“Ugh,” said Todd as he walked into his apartment, put down his bag, loosened his blue striped tie, and collapsed on the sofa. He didn’t even bother to take off his grey suit jacket.
From across the apartment came a muffled untz-untz-untz dance beat. Todd wasn’t sure what song it was; they all sounded the same to him. It was coming from Matt’s room.
“Is that you, Todd?” shouted Matt, trying to be heard over the pulsing music.
“Who else did you think it would be?” said Todd. He leaned back, closed his eyes, and muttered to himself, “What a fuckin’ day.”
The door to Matt’s room opened, the untz-untz-untz now fully audible. Matt danced into the living room, waving his arms above his head to the beat like he was in his own personal club. He was in his mid-forties, but dressed like a twenty-something closer to Todd’s age: silver shirt, dark slim-fit jeans, and brown leather shoes. He was balding and his remaining hair was grey, but he cut it short. It worked for him.
“Hey man, you look beat,” he said.
Todd opened his eyes and saw Matt’s shiny silver shirt. “You look like a silverfish.”
Matt laughed. “You seen my wallet? I’ve got a date with Ileana.”
“Nope. All I’ve seen is the view from the couch.”
Matt looked through magazines on the coffee table between the couch and TV, but didn’t find his wallet. “We’re going to Casey’s and then over to her place,” he said. “Her roommates are throwing a party. You should come by.”
Todd rubbed his temples. “I’d like to, but I’m dead. I had to be in at five thirty this morning. Crazy day, six hundred thousand orders.”
Matt whistled. “Damn.”
“I think I’m just going to get some food from Ray’s and crash.”
“I don’t know how you eat that crap. And what kind of name is Ray’s for a Chinese place?”
“Hey man, if it’s good who cares what it’s called?”
Matt laughed. “Good point.” He looked under a stack of mail. No wallet there, either.
“You think people will be at Ileana’s all night?”
“I’m counting on it,” said Matt with a wink.
Todd smiled. “After I crash, I’ll head over.”
“Great. Gotta get you out of the house, Todd. It’s Friday night!” Matt opened a drawer, smiled, and pulled out his wallet. “Found it!”
Ding-dong. Todd opened the front door.
“Ahh, Charles, my good man. What’s the damage tonight?” he said. His jacket and tie were gone, and his white button-down shirt was half-open and untucked.
Charles, a twenty-one-year-old Chinese man who still had some facial acne left over from high school, stood outside the door. He wore large wrap-around sunglasses and a black nylon jacket with “Ray’s Fine Chinese” embroidered in yellow on the breast.
He handed Todd a large, grease-stained paper bag. “Fourteen fifty.”
Todd gave him twenty, opened the bag and looked inside. He took a big whiff and smiled.
“Keep the change,” he said.
“We threw in free chow mein,” said Charles, “since you’re our number one customer. Brand new recipe. Not even on the menu yet.”
“Aw, thanks. Have a good night, my man.”
Todd sat on the edge of the sofa. Greasy food containers were spread out on the coffee table in front of him: over-fried soggy dumplings in a plastic tray, Day-Glo orange chicken, and a paperboard container of chow mein. The chow mein container overflowed with sauce-soaked tan noodles, a piece of egg, brown fatty beef, and large green-ish pepper slices.
Todd took a big bite of dumpling, followed by a huge forkful of noodles. He wolfed it down, chewing without closing his mouth.
The TV was on, Todd’s favorite: Wheel of Fortune. Contestant Number One—a forty-ish housewife named Eileen—had had a few lucky spins and guessed the right letters, and was keeping Vanna busy. She had a bunch of cash, half a new car, and a trip to Maui. But she clearly had no idea what the answer to the puzzle was.
Pat asked her what to do. She decided to spin again.
“You idiot,” said Todd through a mouthful of food. It actually sounded more like “You igeat,” as the words tried to get from the back of his throat, through the wall of greasy chinese food, and out of his mouth. “You gnee cu guy gowels.”
Matt walked into the living room wearing a light denim jacket.
The Wheel stopped spinning and landed on the black tile: Bankrupt.
