Wicked Tongue is a new horror story I've been working on. It's a little something different for me, so I hope you like it. Please remember, this excerpt is from the draft. It is unedited, only slightly revised, and subject to change. Please leave a comment below and let me know what you think.
The weight of one too many bad decisions pressed on Daniel’s skull, pushing and grinding into his forehead like a vice, the clamps steadily closing and tightening with each breath. He struggled—for at least the third time—to open his eyes and lift his head off the pillow. Neither happened. And the vice clamped tighter. Anymore and it might crack, he thought, trying to find humor in his predicament, as Daniel imagined his brain running like an egg from its busted shell.
Amusement turned to unease as the morbid image wormed its way in, becoming vivid and all too real. He knew why: it was the first clear thought to surface since he woke, as if his synapses were as lethargic as the rest of him. It was a clear disconnect, disturbing, as Daniel had not a single recollection of how he got home or when. Half the night was simply gone.
It had been a while since he’d drank enough to black out.
Though, poor choices were nothing new. Daniel had been making them since middle school, when he decided sneaking out to roam the dark streets was infinitely more educational than homework. Hangovers he was intimately familiar with, as well, but they hadn’t plagued him in years. Not like this, he thought. Not since college—proof that practice makes perfect.
Daniel’s system had long since gotten used to the routine of late nights out and early mornings. It was nothing for him to get up and workout, while his friends spent the morning cursing their own existence. Except today. Today was…different. Wrong.
Groaning, he pushed the heels of his hands into his temple and wondered why. Why didn’t it feel like a hangover?
Dehydration had leached the moisture from his throat. That was on point. As was the throbbing headache. Despite the queasiness of countless tequila shots topped with a plate of loaded nachos at 2 a.m. sloshing in his stomach, he was famished. Again: not a surprise. His body was confusing a lack of water with hunger.
It was everything else he couldn’t reconcile.
A phantom, high-pitched ringing filled his ears, like the time he went with his buddy to the shooting range and took his headphones off at the wrong time. His entire face hurt, particularly his mouth, filling it with the taste of something rank and far too much saliva. He tried to swallow the excess spit, but it didn’t want to go. His tongue kept getting in the way. The damn thing felt odd, thick. Swollen.
What the hell?
His limbs as uncooperative as the rest of him, Daniel forced his weary body to move. He rolled onto his side,
trying (and failing) to see the alarm clock through half-closed lids and hair in his face. Drool slid out between his lips, wetting the pillow. It was then he realized: the wetness beneath him was more than it should be, and the pillowcase was already damp, cold and sticky against his cheek.
Fear overrode illness. He shoved his hair aside and flung his eyes open wide—promptly scooting back from the ring of blood. Muted bands of daylight leaked in between the bent, uneven slats of the window blinds. It was enough to know he wasn’t seeing things as he stared at the red stain, not comprehending how it got there, stark against the white of his pillowcase.
The blood wasn’t fresh. Not all of it. anyway. The center was deep and dark, as if it had been soaking in for hours. The edges were tacky, more of an orangey-red, lighter as the puddle expanded. Streaks crossed the length of the pillowcase and the sheets, desposited as he tossed and turned in his sleep.
Fresh bright dots dripped onto the fabric.
“Oh, God…” Daniel raised a hand, catching the blood dribbling from his mouth. A drop escaped between his fingers, trickling over his chin and onto his bare chest. “What the fuck?”
Fighting with the covers tangled around his feet, he scrambled off the bed in his boxers and ran to the bathroom. It was dark. The light reached in just enough to outline the towel rack inside the door. He pulled off a towel and held it against his mouth as he moved to the sink on the opposite wall.
Daniel stood, heart thumping, a part of him refusing to turn on the light. He didn’t want to see what stupid thing he’d done to himself last night. Rational explanations surfaced. He tried to settle on one.
I must have fallen. On the sidewalk, or the stairs.
Maybe I ran into a door.
No—bar fight, he thought. Son of a bitch! That must be it.
If I lost a tooth….
God, please tell me I didn’t bite my tongue—or pierce it. Shit!
There was talk of that at the table last night. Carly, his best friend’s sister, had taken the plunge last year. It looked hot as hell on her with her signature red lipstick, jet black hair, and tribal tattoos. Felt nice, too, when they hooked up over the summer. She was there for a while at the club, giving him mixed signals, then disappearing with her friends before he could do anything about it. Daniel liked Carly—really liked her. Probably, more than she liked him.
He remembered thinking about going after her, of finding some new way to impress her. But a piercing…? I wouldn’t have done that. I couldn’t have.
