William Quincy Belle's gross-out sci-fi about a boy approaching puberty who gets a nasty shock - don't read this while eating.
An odd tickle was developing in his nose. Luke twisted and pulled up a few sheets of toilet paper. It felt like a sneeze coming on. He folded the paper to reinforce it, then held it in one hand to get ready. He continued to pee as he waited to see which way the tickle would go.
The tickle got worse, and Luke knew he would let go. He brought the tissue up and covered his nose. He inhaled, paused then sneezed full force into the toilet paper. Luke wiped his nose and held the used paper to one side. With his other hand, he reached between his legs and shook himself. He stood up, half turned, and pitched the paper into the toilet. Something caught his eye, and he looked again in the toilet bowl. There was something red on the tissue. Did he have a bloody nose?
Luke took more toilet paper and blew his nose. He looked at the tissue and didn't see any red. Using his pinkie, he poked tissue first into his left nostril, then into his right, but it didn't come back red. He tossed the tissue, then reached down and pulled up his underwear and pants before turning around to glance at the red mark. He leaned closer. The red mark wiggled.
Luke jerked his head. His mind raced to interpret what he was looking at. He examined what appeared to be a small red line, but maybe it wasn't so much red as it was partly covered by blood. It seemed to be grey. Was it snot? What was the colour of nasal mucus anyway? The red made him think he had sneezed too hard and burst a blood vessel. But had it wiggled? Maybe the toilet paper had bobbed on the surface of the water. After all, there were bubbles from his urinating that could have been bursting and disturbing the water's surface tension. At least that seemed like a plausible explanation.
Luke flushed the toilet and watched the wads of paper going around in a narrowing circle until they disappeared. He shrugged and went down for breakfast.
"Good morning, dear." Luke's mother busied herself at the stove, cooking scrambled eggs. "Get to your cereal and then I'll serve you a plate."
Luke sat at the table and poured milk into a bowl of Cheerios. He glanced over at his dad, who was reading the morning paper. "Is it okay if I go over to Jimmy's after school today, Mom?"
His mother had her back to him. "Sure. Are you two still working on that project?"
"Yep. But we're hoping to have it finished today. All we have to do is spell-check our document, then do a final printing." Luke took a spoonful of cereal and chewed. He felt tickling in a nostril and rubbed the edge of his index finger under his nose. Just as he was about to take another spoonful, he turned his head and sneezed. He rubbed the back of his hand against his nose, then put a heaping spoonful of cereal in his mouth. As he chewed he glanced beside his place setting. There on the table was something about a centimetre long. Luke furrowed his brow, wondering what it was and where it had come from, when it wiggled. Luke's head snapped back. What the hell was that? Out of fear and maybe disgust, he swept his hand over the table and brushed whatever it was out of sight.
"Are you ready for some eggs?" his mother said.
Luke chewed and looked at the floor. He didn't see anything. "Ah, yeah sure. Almost finished with my cereal." Luke took another spoonful. His mother walked over and set a plate down in front of his father. Luke picked up his bowl and ate the last two spoonfuls of cereal as his mother set a plate in front of him.
"Would you like a slice of toast?"
"Sure." Luke was about to set the bowl down on the table when his mother reached out and took it. Luke smiled. "Thanks, Mom."
His dad folded the paper and turned to his plate. "I'm losing track of the time, Muriel. I do have a job to go to."
"Do you want a slice of toast, Art?"
"No time, thanks. I shouldn't get so engrossed in the paper." Art chuckled. He looked at his son. "I am confident you and Jimmy will get a good mark. What you showed me last week was good."
"Thanks, Dad." Luke smiled at his father, then felt a tickle in his nose. He covered his nose with his free hand and sneezed. He used his fork to pick up some scrambled egg, then glanced at his hand. There was something thin and grey wiggling back and forth in the middle of his palm. Luke jerked upright in his chair and exclaimed, "Jeez!" He shook his hand to one side, trying to fling whatever it was off his hand.
His dad frowned, and his mom turned around to look at him. "What's the matter?" she asked.
Luke stared at his hand with a perplexed look. "Nothing." He bent over and looked around the floor, but couldn't see anything. Was he going nuts? What the hell were these things? This wasn't him just making one mistake; he had now seen something several times.