Her shoulders sunk as her score went to zero. “Oh, I’m sorry,” said Pat, reaching for her half car and trip, “I’ll have to take those from you.”
Todd looked at Matt and pointed to the TV. “Gowels! Ge gould gave got gowels.”
“Chew man,” said Matt. “Relax.”
Todd swallowed. “Vowels. She needed to buy vowels. That’s how you win, even Pat said so in some interview he did. She got greedy.”
Todd stabbed a huge deep-fried piece of orange chicken with his fork; the chicken made a crunching sound like he had forced the fork into a lollipop. He shoved the chicken into his mouth.
“Speaking of greedy, I don’t know how you eat that crap and stay so thin,” said Matt. He looked in the container of noodles. “Is this supposed to be chow mein?”
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” answered Todd. “It might look like shit, but it tastes sooooooo good.”
“Well, I’m out of here,” said Matt as he grabbed his keys from the end table. “I’ll text you in a couple of hours.”
Todd shoveled another huge forkful of food—part of a dumpling, orange chicken, and chow mein—into his mouth and gave Matt a raised fist.
Matt laughed and walked out the door.
The lights were off; the flickering TV illuminated the room. Spread out on the coffee table were the survivors of Todd’s battle with his dinner: two half-eaten dumplings in their plastic tray, assorted pieces of orange chicken in a pool of sauce, and the half-full chow mein container with a clump of brown, limp, congealing noodles sticking over the top flap.
Todd slouched on the sofa, snoring.
A commercial was on: a man in a blue shirt and white pants, standing in a TV studio kitchen. On the counter in front of him was a pile of delicious-looking pears, apples, cucumbers, fennel, and other fruits and veggies. Next to the produce was a large high-tech machine made of black plastic and chrome.
The man spoke to the camera with the unrestrained enthusiasm of a man’s who’s favorite football team just won The Super Bowl. “The benefits of fruits and vegetables have been known for years,” he said, picking up an apple. “And to get the best out of them, they must be consumed in raw liquid form—not like this,” he said, throwing the apple over his shoulder.
The studio audience laughed. He pointed to the big shiny black device on the table. “We all know the benefits of the Mega-Turbo Ultra Juicer, right?”
The audience shouted, “Yes, we do!”
On Todd’s coffee table, the chow mein container moved. Just a little.
“But say you’re on the go, or busy, or don’t have one in the office—and you have to juice. Then what?”
The crowd murmured, uncertain and concerned.
The chow mein container moved again.
The noodles on the top flap wiggled.
The Juicer-Man reached underneath the counter and pulled out a shiny black device that looked just like the Mega-Turbo Ultra Juicer, but smaller—the size of a soda can. He held it aloft, like King Arthur hoisting Excalibur towards the heavens. “Then I present to you the Mega-Turbo Mini Juicer!”
The crowd roared its approval.
The chow mein container vibrated. Something slithered out of the noodles and plopped onto the table with a small squish, like a maggot falling on a plate.
A small black worm.
Todd stirred in his sleep.
“Having trouble living a healthy life? Well, the Mega-Turbo Mini Juicer will get you on the right track.”
The worm crawled towards the edge of the table, leaving a slimy tan trail. It fell off of the table and onto the floor.
It wriggled its way across the floor, around crumbs, and onto Todd’s shoe.
It crawled up his pant leg.
Onto his white dress shirt, staining it brown.
Todd moaned in his sleep.
It crawled up his left arm, over his shoulder, and onto his neck.
The Juicer-Man proclaimed: “Your new life begins today!”
The worm slithered up his chin, over his cheek, and into his nose.
Todd’s eyes snapped open and he leapt off the couch.
“What?” he shouted at the empty room.
He pawed at his nose. He wiped his shirt and pants. He looked at the containers on the table.
Nothing in his nose. His shirt and pants were clean. The containers were just where he’d left them.
Everything was fine.
Just bad dreams, he thought. That’s what I get for stuffing my face. I need to listen to Matt next time.
His stomach growled. It churned like it was being flipped on a hamster wheel.
Todd raced to the bathroom. He made it to the toilet just in time to vomit his dinner inside the porcelain bowl. He retched for three minutes, and barely had a second to catch his breath before the other end needed attending to. He stood up, whirled around, and sat on the toilet. His bowels exploded with rocket force.