A fight, then. Must’ve been…
Either way, I’m screwed.
Daniel had an audition in two days. He couldn’t show up, beat all to hell with a fucked-up smile. He’d lost the last three parts he tried out for. This one had to break the streak. His agent was already near to canning him. Losing out on another acting job meant taking more hours behind the bar at the corner, listening to more drunks spew their tales of woe—squirreling away tips for a plastic surgeon if whatever the hell was wrong with him left a scar.
Knots forming in his queasy stomach, Daniel dropped the towel in the sink. He flipped on the light and looked in the mirror. “Huh.”
At first glance, there was nothing: no bruises or cuts to indicate a fight. Not even a split lip. Red veined across his eyes, but their bloodshot, puffy appearance wasn’t out of the ordinary with the excess alcohol and lack of sleep. Daniel wasn’t a kid anymore. Maybe it was time to admit that and listen to what his body was trying to tell him.
And yet…it still felt like more than a hangover.
He leaned closer to the mirror and opened his mouth. It was sore, but he couldn’t find exactly where. None of his teeth were missing—thank God. Daniel ran a finger along the inside of his cheeks, inspecting them for cuts. Nothing. Then why does it hurt so much?
Saliva gathered, begging him to swallow.
It built and built, filling his mouth with that same foul taste as before, pricking his temper. Why the hell was he slobbering like a rabid dog? The nausea wasn’t that bad.
Annoyed at his myriad of odd ailments, Daniel bent and spat in the sink.
Irritation turned to confusion, then fear, as he straightened, watching the red strings slide down the sink.
More blood. “This…doesn’t make sense….” Where was it coming from?
He looked in the mirror again. His tongue was swollen. It was discolored too; a much deeper red than he remembered, almost purple. Did I bite it? I must have. When I fell, he decided. He tried to think back if that was true, to force the memory into his mind, but too much of it was a blur.
He moved his tongue side to side, grimacing at the pain. Even his throat hurt at the motion. Damn it. Already, he was starving, thinking of a plate of pancakes at Sammy’s Diner down the street. How was he supposed to eat like this?
Blood seeped out from underneath his tongue. He lifted it to look and—
Daniel recoiled. “What the…?”
Pulse spiking, he stood, frozen. Praying it was a trick of the light, he moved back to the mirror. He opened his mouth. His heart pounded faster. Breath stopped reaching his lungs as he stared at the veins under his tongue. They were…black and engorged. His salivary glands were enlarged, too, almost elongated and covered in strange bumps. The entire underside of his tongue looking nothing like it should. Even stranger, the oddities stopped a hair below the tip. If he hadn’t lifted his tongue, he wouldn’t have known, wouldn’t have seen— What?
What the hell am I looking at? What is wrong with me?
Daniel still couldn’t tell where the blood was coming from. It was just there, like it was oozing from the tissue itself, mostly where his tongue was attached.
He emptied his mouth in the sink again. Gripping the porcelain sides to stop himself from shaking, sweat beaded on his skin as he struggled to breathe, to calm down and understand. Hours ago, he was fine. Yesterday morning he was at the gym. How could he come down with something that looked like the fucking plague so fast?
Grasping now that it wasn’t an injury, ideas spun in his head about what it could be. Each was worse than the last. He knew it wasn’t a plague but…. A virus?
Some kind of bacterial infection? An STD?
Shit. Was I with someone last night?
Daniel couldn’t remember. But even if he was, it didn’t happen that fast.
“I need my phone.” Turning from the sink, Daniel tried to recall where he left it. By the bed? In my jacket?
“Goddammit! Where is it?” He needed to look up his symptoms, to call the doctor. He had to see someone today—now. “The ER. I’ll go to the ER.”
The closest hospital was three miles from his apartment. He could get dressed and be there in minutes. It was early Sunday morning. The waiting room would be full of drunks, but they’d take him quickly. They had to; he was bleeding. They’d order a few tests. Tell him what was wrong. Give him a prescription. He’d be fine before the audition.
Daniel nodded to himself, sighing, convinced it would be over soon. On the strength of that belief alone, he felt better. It’s not as bad as it looks. It can’t be.
Daniel slammed the clipboard down on the counter.
The woman on the other side lifted her manicured nails from her keyboard. She looked away from the computer screen and stared through the Plexiglass between them, her thin face drawn tight in disapproval. Her own mouth pursed as she noticed the towel pressed against his. Declining to comment, she took the clipboard with an unenthusiastic, “Have a seat, Mr.,” her gaze lowered to his paperwork, “Blair.” Placing the clipboard aside, she resumed typing.
