The Cold Sore
By Chris McGuinness
I can’t remember when I first noticed the cold sore.
But that's how it happens, isn’t it? They aren’t there and
then, suddenly, they are. All I know is that I was taking notes in class one
day and felt a sharp, stinging pain on the left side of my mouth. I ran my
tongue along the upper half of my gums above the teeth and winced. I did it
again and got the same result. I just couldn’t help it.
It wasn’t a big deal, just mildly annoying in the way that
most cold sores are. I wondered how I’d gotten it and hoped it would go away
before I got a chance to hook up with this smoke show of a brunette I’d been
flirting with in my European agrarian economics class that semester.
After class, I drove it back to my off-campus apartment and
made a beeline for the mirror. I wanted to see exactly what I was dealing with.
I pulled back my upper lip and there it was—a tiny little crater of yellowish
white against the pink of my gums. I grabbed a brown bottle of hydrogen
peroxide from under my sink and gingerly applied it to the sore, cursing as it
bubbled and burned. This was a trick an
old high school crush had taught me. She insisted it made cold sores go away
faster. I thought of the brunette and prayed she was right.
Over the next couple of days, I tried to forget about it,
but the effort was futile. The fucking thing just didn’t want to go away. Every
time I started to forget the sore was there, I’d accidentally jab it with my
tongue or scrape it with a bit of food I was eating. I couldn’t go more than a
few minutes without a painful reminder that I still had a cold sore.
By the third day, the low-level pain was near-constant.
When I checked it in the mirror that night, the sore was the size of a dime. I
gargled some diluted apple cider vinegar—advice I’d gleaned from a panicked
internet search—then hit the little bastard with some more peroxide. I didn’t
wait around to see if it worked, and ditched my classes the next day to run
down to the drugstore to load up on over-the-counter remedies. I bought a box
of condoms too in a sad attempt to lift my foul mood. I doubted I’d be getting
nasty with the brunette in European agrarian economics with that goddamn thing
growing in my mouth. Making out
would be painful and oral would be absolutely out of the question. If she
didn’t notice it in the heat of the moment, she’d sure as shit know when she
got a cold sore of her own. She’d tell every one of her friends too; locking me
out of future action with any of them and making me the campus leper for the
foreseeable future. I couldn’t let that happen. I wanted to keep my reputation
as a nice guy and a good lay and not some herpes-ridden asshole spreading his
gross disease all over the university.
My phone buzzed as I was driving home. It was a text from
the brunette asking if she could come over and “hang out”. I cursed my rotten
luck and made some weak excuse about having a late-night study group for
another class. She seemed to buy it.
“Another time then?” she wrote.
“Fo sho,” I responded, adding a thumbs up.
She answered with a winking smiley face. I should have felt
horny and excited, but I was fuming. This stupid sore was ruining my sex life.
This was more than a minor inconvenience. It was a declaration of fucking war.
I ran to the bathroom as soon as I got home and slathered
on gobs of a creamy white paste I’d bought earlier. I used up half the tube in
one go. It hurt a little less and I took that as a good sign. I fell asleep
that night dreaming of the brunette. The box of condoms, a variety pack with
brightly-colored foil packaging, sat lonely and unopened in my nightstand
I woke up the next morning feeling hopeful. As I yawned and
stretched in the mellow light coming through the window next to my bed, there
was a single glorious moment where I felt no pain and thought that maybe, just
maybe, the medicine had worked.
Then I felt it.
It was the same dull pain I’d felt for days, but now there
was also a strange new sensation. It was a nagging itch I hadn’t felt before. I
instinctively ran my tongue over the sore. There was a sudden, sharp sting,
worse than I’d ever felt before. It wasn’t just the sore that hurt, either. The
pain was coming from my tongue.
I touched the tip of my tongue and my finger came away
streaked with a pink smear of blood. I went into the bathroom and the strange
itching sensation continued. I pulled my lip down.
The sore was bigger now. About the size of a penny. Its
color was a deep, angry red, and it was oozing little rivulets of pus and
blood. I leaned in and squinted to get a better look and that’s when I saw
Two uneven rings of tiny, sharp teeth set along the ragged
edges of the sore. They gnashed hungrily at my finger. Their movement made the
sore itch and burn. I pulled my shaking hand away and stared at my face in the
mirror. I closed my eyes and shook my head back and forth as hard as I could.
It was a thing I did in nightmares to wake myself up.
But I was awake. I got close to the mirror and tried to
steady my hands before taking another look. The sore and the teeth were still
there. I felt dizzy. My whole body started to tremble. I opened my mouth to
scream and instead vomited violently into the sink. I stared at the soggy mess
for a long time, trying to process what I’d seen. Each time I tried to come up
with a logical explanation it felt as if my brain was trying to tear itself in
At some point, the numbing shock began to recede and panic
took its place. It wriggled like a black worm in my guts. I ran from the
bathroom to the little Ikea desk next to my bed and threw open my laptop.