As he held his head in his hands and tried not to puke on his shoes, he heard the Juicer-Man preaching from the living room:
“I have everything I need for sustenance, vitality, and energy. And I couldn’t be living a healthier life.”
Todd lay in bed in just a tank top and boxers, sweat oozing from his pores. His sheets were soaked.
He trembled and curled into the fetal position. Then straight again. He tried—and failed—to get comfortable.
“So hot...so cold...just want to sleep.”
Todd rolled over, grabbed a pillow, and put it over his glistening head. His stomach rumbled.
He closed his eyes.
Todd’s eyes snapped open, as though he’d been awakened by a loud noise.
He looked around his room: his desk, chair, laptop, books, clothes, door, closet.
Todd was alone. It was quiet.
Todd’s stomach grumbled. “I gotta stop eating that food,” he said.
He slid out of bed, leaving a sweaty stain, and put on his robe.
He turned on the bathroom light—too bright. He shielded his eyes with his hand.
He hung his robe on a hook on the back of the bathroom door, turned on the faucet, and splashed cold water on his face and hair.
He grabbed a towel and dried his head.
He let the water run and looked at himself in the mirror: pale skin, sweaty hair. He stuck out his tongue: dry. He looked at his eyes: bloodshot.
“I look like crap.”
He gagged, heaved, and threw up into the sink.
He groaned and held the sides of the sink, trying not to faint. He wiped the spittle from his mouth, and looked in the mirror.
His eyes went wide. He dropped his towel on the floor.
Between his open lips hung a black worm.
The worm moved.
The worm struggled and appeared to get smaller. Then he realized: Oh my God. It’s not getting smaller. It’s trying to crawl back in.
Todd grabbed the worm, but his fingers couldn’t get a grip on its slippery body. He felt the worm wriggling on the roof of his mouth, thrashing back and forth between his molars.
The worm was almost back into his mouth when he finally got a grip on it. Todd pulled it, hard, which immediately made him gag. He almost let the worm go, but managed to hold tight.
You’re not getting away that easy.
He pulled again, slower this time. He felt the wet worm slide past the tired muscles at the back of his throat and across his dry tongue. Its slick body squirmed over his gag reflex, and it took everything he had not to give in and retch.
He pulled and pulled. The worm kept coming.
How much is there? he thought, and, as though the worm had heard him, the last bit rubbed against his top front teeth and fell, plunk!, into the water in the basin.
Todd stared in disbelief at the nine-inch black worm swimming in his sink.
Holy. Fucking. Shit.
Todd lunged towards the worm with a closed fist, but the worm was too fast. It swam down the swirling water and into the drain.
“Mother freaker,” he said to the empty bathroom.
Todd turned off the water and looked at himself in the mirror again. He opened his mouth wide and looked inside.
Nothing else there, he thought. No more worms.
His stomach made a loud, wet churning noise.
Oh God. I gotta shit.
Todd pulled down his shorts and moved as quickly as he could to the toilet. He made it just in time.
One painful minute later, his body was empty. He wiped, pulled up his shorts, and turned around to flush.
The toilet was full of black worms, swimming in the clear water. At least a hundred, maybe more.
He flushed the toilet, but the worms didn’t get sucked into the swirling water. Instead, they crawled out over the seat and dribbled on the floor.
They crawled onto his bare feet. He felt tiny pinches as they moved, like being stuck with a ball of sewing needles. Each pinch produced a red mark the size of the head of a tack, and that’s when he realized that the worms were biting him.
And he lost it.
Todd swiped at the worms, but they wouldn’t come off. He grabbed them, one at a time, stretching each like a wet rubber band until it snapped.
More poured out of the toilet. He stomped on them, feeling the satisfying squish under his bare heel and between his toes.
Dozens of worms leapt off of the toilet seat and onto his chest. He grabbed them by the handful, pulling them off and squishing them in his fists. Bloody black worm carcasses and light brown goo oozed from his hands and dribbled on the floor, adding to the growing pile. The tan and black mound reminded Todd of the time at summer camp when he was nine and accidentally spilled his applesauce snack in a pile of mulch. That struck Todd as very funny, and he started to laugh.