Daniel didn’t move. He ran a trembling hand across his forehead, wiping away the sweat. The waiting room was like an oven, the sterile walls packed with too many people, all coughing and sniffling, smelling of sickness. Their voices and movements were strangely loud, grating on his frayed nerves.
“For how long?” he asked, voice muffled by the towel. “How long do I have to wait?”
She kept working. “Until it’s your turn.”
“You don’t understand. I need to see someone now.”
“You and everyone else.”
“You’re not listening!” he shouted, making her jump.
“Mr. Blair,” the woman said crisply, “the doctors are working as fast as they can. I understand you don’t feel well, but there are nine people ahead of you.”
“Nine? No, I can’t…. No.” He shook his head. “That’s too many.”
“Someone will be with you soon. Please take a—”
Daniel dropped the towel. Bloody saliva dripped onto the counter between them. “Please,” he begged, red spewing from his trembling lips. “Something is wrong with me.”
“Okay, okay, just…” she motioned for him to put the towel back. Picking up the phone, she pushed a button, and whispered into the receiver. “We have another one.”
* * *
The curtained room was no better than the waiting area, stuffy and stinking of antiseptic. Neon lights blared like the sun above his head. The bulbs buzzed and buzzed and buzzed…. It should have irritated him. Yet, there was something oddly calming in the steady tempo. He drummed his fingers against the side of the exam time, keeping time with the lights.
A nurse had taken his vitals fifteen minutes ago and hadn’t come back. Fifteen minutes and thirty-two seconds, he thought in irritation, watching the abnormally loud clock tick-tick-tick the moments by.
He wasn’t alone, though. The outbursts from the woman in the next room were certainly entertaining. She was tripping bad. To his left, some old guy was coughing up a lung.
Fucking E.R. Nothing but class.
Good news: he wasn’t bleeding anymore. He wasn’t sure why, but the flow had slowed to a stop while the nurse was inflating the cuff on his arm, pumping the damn thing up until he thought the limb would burst. He still had the vile taste. It seemed to worsen with every swallow passing over his thick tongue.
My breath must be awful, he thought, hoping the nurse hadn’t noticed.
The taste had to be related to his empty stomach. Daniel hadn’t eaten since the nachos, and he had a vague recollection of throwing them up before he fell into bed. He was so damn hungry. The more he thought about it, he harder it was to stand the weak, empty, rumbling sensation.
I have to get out of here. I need to eat.
If the doctor doesn’t come soon….
Metal slid over metal, as the curtain pulled back, revealing a tall, middle-aged man in a white coat. He offered a quick but polite smile and entered the room. He certainly looked smart to Daniel, with a high brow and sharp brown eyes behind his wire-rimmed glasses.
“Mr. Blair?” The man waited for Daniel to nod before closing the curtain behind him. “I’m Dr. Cunningham. Sorry for the delay. I was trying to get you a more private room, but there aren’t any available. It’s been a busy morning.”
“I heard. Did the nurse tell you…?”
“She did. But, if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you a few questions. It will help me get a full picture of what’s going on.” Removing the file folder from under his arm, Dr. Cunningham placed it on the counter, leaned back against the edge, and crossed his arms, waiting.
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“Have you been anywhere unusual or exotic recently?”
“Like overseas? I was in Mexico once, but that was years ago.”
“Any new foods? Drinks? Substances? Have you consumed anything new at all in the last forty-eight hours?”
Daniel shook his head. “Nothing I haven’t had before. Except…there is this new food truck that parks across the street from my apartment. I had a bowl of soup there yesterday.”
“Soup? What kind?”
“Seafood gumbo. It’s a little hot for soup but the guy let me try a sample for free. You don’t think that was it, do you? Undercooked or infected fish or something?”
“Probably not. No contact with chemicals, poisons, contaminates, or waste? Ingested or on the skin,” he added.
“Waste? Like toxic waste? I don’t know who you think I am, Doctor, but I’m not crawling around in sewers or toxic waste dumps for fun. I spent most of last week in my apartment rehearsing for an audition. I went jogging a few times. I was at the gym Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Bartended Tuesday and Thursday. I went out to a few clubs and bars with my friends last night, popped a few pills, drank more than I should have, and woke up with a mouthful of blood and a fucked-up tongue. I don’t know how it happened, where,
or why—that’s why I’m here!”
“Okay.” The doctor put up his hands. “Calm down. I’m not questioning your lifestyle, Mr. Blair. I’m just trying to check off the boxes.”
