour later the overheads snapped off and the abyss returned. And from its depths those tiny skittering creatures that smell of coriander and harbor on the undersides of mattresses and awaken seeking fresh blood.

#

A month must have gone by. Or so he had counted the days in his head. They must have bathed him while he slumbered in the drug haze because, though his waking hours were spent lashed to the bed, every morning he would emerge from the bug dreams fresh and un-sweating and smelling of rose-scented soap.

They had removed the steel mirror from over the sink so he couldn’t by some happenstance catch a glimpse of his face. And they had made the bedclothes snug beneath the straps so he couldn’t see even his hands. But he knew the wounds were there. He could feel every suck mark of every individual bite and sense the tracer line patterns where the bugs lay in neat rows along the sheets waiting to latch on. There must have been a hundred bites by now, three hundred, a thousand.

He was perpetually weak, weak as a newborn and not right in his mind at all, no longer cognizant of the moment-to-moment happenings outside the cell. But whether this was the blood loss or sedatives or an insidious blending of the two, he could not be sure. He was only sure that he was trapped, that he would die here in this eight-by-eight white box and never know why. Was it a new therapy tool on the order of the prolonged exposure treatment they used on phobics? Was it just some prison psychiatrist’s demented experiment? Was he really “here” at all? Maybe he’d expired long ago, and this was the coma dream that preceded true death.

          “They’ve taken too much blood,” he murmured one day while the doctor was sitting with him reviewing his chart. “Please, I need blood.”

          “You’ve got enough to manage for now, Julie.” The doctor’s emerald eyes were filling his vision, engorging themselves on his pallid state. “I’ve got good news. We’re almost finished here. Pretty soon these bindings will come off and you’ll be ready to return to the world.”

          “The world?” he murmured. “This is the world. What else is there?”

          “It seems like that now, but you’ll adjust. That’s why we picked you. Your adaptability.”

          “Adaptability?”

          The doctor nodded sagely. “That and your condition. Borderline personalities and confirmed clinical-level schizophrenics always seem to do better in the trials. The ability to lose any grip on reality is an advantage. It makes it much easier to bear the general surrealness of the experience and come out of it still functioning on some base level of competence.”

          “May I ask... one question?” Julie’s tongue felt like a strip of rawhide in his mouth.

          “Of course.”

          “Was there a Queen?”

          The doctor affected the same self-satisfied smirk he’d caught on her face before. But this time she didn’t hasten to hide it.

“Of course there was,” she said. “And not just one.”

She pulled her cell phone from her lab coat and showed him a single image. He coughed and gagged and nearly vomited. The bedframe shook violently under his assaults. But to no avail.

          “That’s what your mattress looked like at four o’clock this morning when we let you out to bathe you and put fresh sheets on. Do you know how much blood has to be regurgitated in feces to turn a mattress entirely black? I estimate about four pints. That’s four pints of you, Julie. That you’re lying in.”

          Another series of tremors wracked him and when they finally subsided he could only imagine a single follow-on question.

          “Why?” he croaked.

          “Why? To make you like us, of course.” The doctor winked one of her Irish Eyes and the porcelain mask that was so alabaster perfect under the glare of the halogens slipped away.

Revealing beneath it the Progenitor. The Queen of Queens. And the glittering emeralds that remained true beneath that facade of humanity bored deeply into him. And the profound alien intelligence that gripped his cerebral cortex in its adamantine vice neatly abolished the final vestiges of sanity, and humanity, remaining to Julie Winthrop.

#

THE END

David Starobin is a new writer with Black Petals. He spends his free time traveling to little known corners of the world seeking inspiration for his stories. He worked for many years in the financial services industry until his muse finally ordered him to stop. He currently resides in Brunswick, Maine.


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