And then he slipped on it.
He fell backwards against the wall, sliding down the cool smooth tile and on to his butt. He was eye-to-eye with the toilet seat.
A large, fat worm breached the top of the toilet seat and appeared to look at him. Todd screamed.
It leapt at his face and he passed out.
Todd’s eyes snapped open.
He jumped up from the bathroom floor, ready for action.
He paused. The bathroom was clean.
No pile of tan and black goo. No worms.
He looked at his body: his feet, his legs, his chest. No worms, no bite marks. He examined his face in the mirror. No sign of the big worm that had lunged at him.
What the fuck was in that food? he thought. LSD?
Then he had a chilling realization. I sure hope it’s acid. Because if it isn’t I’m in big trouble.
He heard the front door open. The living room lights turned on.
“Todd-ie-o!” came Matt’s voice. He sounded buzzed. “Let’s go! Time to party-o!” He heard flirty, girlish giggling.
Todd put on his robe and shuffled out of the bathroom. Matt was Cha-Cha dancing with Ileana, who looked stunning in her gold thin-strapped top, black skirt, and heels. They Cha Cha’d back and forth while he sang: “Cha Cha, one two three, Kiss me, one two three.” She gave him a light peck and giggled again.
“Hey Todd,” she said, “you’re missing out. Lots of cute girls.”
“Naw, I can’t,” said Todd. “I feel like shit.”
Matt dipped Ileana towards Todd and looked at him. “You do look like shit-ie-o.”
Ileana laughed as Matt stood her up. “I have to pee-ie-o.”
She quasi-stumbled to the bathroom.
Oh no, thought Todd. Please, please don’t let her find anything in there. Like a worm in the sink. Or a big fat one swimming in the toilet.
Todd hoped his worry didn’t show on his face. Matt, lovestruck and slightly drunk, didn’t seem to notice.
“You didn’t respond to our text-ie-os, so we came by to see if you were okay-ie-o.”
“I’m not feeling too good,” said Todd. “Just a long day and too much food.”
“You want me to call the EMT-ie-os?”
“Don’t be a drama queen. I just need to sleep.”
Ileana’s voice came from the bathroom and made Todd’s heart jump. “Ew!” she said. “Todd, this is so super gross!”
Oh no. No no no no.
Matt Cha-Cha’d to the bathroom door and walked inside, out of sight. “Ugh,” came his voice. “Todd, what the hell, man?”
Trying not to let panic into his voice, Todd said: “Yeah? What’s wrong? I didn’t see anything weird in there.”
He walked weakly towards the bathroom. This is it, he thought. I’m being eaten from the inside, and here’s the proof.
Matt called: “You need to explain this, man.”
Ileana said: “Nasty, Todd.”
Todd walked to the doorway and peeked into the bathroom. Here we go. My death sentence.
Matt and Ileana were pointing to something to the floor on the other side of the toilet.
“Can you please tell me what that is?” said Matt.
Todd walked towards it and looked.
Matt and Ileana laughed. Todd’s towel was draped over the plunger behind the toilet, like the world’s most disgusting tent.
“That’s pretty nasty, Todd,” said Matt.
“Yeah,” said Ileana. “That’s super gross. I wouldn’t touch that if you paid me, even if you washed it first.”
Todd sighed. That’s right. The towel. I dropped it. No worms, no bile, no black squishy stuff or piles of goo.
He forced a weak laugh. “I guess I’ve been a little sloppy tonight,” he said.
“I’ll say,” said Ileana, mock-waving a hand under her nose. “You need a shower.”
“Yeah,” said Matt, “just make sure to change your towel first.”
They laughed and walked past him.
Todd picked up the towel, holding it at arm’s length. He looked at it. Under it. Just to be sure.
Aside from whatever nastiness it had picked up from the plunger, the towel was clean.
Matt and Ileana popped their heads back in the doorway, Cha-Cha-ing.
“Well, bye-ie-o,” Matt said, dipping Ileana again.
She giggled. “Later, Todd.”
“See ya,” Todd said as they Cha-Cha’d out the door.
Todd sat on the sofa. The lights were off.