Daniel broke the man’s worried gaze. He knew how he must look, what the doctor was thinking of him. He also knew his twitching, angry, agitated state wasn’t normal. He’d never felt stress like this before, not even during an audition: the wild thumping of his pulse, the buckets of sweat pouring off him, the breath pushing faster and faster through his lungs, pulling his chest tight, constricting—like the vice had moved from his head to his heart.
“I’m…sorry,” he panted. “I didn’t mean….”
“It’s understandable. The unknown is one of the things we fear most. But I do need you to try and relax, Mr. Blair. Let’s start by breathing slower, in and out…” he demonstrated. “Slower… That’s right. A few more times,” he said, as Daniel tried to copy his movements.
It wasn’t as easy as the doctor assumed. Daniel's throat was painfully dry and achy, and the air didn’t want to flow right over his swollen tongue. But, after a few moments, he managed to get his breathing under control. The pain subsided in his chest, and he nodded, indicating he was ready to continue.
“Is there anything else?” he asked, his voice shaky but steady now.
“I think that about covers it.” Dr. Cunningham pulled a set of latex gloves from a drawer and slid them on.
“Let’s have a look.” He moved up to the exam table.
Daniel stiffened and leaned back. He hadn’t meant to, but his body was reacting to an abrupt, strong aversion to the man’s nearness—to all of it: the hospital stench, the squeak of shoes on the shiny hall floor outside the curtain, the harsh lights and close air, the doctor’s intrusive questions. They were all suddenly too much.
He pictured himself hopping off the table, apologizing for wasting the doctor’s time, and leaving. Images of driving through the streets, turning left and right, filled his head, urging him to make the vivid notion a reality. Adrenaline surged, pushing him to go. Thoughts raced, blurring and overlapping in his mind: I can’t let him look. I can’t let him touch me.
Yet, Daniel knew he needed help. He couldn’t leave.
“Mr. Blair?” the doctor asked. “Can I examine you now?”
“I…” The curtained walls closed in. A voice inside him screamed, “Go!” Struggling to ignore it, Daniel ran a hand back over his hair. Stands came loose in his fingers. He stared at them, trembling. Eyes dampening, he held the clump out to the doctor. “Why? Why is my hair falling out?”
“A few strands doesn’t mean it’s falling out. It’s probably a reaction to all the stress. It happens.”
“Like spontaneous bleeding from the tongue?”
“That…is a little less common.”
“Doesn’t sound like it. According to the woman at the front desk.”
Dr. Cunningham hesitated before nodding. “Yes, we’ve seen a number in here with similar symptoms in the last few days.”
“Then you know what it is. You can help me?”
“We’re going to try.”
It was too vague, not good enough for Daniel. He pushed the doctor for more. “The others that came in like me. Are they better now?”
“I’m not sure. My colleagues referred them to their primary physicians. They came in on different days, different shifts. It wasn’t until last night when the pattern was recognized. We’re trying to reach them all now.”
“Let’s have a look,” he said again, a thin crack showing in the man’s patience. “Open wide….”
Daniel did as he asked.
The doctor frowned. He adjusted Daniel’s head, put a hand on his jaw, and pulled it open. “Stay just like that….” Taking a penlight from his coat pocket, he shined the slender beam inside.
Daniel could tell the man tried not to react, as he moved the light around, peering in, saying nothing. But he saw the doctor’s reaction: the slight tightening around his brown eyes, the catch in his breath as he gripped Daniel’s sore tongue and lifted it to look underneath.
The bleeding had stopped but the excess saliva hadn’t. As it rose, Daniel struggled to swallow. It wouldn’t go down. A measure slid from the corner of his mouth instead, and his pulse beat faster. Sweat slid down the side of his face. He wanted the doctor to let go. The pressure of his touch felt far more than it should be, like his fingers were digging in his, the nails penetrating tender tissue, cutting, ripping through.
The overhead lights stung his eyes. Voices, ringing phones, footsteps, the noise of the other patients reverberated like drums in his ears. The black veins under his tongue swelled and throbbed with the rhythm.
A cold, hard lump of fear grew in his stomach. It expanded, rising….
“Stop,” he said, but the word came out garbled.
“Almost done.” Dr. Cunningham took something else from his pocket, an instrument. Daniel couldn’t see what it was. “I just want to take a small sample,” he said. “A quick scrape. You won’t even feel it.”
Daniel nodded, struggling to hold out. He had to. He needed answers.
“It won’t hurt, Mr. Blair. Please keep your tongue still.”
He replied, knowing it was impossible to understand. How was he supposed to answer with the man’s hand in his mouth?