"Finish up, son. I can drop you at school on the way to work," his dad said.
Luke remained bent over. He looked around his chair, and then looked under it. Nothing. Whatever it was had disappeared, or maybe he had imagined the whole thing.
Luke straightened up in his chair, and realized his parents were staring at him. He faltered, but then he smiled. "Sorry, I thought I dropped something on the floor."
His parents looked at each other, then back at him.
"Why don't you get ready and I'll drop you off?" His father eyed him.
"Sure." Luke stood and walked up to his mother. He kissed her cheek and said, "Thanks," then went back upstairs to the bathroom.
Luke squeezed some toothpaste onto his brush then rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. It was itchy again. He put the tube back in the medicine cabinet and when he closed the cabinet door, he glanced in the mirror. Something was hanging out of his nose. He leaned in to look closer and saw what looked like a piece of grey string sticking out of his nose. As he watched, the end of it moved around.
He reached up with his right hand and used his index finger and thumb to grab a hold of the end of the string. He tugged and it held. He pulled again, and the string started to come out. He slowly pulled out a bit, and then a bit more, tugging in hesitantly until the other end popped out. Luke held what looked like a grey string closer to the light. What was it? Why had it been in his nose?
The loose end swirled around and curled up toward Luke's fingers. His eyes widened, and he dropped the thing in the sink. "Ech!" He looked down in the sink, saw the string twist around, and leaned in to look closer. It looked like some sort of worm: a small grey worm. Luke trembled. Were those things in his body? Did he have parasites living inside him?
Luke felt another sneeze coming on. He leaned over the sink and put a finger against his left nostril and blew out of his right nostril. Some smaller grey things stuck to the side of the sink. He put a finger against his right nostril and blew out of his left nostril. There were more grey things. Some of them were wiggling around, and they all looked like worms. Jeez. Luke's mind reeled at the thought of parasites living inside his body. Oh my God, tiny creatures moving around, eating, living right inside him. Ugh. How was this possible?
Luke turned on the tap and swished water around the sink. He made sure all the worms went down the drain. Now what was he going to do? Should he tell his parents? Should he see a doctor? Luke stared at his reflection in the mirror. What to do? What to do?
He noticed that the white of his right eye wasn't white. It looked grey. He leaned closer to the mirror and pulled his upper and lower lids apart. Instead of a solid grey, the white part of his eye seemed to be made up of a series of ribbed lines with the parts in between made up of a greyish colour. It looked familiar.
A couple of years ago, his dad had taken him fishing and bought worms. When Luke had glanced in the tin can, he saw a bunch of earthworms jumbled together, their bodies intertwined one on top of the other. The grey ribbed lines in the white of his eye looked that. It looked like that pile of earthworms.
As Luke held his lids apart to see as much of the white as possible, several of the grey ribbed lines slithered around. Luke jumped back in surprise. "Whoa!" He stood looking at himself in the mirror then moved closer and looked at his right eye. He blinked several times. The white of his eye was once again completely white. He looked at his left eye. It showed white. He leaned in and pulled the lids back on his right eye and examined the eyeball. It looked normal. He rubbed it. Something felt odd. He pulled his eyelids apart and looked closer. In the corner of one eye, beside his nose, Luke could see a grey filament sticking out from behind his eye. The end of it turned in a circular motion. Luke almost jumped, but he remained calm. Holding his one hand in place, he shifted his fingers so he could grab a hold of the end of the filament with his index finger and thumb. He pulled. He could feel the filament sliding out from the corner of his eye, but as he pulled on it, it got thicker. The other end popped out. Luke held up the string and stared at it. It wiggled a few times. There was no doubt about it; it was some sort of worm.
Somebody knocked at the door and startled Luke. He dropped the length of grey into the sink.
"Luke?" His mother's voice sounded muffled through the door. "Are you all right?"
Luke walked to the door and opened it. "Mom, I want you to look at something."
"What?" Muriel followed him into the bathroom.
Luke pointed to the sink. "What is that?"
Muriel walked to the sink and looked down. "What's what?"
"That," said Luke.
Muriel looked at her son, and then looked back in the sink. Luke leaned over and looked himself. The grey worm had disappeared. "But..." Luke stuttered as he madly looked around. The worm was nowhere in sight.
"What did you see, Luke?"