He sipped a glass of water and stared at the TV. His left arm itched, right around his elbow. Now this I can handle, he thought as he scratched it. Just no more worms, ok?
On the TV, a man in a cheap blue suit held up a vial of water. The title under him, written in a holy, swirling font, read: “Trust in Rev. Willy Dayton III, Holy Man!”
“The water will cure you,” said the Holy Reverend, staring at his television parish watching at home. “The water will heal you. The water cleans your soul of all your sins!”
Todd looked at his glass. “Works for me, Rev,” he said to the TV, and took a sip.
His mind wandered. He couldn’t remember what had been before the commercial. A game show? Some cheesy cop drama? Another commercial? What if it’s all just commercials?
Todd looked around the room. How long have I been on the couch?
He absent-mindedly scratched his left arm.
“Bottled and blessed by my holy eye,” the Reverend continued. “One hundred percent pure holy water is only available through me, Reverend Willy Dayton the Third of Nazareth, Maryland.”
Todd rubbed his stomach and sipped his water. “My water seems to be doing the trick, Rev. I think I’ll skip yours, this time. Thanks for the offer, though. I’m sure it’s genuine.”
Todd took another sip. He closed his eyes and relished the refreshing water as it slid down his throat. Since his eyes were closed, he wasn’t able to see the itchy spot on his left arm.
He didn’t notice something move under his skin.
He put down the glass and scratched his arm again.
“Accept no substitutes,” said the Rev, throwing his hands in the air. “Can I get an Amen, brothers?”
“Amen, Reverend!” Todd said.
“Can I get a hallelujah, sisters?”
“Hallelujah!” Todd said in a falsetto.
“Order now, and I’ll send you a copy of Reverend Willy Dayton the Third’s one-of-a-kind bible. I’m offering this bible with my vision for the twenty first century...and beyond!”
Todd laughed. “I’m getting my credit card right now!” he said, and reached for his itchy spot again. He looked at his left elbow and stopped mid-chuckle.
Underneath his skin, crawling around his elbow, was a familiar shape. He couldn’t see it, but he was one hundred percent certain the thing squirming just below the top layer of his skin was a nine-inch black worm.
He slapped at it. It moved, diving further into his body and out of sight.
He slapped his face. This has to be a dream. Another hallucination.
He felt a wriggling sensation in his other arm—the right one. He willed himself to look at it and almost spewed water all over the couch.
His right forearm was rippling. It looked like someone had dropped rocks into a puddle, one after another, creating overlapping circles of quarter-inch tall waves.
He shrieked and grabbed his phone. He dialed 911.
The operator picked up: “Nine one one. What’s the emergency?”
“Help me,” he said, slapping at his arms. “I got worms.”
“Sir, calm down. You’ve got worms?”
Todd watched the nine-inch worm under his left elbow resurface, seeming to swim in circles around the point of his elbow. It felt like someone dragging wet string over his funny bone. Nothing funny about this, he thought, and tried to stop himself from cackling like a madman. But he couldn’t help it.
He let out a high-pitched guffaw and said, “I got worms crawling all over me!” He giggled. “Under my skin. I can’t get them out.”
“Sir, have you been taking drugs?”
The ripples in his right arm spread down his palm and up his bicep. He winced and watched tiny pools of blood appear under his skin.
“They’re all over me,” he said. “Biting. Pulling.” I’m losing it, he thought, and that’s when the dam broke. The exhaustion from his horrible day at work, his dinner’s aggressive assault on his body, and his erratic sleep all boiled over, and hysterics burst from his mouth at the worst possible time.
“Son, this is a line for serious emergencies. We’ve got no time for you and your druggie games.”
“Wait,” said Todd, slapping at his arms in between bursts of laughter. God only knows what I sound like to her, he managed to think in a clear moment. Slapping, laughing, worms—I’m a classic head-trip. “I’m serious,” he said, and then let out the biggest guffaw yet.
“Get off the line!” shouted the operator, and hung up.
Todd let out a scream—half laugh, half cathartic shout—and fell to the floor.
The worms disappeared from his arms.
His eyes shut and he started snoring.