“If you don’t cooperate. I can’t help you.”
Aggravated, Daniel tried again to tell him. “I’m trying.”
With a sigh, Dr. Cunningham tightened his grip to hold the tongue in place. He reached in with the instrument, and pain shot through Daniel’s body like he’d never experienced before. It was as if all his nerve endings were in that one place now, raw and splayed open, crushed between the man’s fingertips, shredded by the sharp steel.
He had to make it stop.
Blood filled Daniel’s mouth again, rivers of it this time, overflowing, running over his chin, coating his shirt, the table, dribbling patterns on the tile floor. He didn’t realize where it was coming from, didn’t recognize that not all the screams were his own. It was only when Dr Cunningham staggered back away from him, smacking into the counter, knocking its contents off with a startling clatter, did he begin to grasp what he’d done.
Daniel spit the fingers from his mouth and ran.
The doctor shouted after him. People were in the hall, screaming, backing away in horror. Daniel knew he was a sight with so much bright red staining his face and clothes. He wanted to tell them not to be afraid, that it was an accident. He didn’t mean it. But the words were stuck in his dry, aching throat. They couldn’t get past his tongue as it emerged to lick the blood from his lips. He caught a glimpse of the organ, longer and thicker than it should be, and he ran faster—pushing open random doors, tearing through hallways.
Screams followed his every turn.
He stopped, doubled over and breathless, his chest aching. All the corridors looked the same. He didn’t know where to go, how to get out—where to go when he did. I still need help, he thought. But who? Who could he turn to with such a horrifying story? Who could he trust not to freak out? Certainly not his parents.
His vision blurred. The damn lights were so fucking bright.
A woman’s voice was on the intercom, calling for security.
That’s for me. They’re coming for me.
I assaulted that doctor. I…bit off his fingers.
Daniel couldn’t feel it at the time, but he could now. The memory was clear and fresh, strangely so, as if he were experiencing it for the first time: the warm wetness coasting his tongue as flesh broke, then gave way beneath his teeth. The crunch of bone. Bits of tissue in his mouth, sliding down his throat—quenching his thirst for the first time since he woke.
Flashes of the doctor’s horrified face and mutilated hand exploded in Daniel’s mind like fireworks. Each one was like a blow, weakening his knees. No….
No, that wasn’t me.
I didn’t do that.
It couldn’t have been me.
But the taste was still fresh in his mouth. And it was far better than what was there before, sweet not foul. As if Dr. Cunningham’s blood had overpowered the rotten taste of his own.
Daniel wasn’t prepared for the wave of emotion when Carly opened the door. He pushed the panic-inducing anxiety and relief back down, tried not to tremble, and forced a close-mouthed smile. “Hey. Sorry. I know it’s early.”
She said nothing. Clearly, his pounding on the door had woken her. As it would any normal person, he thought. This was a mistake. I should have involved her.
But he couldn’t bring himself to turn away.
“You look good,” he said, then, silently cursing himself as stupid words hit his ears. But she did look good: hair askew, no make-up on, with a rumpled black flannel shirt thrown over her tank top and shorts. He liked how the shirt hung, down to her hips and half off one shoulder, accentuating her petite frame. “So, uh….”
Carly squinted at him with sleepy eyes, frowning in silence like her groggy brain couldn’t decide what the appropriate response was to Daniel showing up at her door unannounced on a late Sunday morning.
He smiled again, making sure his lips were pressed tightly together. He couldn’t let her see. Not yet. Not until he knew more. Carly was smart. She could help him. And Daniel knew he couldn’t run forever. He needed time to understand what was wrong with him, to have some kind of defense for his actions. He needed a computer. But he couldn’t go home. The cops were likely at his place by now. There was no way the hospital wasn’t pressing charges.
At least he had the good sense to park in an out of the way alley down the block, lessening the risk of his license plate being read by a passing patrol car. He’d cleaned up in a gas station bathroom and changed into his spare gym clothes. The T-shirt and shorts needed washing, but they didn’t look like he’d just committed murder, and he was lucky to have them at all. Normally, he took his gym bag out of the car on the weekends to do laundry. As it was, she’d assume he just came from the gym. Carly would never know what happened unless he told her.
Never know the thing in his mouth didn’t belong.
Daniel tried to pretend not to notice in the cracked bathroom mirror when he rinsed the blood from his teeth—how his tongue was bigger, longer. Wrong. Noticing meant it was real. And maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was a psychotic break or hallucination. Or a fever. God knows he’d been burning up all day.