I searched. Google,
WebMD, and even fucking Bing. I scoured the Centers for Disease Control’s lists
of rare and exotic STDs. The internet spit out photo after photo of the very
worst human biology had to offer. Massive sores and cankers. Lesions like
leaking rivers of off-white discharge that looked like cottage cheese. I looked
at an endless parade of gruesome pictures of people with their hands, feet, and
even faces eroded into what looked like lumps of hamburger meat. I gagged and
dry-heaved more than once but forced myself to keep looking. It was awful and
ultimately worthless. Of all the horrors I could find, not one mentioned teeth,
let alone ones that moved and tried to bite.
I should have gone to the ER but I had no insurance. And
besides, the last thing I needed was some doctor marching curious med students
from school into my room to gawk at the freakish thing in my mouth. They’d
spread the news like wildfire while getting shitfaced at the local bars after
their shifts. No way. The hospital was out of the fucking question,..
So I did what I usually do in stressful situations; I tried
to ignore it. It's easier than you think. I was a master of denial. Pretending
problems, no matter how serious, didn’t exist was a skill I’d developed over
most of my life. Mommy drinks too much? Don’t think about it. Daddy spent a
night in the hospital with stitches in his arm after mommy came at him with a
boxcutter? Don’t think about it. I decided not to think about the gnashing
little horror inside my mouth just like I chose not to think about the 15
pounds I’d packed on since starting school or my steadily declining GPA or the
crippling mountain of debt I was racking up and would likely be unable to pay
when I graduated. The cold sore was just another one of those things not to
think about. Maybe, unlike all those other problems, it would eventually just
No. Fucking. Dice.
My attempts to ignore the sore lasted until English lit
class the following day. It was around noon and I was trying to take notes on a
lecture when I heard a strange noise. It was very soft; a high-pitched whine I
could barely hear over the professor’s voice. I assumed the classroom air
conditioner was on the fritz. The whine got louder, becoming more audible. The
professor stopped talking and I looked up to find him and most of the other
students in the class staring at me. My head began swimming as I realized that
the noise was coming from inside my mouth.
I jumped up from my desk, startling everyone. I grabbed my
laptop, shoved it into my messenger bag,
and muttered something about not feeling well. As I stumbled out the door and
into the daylight, I heard my professor call out to remind me to schedule a
make-up for the quiz we were supposed to take after the lecture. I let the door
slam closed without answering him. I hurried across the busy quad with my head
down. I prayed that no one I knew, especially the brunette, would cross my
path. I stared at my shoes and the noise continued. A few students turned their
heads as I passed them, but I walked fast so they didn’t have time to ask me
Each campus dorm had a handicap-accessible unisex bathroom
on the first floor. They featured a single toilet, and most importantly, a sink
with a mirror and a lockable door. I lurked outside Masterson Hall until
someone with a keycard opened the door, I followed them inside and found the
bathroom. It was empty so I ran in and locked myself inside.
When I pulled back my lip the noise got louder. Unmuffled,
the whine became a tiny mewling screech.
It was coming from
It had grown again and was now the size of a quarter. My
own teeth, the ones below the sore, were beginning to push outward at odd
angles. I touched them and they felt loose. The sore opened its maw and let out
another grotesque screech. It gnashed its little teeth. They were much larger
and sharper and more numerous than the last time I’d looked.
It kept making that awful sound. I had to make it stop
somehow, so I ripped off a tiny piece of toilet paper from the roll and shoved
it into the sore hoping to muffle it. As soon as the paper touched the sore,
the little teeth went to work tearing it up into a gray mush and gobbling it
down before commencing to make those horrible noises once again.
That’s when I felt it for the first time: A sensation that
was alien yet coming from within me.
“It’s hungry,” I said. My words echoed off the dingy white
tiles on the floor and walls.
I opened my messenger bag and took out my lunch. It was a
bologna sandwich I’d thrown together before leaving my apartment. I tore off a
chunk of the meat and carefully held it up to the sore, which latched onto the
scrap and consumed it with gusto. I watched with disgusted fascination as the
meat disappeared into what I could only assume was its throat. It was revolting
and I felt my stomach churn again. After a few more shreds of cold lunch meat,
the sore stopped its crying. It seemed, at least for the moment, to be
I left campus early. In the short time it took to drive
back to the apartment, the sore had somehow grown again. As I pulled into the
complex, I felt a soft, crackling pop as it dislodged the two crooked teeth
from my gums. The pain was so searing and intense that I almost crashed the
car. I ripped the teeth out as I sat in my parking spot outside the apartment.
I spat a wad of blood and saliva into the planter by my door as I raced inside.
That night I felt the sore’s hunger before it even began to
cry out for more food. I searched my near-empty fridge and found a pound of
unopened raw hamburger. I rolled half of it into bite-sized meatballs and
closed my eyes as I listened to the wet, chewing sounds as it fed.
Later, as I was cleaning bits of raw meat out of my mouth,
I noticed a second cold sore. It was on my lower gums on the same side. It was
smaller than the first but already had the same little rows of teeth. I stopped
what I was doing and walked to the kitchen. There was a bottle of Old Crow on
top of the fridge. I took it down, popped the plastic screw top cap, and
guzzled as much of it as I could until, mercifully, I passed out.