Another commercial: Some fit forty-year-old guy, looking confident in his blue cardigan sweater, talked to the camera: “My life had hit a wall, and it was time to start anew. And it was really quite simple. Once I got the Holly Ann Chang Method to Internet Billions I made six million in the first quarter...”
Todd’s eyes popped open. He was lying on the floor.
He sat up quickly and banged his head on the coffee table. He winced and looked at his arms.
He looked at the table, under the couch, in the cushions. No worms.
“...you set it up, watch the markets, and rake it in,” said Cardigan Sweater Guy. “Even my liberal hippie commie brother from Vermont used it and cashed in. Now he funds some SAVE the whales group. Liberals,” he said with a wink to the studio audience. They laughed. “But I digress…”
Todd stood up and stretched. He blinked his eyes.
He shuffled to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. The color had returned to his face. His eyes weren’t bloodshot. His tongue wasn’t dry. He burped—no gagging.
The nausea seems to have passed. Stomach seems ok.
He smiled. Thank God. It’s over.
“Sorry Ray, I think I’m done with your fine cuisine.”
Todd walked to his room, farted, and shut the door.
“...The Holly Ann Chang Method to Internet Billions is a winner. Endorsed by six living presidents. Become a winner today! One choice to change your life.”
The sun shone in through Todd’s window. He smiled in his sleep.
The front door opened and Matt walked in, alone. He still wore his outfit from the night before: his slim-fit jeans were wrinkled and his shiny silver shirt was untucked.
He hummed a Cha-Cha to himself and looked at the TV, which was still on. Saturday Morning Cartoons had just started with “Aqua-Bots,” which, according to their theme song, were underwater invisible crime-fighting robots.
Matt laughed. “Yo, Todd-ie-o. I’m home.”
Inside his room, Todd’s eyes snapped open. He smiled and pulled back the covers.
A large bulge protruded from his stomach. Like a pregnant woman in the third trimester.
Matt turned off the TV. “Late night with the old boob tube-ie-o, eh Todd?”
The skin under Todd’s stomach bulge turned and twisted, like the formation of a funnel cloud. Todd opened his mouth to scream, but no sound came out.
A small hole appeared in his belly button. A black, shiny head popped out, accompanied by a small bead of blood.
Todd’s eyes went wide and he tried to scream again. Again, no sound.
Instead, a dozen small black worms crawled from his mouth and dribbled down his cheeks, leaving small tracks of bile.
Matt put his wallet on the end table. “Todd, you should have seen it man. Ileana was a monster. She can go all night. I think I need to pass out for a bit. I didn’t sleep too much, if you get my drift.”
Todd’s skin, from head to toe, was alive with ripples. Red puddles grew under his skin, spreading outward like tendrils.
Worms burst from his fingertips. The nine-inch black worm pushed through the skin on his left elbow and fell onto his sheets.
“How about you, buddy?” came Matt’s voice from the kitchen. “You get any sleep? Feeling any better?”
Worms crawled from Todd’s ears, his neck, the backs of his knees, the inside of his biceps, the webbing between his toes. They spilled out onto the bed, forming pulsing masses; writhing black shapes in crimson pools that soaked through his sheets and into the mattress.
“You got to get out next time, my man. There was this girl there asking about you, I think Ileana can hook you up.”
Todd’s stomach bulged like an inflating balloon, then split in half down the middle. Thousands of black worms slithered out, crawling over each other in a squirming horde of glistening black and red ropes.
Worms slid from his nose, dragging grey bits of half-chewed brain behind them.
A worm pushed through his skull and dislodged his left eye with a wet pop! For a few seconds, he had a unique view of his chin as his eye, still working, dangled on his cheek.
The vision in his right eye flashed white and red as another worm crawled up his optic nerve, and then flickered to black as it chewed through his cornea.
Matt opened the fridge door. “Hey, you saved some for me. I’m so hungry I could almost eat this crap.” He grabbed Ray’s chow mein box from the fridge.
Todd’s body, bed, desk, books, stereo, walls, ceiling—his entire room—was covered in a living, breathing black and red mass.
Matt took a bite of chow mein and smiled. “You know, you’re right,” he said, chewing. “It might look like shit, but it tastes sooooooo good.”