Daniel shifted his weight, attempting to look causal. “Can I come in?”
Carly fluffed her hair and shrugged. “Sure. Whatever.” She opened the door wider, then turned and left him on the porch, shuffling over the wood floor in her gray kitten slippers. “Coffee?” she hollered over her shoulder.
“Yeah. That’d be great.” He went inside and shut the door.
“I’m out of ground. All we have are those pod things my roommate buys.”
Daniel muttered a noncommittal response. He wasn’t sure his stomach was up for anything, let alone coffee, but he didn’t want to be rude.
“Sorry,” he said, moving out of the way as Carly bounced from window to window, opening blinds while the machine warmed up. Sunshine streamed in, shedding light on the overflowing bookshelves and the fish tank in the corner.
Daniel hadn’t been to Carly’s place in a while, but he always liked the way it looked with string lights, lots of plants, and old horror movie posters on the walls.
Her laptop was on the coffee table. He went over and sat in front of it on the couch. Legs bouncing, he stared at the band stickers covering the lid, as he warred with the desire to open the laptop or get up and leave. He wanted both equally: to know and not know.
Either way, whatever was wrong with him, there was no coming back from what he’d done. You didn’t bite off a man’s fingers, then go on to win an Academy Award.
Every hope and dream he’d ever had died in that exam room.
Tears formed in his eyes. He wiped at them with an angry hand. Anger was better than sorrow. Easier.
Carly appeared at his elbow with a mug in each hand.
He stared in disbelief, not realizing that much time had passed. How long had he been sitting, staring at her laptop, bemoaning his lost future?
“You take it with milk, right?” Not waiting for his reply, Carly handed him one of the cups. She drew her slender legs up onto the couch and sat beside him, wrapping both hands around her purple daisy mug.
He smiled a little, watching her. Carly always cradled her coffee mugs like they were precious, as if leaching the liquid’s warmth through the ceramic was restorative somehow. It was cute, but such a small thing wouldn’t work for him.
Nothing will restore me. I can’t go back. Who I was is gone.
Stuck with the thought, Daniel put his mug on the coffee table.
He couldn’t take the smell.
Carly took a sip, savored it a moment, then opened her eyes and stared at him. Her brows knitted. Lips pushed out in a perturbed glare. “Are you going to spill it or make me ask?”
She shook her head. “Fuck you, Daniel, I’m not an idiot.”
“I never said—”
“You show up here without a call or a text, looking like shit, doing a piss-poor job of acting like nothing’s wrong—which for an actor, is pretty fucking bad. And then you don’t even have the decency to—”
Concern softened her features in a way he’d never seen before. “Sick how?”
“It’s not cancer or anything. At least, I hope not.”
“You hope not? What the does that mean?”
“It came on sudden, just this morning.”
She dropped her legs down and scooted to the edge of the couch. “What did the doctor say? Is it viral? Bacterial? A parasite? It’s not a tick bite, is it? My sister was sick as a fucking dog after that camping trip with her boyfriend last summer. I told her not to go, but of course she didn’t listen. Came home with a damn diseased tick embedded in her skin. Hate those things.”
“The tests haven’t come back yet,” he said quickly, hating how easily the lie tumbled out, yet needing to say something to slow her down. Carly had a way of rambling when she got excited. Usually, he found it endearing. Now, Daniel couldn’t think fast enough to keep up. “The doctor wasn’t that helpful, to be honest. He asked me all kinds of questions like where I’ve been, what I’ve eaten, like he thinks I touched or ate something bad.”
“Not that I can remember, but last night is a total blur. We didn’t…?”
“Didn’t what? Get wasted and have an orgy with a leper colony?” She stared at him for a moment then blurted a giggle.
Daniel was glad Carly hadn’t taken offence to his question, but at the same time, her response irritated him, trivialized what he was going through. “I came here for your help, not to be laughed at.”
She blinked at him. “Okay.... I wasn’t laughing at you, Daniel. Do you really think I would do that?”
“No, of course not. I’m sorry. I just need to know what’s wrong with me but…” Daniel glanced at her laptop and lied again, “my computer’s broken. Plus, you were always so good with research in college. And with your mom being a nurse, I thought maybe ….” His hopes fell at her disapproving grimace. “Never mind. I know it’s a lot to ask. I shouldn’t have come.”
“No. It’s not that.” She put a hand on his arm, stopping Daniel when he tried to get up. “But self-diagnosing is so bad. You can’t trust the internet. Ten minutes online and you’ll be dying from ten different things. You should wait for the tests. Give the doctor a chance to—”
“I CAN’T!” he bellowed in her face. “Aren’t you fucking listening to me? I can’t wait! I need to know what’s wrong with me now!”