"I..." Where should he start? This was all pretty weird. "I sneezed and a worm came out of my nose."
"A worm. I sneezed and a small worm came out of my nose. But not just once, several times."
Muriel stared at her son.
"The first time, I thought I was seeing things, but the second and third times... No, I really did see a worm. It wiggled around. It was alive."
Art poked his head in the door. "What's going on?"
Muriel turned around and looked at her husband with a concerned expression. "Luke says he saw a worm."
"So? I think we have spiders, sometimes beetles, and even the occasional cockroach. Those little critters find their way into everything."
"No, Dad," said Luke. "It came out of my nose."
"What?" Art first looked at his son, and then at his wife, who was giving him a questioning look.
"Should I see the doctor?" Luke scratched his nose. He held back an impending sneeze while he frantically reached for toilet paper. Then he sneezed. When he looked into the wad of tissue he could see half a dozen worms squirming around. "Look!" He held the toilet paper out so his parents could see it.
Art and Muriel looked at the tissue, then at each other. "Art, I think it's time to take Luke to the doctor."
"I think you're right, Muriel. I'll phone Doc Hallman right away." Art disappeared.
"Luke, we're going to get you over to the doctor. You need to see somebody." Muriel took the tissue out of Luke's hand and tossed it in the toilet, and then flushed. "I'll phone the school and let them know you won't be in." She walked out of the bathroom.
Luke finished brushing his teeth. He took a last look at himself in the mirror. Nothing was coming out of his nose. The whites of his eyes were white. For the moment he seemed to be okay, but the doctor would be the best judge of that. Luke went downstairs, where his parents were making arrangements with work and school in order to get him over for a medical examination.
Doc Hallman was a good-natured character. He put everyone at ease and yet behaved in a professional manner that indicated he knew exactly what he was doing.
"Well, folks," Hallman said with a warm smile. "How may I be of service today?"
Muriel sat on the edge of her seat. "We appreciate you seeing us on such short notice." She cleared her throat. "I would think it best if Luke tells you himself." She turned to her son. "Luke?"
The doctor continued to smile as he turned his head toward Luke. "Yes, son?"
"I have worms."
The doctor raised an eyebrow. "Worms? Now why would you say that?"
"I have sneezed several times this morning and ended up with worms. I actually pulled one out of my nose. And..." Luke paused, a little unsure how to proceed or whether he should. This all seemed so crazy. "I have worms in my eye."
Luke's parents stared at their son, both of them shocked. "You didn't say anything about that before," said his mother.
"I guess I didn't get a chance to get to that part of the story."
Dr. Hallman studied Luke without saying anything. He turned and looked out the window as he rubbed his chin. He turned back to Luke. "How about I get you to sit up on the examination table," he said, gesturing to the other side of the room.
Luke and his parents looked to where the doctor was pointing. "Go on, now," said Muriel. Luke stood up and walked over to the table.
"Take off your shirt," said Hallman. "I'd like to do an ultrasound. Perfectly harmless, and it will give us a peek inside you."
Luke took off his shirt and sat on the table. The doctor went to the corner and wheeled out a device topped by a computer, monitor, and keyboard, which he then pushed to the head of the table. "How about you lie down on your back?" The doctor fiddled with the controls. He pulled out a sensor connected by a cable and applied a gel to the end of it. "Now Luke, this is a type of sensor called a transducer. I place it against your skin and, using ultra-high sound waves, it can create an image of the interior of your body. This will allow me to see what, if anything, may be going on inside."
Dr. Hallman put the sensor on Luke's stomach. Luke flinched and said, "That's cold."
"Sorry," said the doctor. He pushed a couple of buttons and stared at the screen, moved the sensor across Luke's stomach, then placed it in several positions on his chest. "Hmmm," he said.
Luke looked over at the screen, but it was turned in a way that didn't allow him to see what it displayed. "See anything, doctor?"
Dr. Hallman turned around. "Muriel? Art?"
Luke's parents stood up and walked over to the examination table. "Yes, doctor?" Muriel said.
Hallman stepped to one side and pointed at the monitor as he held the sensor in place. "Everything is more or less normal, but ecdysis seems to be overdue. Luke is in the final stage before puberty, and his collective is taking on its final mass, the mass he will carry with him as an adult." Muriel and Art studied the monitor.