I woke up early next morning before the sun was up. I could
tell the sores had grown in the night. More of my teeth were radically askew
and aching. I decided to be proactive, and, with the help of the rest of the
bourbon and a pair of pliers, removed them. I threw the offending teeth into
the sink and watched them rattle down the drain like gore-streaked dice. I felt
a little proud that I was able to muffle my screams to avoid alarming my
neighbors. But mostly what I felt was the sore’s hunger. It was far more
intense than the day before. Soon it became urgent and voracious, so I fed it
the rest of the ground beef. I knew it wouldn’t be long before it wanted more.
I got another text from the brunette. Was I free tonight? I
told her I wasn’t feeling well and apologized, promising her we'd get around to
“I have a cold or something.”
“Feel better soon. Don’t take too long!”
She ended it with another winking smiley.
The next few days and nights passed by in a blur. I
remember very little except the great pain and endless hunger of the sores. I
know that I took some time to run out to a nearby grocery store, filling my
cart with as much meat as it could carry. Steaks, ground chuck, and anything
else raw and red. I vaguely remember grabbing my receipt and running for the
door as the sores began their bizarre vocalizations.
There were more sores. More teeth. Feeding them was
difficult until they began to fuse together and the teeth became big enough to
eat through my left cheek. There was pain, of course, but the hunger, that
terrible and insatiable hunger, was so much worse. I remember looking in the
bathroom mirror and seeing a forest of jagged, snapping teeth where the lower
left half of my face used to be. I realized I was losing vision in my eye on
the same side. It was the last time I bothered looking at myself.
More hunger. More pain. The eye went at some point. It
ruptured like an overripe grape as the sore cracked through my cheekbone and
lower socket. With my remaining eye, I watched as the stock of food in the
fridge quickly disappeared. Pounds of raw ground beef and even bone-in steaks
vanished into the sore’s threshing maw. Before long the fridge was bare. But
the sore? It was still hungry.
I waited until the sun went down. I threw on an old
sweatshirt and pulled the hood over my head. The sore gnawed at the fabric as I
walked outside. In an alley behind another apartment building a few blocks from
my own, I found an overflowing dumpster. It was just what I was looking for. I
threw open the lid and let the smell of rancid, wet garbage wash over me. I
found myself drooling as I tore open swollen trash bags, my fingers digging
into the mushy detritus until I found a half-empty pizza box crawling with fat,
black roaches. They skittered across the grease-stained cardboard and fought
for hunks of moldy crust and the rubbery bits of cheese still stuck to the
box’s interior. They too were hungry.
I scooped up a handful of the squirming bugs and fed them
to the sore. I felt their frantic little legs brush against the side of my face
before they disappeared with a frenzied, crunching sound. I licked my lips and
took another handful of roaches, letting the dumpster’s lid crash closed with a
loud, metallic thud.
An old woman poked her head out of a window above me and
asked what all the noise was about. She had a flashlight clutched in her frail
and shaking hand and its beam fell on me as greedily shoveled more bugs into
the monstrosity growing out of the side of my face. I was already running by
the time she started screaming.
Back at the apartment, I heard sirens in the distance as I
slammed the door shut and threw the bolt to lock it. I sat down on the couch.
My heart was pounding. As I tried to catch my breath, the sore quivered. Its
razor-sharp teeth clicked against each other and another wave of its awful
hunger washed over me. My skin crawled and I tried to fight the sensation. I
tried to think of some way, any way at all, to satisfy it. I thought of the
little filleting knife tucked away in the drawer by my stove. I wondered if I
had the balls to cut my own throat and end it all. I was steeling my resolve
when my cell phone started ringing. I held the screen up to the good side of my
It was the brunette.
“Hey,” she said. “You sound a little weird. Are you still
“No. You caught me eating. My mouth is full.”
“Oh. Good,” she said. Her voice brightened. “You finally
have some time to chill with me?”
I almost said no. I almost screamed into the phone that she
should hang up and run. I almost told her to call the police and tell them to
come over to my apartment and put me out of my fucking misery.
I almost saved her. But the hunger overwhelmed me. It
wasn’t just the sore anymore. I was hungry. Starving, in fact. Its need was my
I gave her my address. The sore began making its noises and
I shoved the fingers of my left hand into it to quiet it down. I heard the snap
of bone and sinew as it sheared most of them off. Something wet and warm ran
down my hand. The hunger muted any pain I should have felt.
“Awesome.” she said. “I’ll bring some drinks and food if
“That’d be great.”
“I’ll see you in a few then.”
I hung up the phone and threw it across the room. I walked
to the door and stood staring at it, knowing that soon there would be a knock.
I let the hunger wash over me and listened as the sore began its song. Some
part of me felt guilty. Some part of me felt regret. But those emotions were
only fleeting pangs. They were quickly swallowed up by a single thought. One
that repeated itself over and over again inside my skull like an incessant
“I am hungry,” I said to the empty room. “So very
Chris McGuinness is a writer and former journalist. His
nonfiction work has been published online by nymag.com, Mel Magazine, and
Decider. His short horror fiction has been published at Darkfire.com and he is
the author of the short horror/humor poetry collection A Nightmare Diary.
lives and works on California's Central