Carly flinched, nearly spilling her coffee as she leaned away from the rage contorting his face. In all the years they’d known each other, she had never heard Daniel raise his voice, never seen him anywhere near the state he was in now. Daniel was the calm one of her brother’s friends, the fun ‘glass half full’ kind of guy. At times, he was a little too upbeat and outgoing for her. But when she was in an extrovert mood, Daniel was a guaranteed good time. He wasn’t pushy, even though Carly knew he liked her and wanted more if she’d give him the chance. He wasn’t ever…like this, with his eyes wide and desperate, his voice raspy and trembling not just with anger with— Fear, she realized.
Daniel was afraid, and that was something she had definitely never seen.
Carly composed herself. She reached past him for her laptop and scooted it closer across the coffee table.
“Okay. Let’s see what we can find.”
“Thank you,” he muttered, running a hand over his face. It came away moist. He was sweating again. Shouting had left his entire mouth aching and throbbing. Worse, it put a distance in her gaze and a stiffness in her posture that he hated. “Carly, I’m…sorry. I’m just…I’m really, really worried.”
It wasn’t forgiveness, but at least she wasn’t throwing him out.
“Do you mind if I turn on the TV?” she asked. “I like the news in the background with my morning coffee. I guess that’s kind of weird. Only old people get their news from the TV.”
“Yeah. I mean, no, it’s fine. And it’s not weird. Okay maybe it is,” he relented, as she threw him a glance. “But I like weird.”
“I know that, too.”
They shared a small, uncertain smile. Carly broke their gaze first. She leaned past him for the remote and turned on the TV. It was small compared to his, sitting on a black stand across from the couch. Carly wasn’t the type to care about the hottest or latest trend. She liked what she liked and didn’t care who else did. Daniel smiled, marveling at how just watching her small movements as she clicked the buttons, put him more at ease than he’d been all day.
One of the popular 24-hour news channels filled the TV screen. A middle-aged man in a blue suit was talking about a recent plane crash. The image to go along with his report was a helicopter view of a serene body of water, surrounded by rocks and trees. Army trucks were parked all along the access road. The area was crawling with men in uniform.
I recognized it instantly. “That’s not far from here.”
“The reservoir,” she said. “Didn’t you hear Caleb talking about it at the club last night? Some air force planes collided in mid-air. Pieces went down all over the place.”
“Let me guess? Your brother thinks it’s some government cover-up?”
Her gaze slid to mine. “You know him so well.”
“I never understood how someone so smart believes all this conspiracy crap.”
“I know. I wonder if he’s adopted?” Grinning, Carly dropped the remote. She took another sip of coffee. “So much crazy shit happens in the world every day. I guess it all puts my unpaid bills and nosy neighbor into perspective.”
“I get that,” he said, but it was small talk, meaningless. Daniel didn’t care about why she watched the news or what was happening anywhere else—to anyone else. He just wanted her to move quicker, wanted the laptop to turn on faster. His knees bounced with impatience, watching the little gear spin round and round on the screen as the internet tried to connect. It felt like an eternity.
Hunger rumbled through Daniel’s stomach like an echo chamber. His throat was drying up again, like it was at the hospital before….
He couldn’t finish the thought, didn’t want the images of Dr. Cunningham and his mutilated hand floating around in his head anymore. He didn’t want to remember the fingers in his mouth, the taste. “Do you have anything to eat?” he blurted.
“Uh…yeah,” Carly replied, hesitantly, his abrupt tone visibly throwing her. “We’ve got muffins in the cabinet.
Chocolate chip, I think. It’s just the store brand so don’t expect miracles.”
“Anything. I don’t care what it is.” Daniel fled the cough like it was on fire. He felt her watching him, as he started opening doors. It was rude, erratic, but he was suddenly famished, his legs weak like they didn’t want to hold him up. He looked back to her for help.
She pointed. “Third cabinet from the right.”
Daniel opened the door and pulled the plastic container down. It hadn’t been open yet. He couldn’t see where the tab was to break the seal. Cursing under his breath, he fumbled with the uncooperative plastic.
“How the fuck do you open this thing?”
Emptiness dug like clawing hands into his stomach.
An ache pulsed in his temple.
He needed to eat—NOW.
Shaking, Daniel grabbed a knife from the block beside him and stabbed a couple of holes in the lid. Wiggling his fingers in, he ripped the container open straight down the middle. He reached in. Sharp plastic sliced the side of his finger as he plucked the muffin out.