"Doctor?" Luke couldn't make any sense of what the doctor had said. He tried to look at the monitor, but all he could see was its side.
Hallman looked down at Luke. "Yes?"
"May I see?"
"Sure." Hallman grabbed the screen and turned it toward Luke.
Luke squinted at the screen. What was he seeing? Long ribbed tubes were everywhere, one intertwined with another. As he watched, one of the tubes slithered from one side of the screen to the other and disappeared in amongst the mass of tubes. Luke thought it looked like a mass of cooked spaghetti noodles, but these noodles were big and fat.
He coughed. Still watching the monitor, he coughed again. Then he choked, partially doubled over. He couldn't stop coughing. It felt like he had swallowed the wrong way and something was caught in his throat. He gagged, then leaned over the edge of the examination table. He coughed a couple of times, gagged, then vomited on the floor. He looked down at the splatter. It was a small writhing mass of worms. Luke gagged, then his mid-section tightened and he threw up again. Something tasted bad in his mouth. Bile? But he could feel things moving around on his tongue. He spit onto the floor. Worms. More worms. What was this? Luke stared at the floor. "Mom? Dad? What's happening to me? I'm scared."
Dr. Hallman glared at Art and Muriel. "You haven't spoken with the boy, have you?"
The two of them looked away and fidgeted, unable to look the doctor in the eye.
Luke looked at the Dr. Hallman. "Tell me what?"
The doctor ignored Luke and spoke directly to his parents. "I see many cases in which parents completely avoid giving their children any instruction about the birds and the bees, and the poor kids end up in all sorts of difficulty due to a lack of the most fundamental knowledge of their own bodies."
Luke looked confused. "What knowledge?"
"Not arming your child with basic information about life is a serious misstep in parenting. This is true of humans as well as us."
"Us?" Luke looked at his parents. "What is he talking about?"
Dr. Hallman turned to Luke and leaned a little closer to him. "Son, I want you to pay close attention to what I am about to tell you."
"You are not human."
He squinted at the doctor.
Hallman sighed, shaking his head. "You are a symbiotic organism made up of a colony of annelids. You have reached the age of puberty, when you are going to go through your ecdysis in preparation for your adulthood."
Luke pursed his lips and said, "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Dr. Hallman put a hand on Luke's shoulder. "Son, you consist of a group of - for lack of a better word - worms that live together harmoniously as a single being. You are not human in the usual sense; you are a symbiotic organism."
Luke stared at him, then pushed the doctor's hand off his shoulder and sat bolt upright. "Mom? What the heck is he talking about?"
Neither Muriel nor Art could look at their son.
"This is crazy." Luke made a move to get off the examination table. The doctor used both hands to gently but firmly push Luke back down. "Luke, I'm going to need you to remain calm. I am going to perform a little procedure so we can get things sorted out."
Luke looked a little alarmed. "Doc, with all due respect, I think you're talking nonsense."
Dr. Hallman turned to the parents. "Art? Muriel? I'm going to need your help."
Art and Muriel both sighed, then moved over to the table, one on either side of their son. They grasped Luke's arms to hold him down.
"Mom? Dad? What are you doing?" Luke looked wide-eyed at each of his parents.
"Stay calm son," said Dr. Hallman. "I promise to make this quick and painless."
The doctor went to a cabinet and opened its door. He rummaged around, then turned back to the table with a huge hypodermic needle. Luke took one look and his mouth fell open agape. He shook and his parents held him tighter.
The doctor picked up the sensor and held it on Luke's stomach. He studied the screen of the scanner as he moved the device over Luke's abdomen. "Okay, I see it. Hold him still." The doctor leaned over Luke's midsection, raised the needle, and plunged it into the skin.
Luke screamed as he watched the needle disappear into his stomach. He could see the doctor pushing the plunger down, injecting him with something.
Suddenly, Luke relaxed and leaned back on the table. A wonderful peace had come over him. He felt perfectly calm, although a little detached from reality. The doctor had given him some drug and it felt great.
"That should calm him down," said the doctor. He stepped back and put the hypodermic needle to one side. "Now, which one of you wants to do the procedure?"