For a brief second, the cut gave him pause. It was long, deep enough to at least need a bandage. Blood was welling quickly, sliding off onto the counter. So why didn’t he feel it?
It should hurt, shouldn’t it?
The notion dimmed as quickly as it came, lost to the urgency of anticipation as his mouth began to water. Unable to wait a moment longer, Daniel tore into the food in his hand like he hadn’t consumed anything in weeks. Crumbs rained on the gray countertop as he shoved the muffin in, biting and swallowing so rapidly, he didn’t even taste what was in his mouth.
He took another from the container, then another, his mind savoring the first food he’d eaten last night—but not his body. The emptiness in his gut, the weak tremble in his limbs, hadn’t waned in the least. And no matter how he tried to slow down, now, and focus on the flavor, there wasn’t one.
Daniel might as well have been chewing wet cardboard.
He turned from the counter, feeling worse than before. Streaks of chocolate smeared his face and stained his sticky fingers. Pieces of muffin littered the countertop, the floor, and the front of his shirt, all decorated with red dribbles from his bleeding finger.
One muffin remained in the mutilated plastic container. He wanted it. Instinctively, he knew he needed it.
His stomach felt no fuller than before.
Yet, looking at the food made his stomach heave.
He was suddenly so thirsty.
Daniel stuck his head under the faucet and drank.
Shutting the water off, he stood a moment, drips coming off his chin, his breath ragged and painful. Abruptly, he remembered where he was. Dread thumping his heart, Daniel slowly turned his head toward the
Carly was frozen, watching him, sitting on the couch like some department store mannequin, eyes wide, posed with her fingers on the keyboard, as if she’d forgotten how to make them work.
“I…sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to…. I’ll clean it up.”
“Forget it.” She turned to face the screen. “Symptoms?”
Daniel hesitated. Not only because he didn’t want to say, but because of what he sensed from her. She’s afraid of me.
“Lack of appetite clearly isn’t one of them,” she said, struggling to ease the tension. “My mom’s dog ate like that when he had a tape worm. You sure you didn’t—”
“I’m not sure of anything.” Daniel tore off a couple of paper towels, one to dry his face and another to wrap around the cut as he made his way back to the couch. Thinking it might help put Carly at ease, he left an empty cushion between them and sat. “Okay. Symptoms. Um… Headache. Racing pulse. Things seem louder and brighter, but that comes and goes. My throat is sore and dry. I’m starving but having…stomach issues. My mouth was bleeding when I woke up. I couldn’t get it to stop for hours. I can’t taste—”
“Wait.” Carly had been typing as he spoke, using multiple tabs to search for different combinations, but something he said had her gaping at him. “You were spitting up blood for hours?”
He shook his head. “No. It was…just there, coming from under my tongue. It’s swollen and doesn’t look right, doesn’t feel right. I think it’s infected. There’s these bumps underneath. Maybe I had a cut and bacteria, or something, got inside?”
“Got inside your tongue?” she repeated, her forehead scrunched tight, as Carly tried to process the idea. “Can I see?”
“You don’t want to. Just type in…viral or bacterial infections of the tongue. Look for anything that changes its appearance, causes pain and bleeding, alters the salivary glands or the veins.”
Carly struggled not to react to his descriptions. She turned back to face the screen and started typing again. Daniel fell quiet and let her work. Minutes dragged by like hours as he watched her type and scroll, pause for a promising article or picture.
Impatience pounded in his temple.
Her fingernails tapped on the keys like they were plucking on his nerves.
Sunlight streamed into the windows, much too bright. Saliva was building in his mouth again. He forced it down, trying to ignore the ache in his eyes, turning the screen blurry. He rubbed them, but it didn’t help. Trying to get away from the sun glare, Daniel inched closer, throwing the laptop screen in shadow. It was better, reading over Carly’s shoulder.
He wasn’t sure she felt the same and told himself it was only imagination. His nearness wasn’t making Carly breathe faster.
Something caught his eye. “What’s that?”
“This?” Carly clicked on a link.
“No, not that. Go back. Scroll down. There.” He read the title of the article aloud. “Parasitic Organisms. Try typing in—”
She was way ahead of him.
Carly’s fingers moved rapidly over the keys, filling in the search bar with words that piled like bricks in the bottom of Daniel’s upset stomach, one after the other: parasitic organisms of the tongue.
Suddenly he didn’t want to know, didn’t want to see. He reached out to stop her.
It was too late. Carly hit enter, and Daniel’s world fell apart.
* * *