Muriel and Art looked at one another, and then slowly turned to look at Dr. Hallman. "Ah, doctor," said Muriel. "We were hoping you would do it." The two of them averted their eyes from the doctor's gaze as both their faces reddened. "Neither one of us knows how."
Dr. Hallman first looked at Muriel, then at Art. He shook his head. "Okay, but I am going to insist that each one of you assist me in renewing the bonding. It is important for a child to be connected to his parents."
"Yes, doctor," Muriel and Art said at the same time.
Dr. Hallman undid a couple of buttons on the lower part of his shirt. He pulled back the material and exposed his navel. A wiggling filament appeared and pushed out. The length grew and resembled a grey worm made up of ringed segments. It snaked out over Luke's upper torso.
"Art? Muriel? Get ready. I'm going to need you in a moment."
Art unbuttoned his shirt as the doctor had, and Muriel followed suit with her blouse.
Luke felt dazed from the drug. He looked at his parents and the doctor as if he were in a dream. He saw what appeared to be a worm coming out of the doctor's navel, but instead of being frightened by it, he looked at it more as a curiosity. What was it? What was going on? And considering how good he felt, did it matter?
The end of the worm wiggled around Luke's stomach, then the tip inserted itself into his navel. More and more of the worm worked itself inside of Luke.
Luke glanced over at his parents and saw they, too, each had a grey worm coming out of their navels. It was bizarre and incomprehensible, but with this drug, who cared?
The doctor put a hand on Luke's shoulder. "Here we go, son."
Luke stiffened and his eyes rolled back in his head. He let out a little gasp. The doctor, Art, and Muriel all stared at the boy as a line appeared first down the middle of his face, then travelled down his upper chest and became thicker.
"Art, I would like you to remove the rest of the boy's clothes."
Art removed Luke's shoes and socks then his pants. When he'd slid his son's pants and underwear off, he stepped back to watch the line.
"The ecdysis will take a minute or two. Without clothes, the molting can take place unimpeded."
The line had become a crack. The two sides had separated and there was a growing gap between them. They could all see a new, fresh skin underneath. Muriel noticed hair on the boy's chest. Her boy was turning into a man.
The two halves of molted skin fell off on either side of Luke. The opaque skin seemed brittle, and it broke into finer pieces. Underneath, Luke had a new, unblemished look.
The worm from the doctor withdrew from Luke's navel. He took a step back and motioned to the parents to move up closer to their son.
A grey filament appeared out of Luke's navel. It grew longer and turned into a ringed worm. The worms of Art and Muriel wound out of their bodies and snaked across the open space to their son's. The three of them together wound around one another.
"Hey, Mom! Hey, Dad!" Luke smiled at his parents. "I feel much better now. I understand."
Muriel put a hand on Luke's forehead. "I'm glad, son." She brushed pieces of molted skin from her son's body. "How do you feel?"
"A little tired."
"I think you can take the rest of the day off. This has already been a full day, don't you think?" Muriel smiled at her son as her worm wound itself a little tighter around Luke's.
"Yes. I can see that now. I see everything now."
Muriel looked up at Dr. Hallman. "Thank you, doctor."
The doctor's worm had withdrawn itself back into his navel and he was buttoning his shirt. He looked up at Muriel and smiled. "Always glad to help out." He looked down at Luke. "Everything will be fine, Luke. You'll want to take a shower when you get home to wash off any remnants of your molted skin. The new skin may be tender for a day or two. I think you'll want to take it easy. Stay out of the sun, skip swimming in a public pool, that sort of thing." Hallman smiled. "How about you get dressed?"
The three worms of Luke, Art, and Muriel unwound themselves from each other and receded into their navels. Luke sat up as his parents handed him his clothes.
Dr. Hallman got them all organized and out the door in ten minutes. It had all gone rather well, he thought, but he once again had to shake his head. Sometimes parents, out of embarrassment or a lack of responsibility, didn't do what they were supposed to do. They failed to instruct their children in the ways of the world, especially about their own bodies. Invariably, parents and children ended up in situations that were far more difficult than necessary, a regular - Dare he say it? - can of worms.
The doctor shrugged and thought how being a parent was considered an inalienable right in society; you never had to prove you were actually capable of performing the task. Thank God they made you pass a driver's test before allowing you on the road with a car.
He chuckled, then turned to his desk to see who his next patient was.