by Tony Bowman
“It was a bee sting, they tell me,” Mr. Hubbard said.
Bill stared down at the little man with the thick glasses and the shiny, pink, bald head. To Bill, he had always seemed taller. But, to be fair, it had been thirty years since he had seen the man. A lot changes in thirty years, short six-year-olds become tall thirty-six-year-olds and middle-aged men you catch banging your mother in her upstairs bedroom become stooped old men.
“A bee sting?” Bill asked. He sat and stared at the urn containing his mother’s ashes. A bee sting? How could something so mundane, so banal, have ended the life of someone he had first loved, then puzzled over, then hated, and finally forgotten?
“The doctor called it anaphylaxis, an extreme allergic reaction. You see, Bill, she swelled up,” Hubbard said raising his arms in a circular motion. “I mean I really couldn’t recognize her, her body I mean. She was always such a well-proportioned woman. That’s why I had her cremated, you understand?” His voice was high and nasally, almost effeminate.
“They should have called me,” Bill said as he stared at the intricate Grecian design on the outside of the urn.
“They tried, but the number for you we found in her notes didn’t work. And, I mean, it had been a week, Bill. You have to understand; the swelling was so bad. It couldn’t have been an open casket funeral anyway.”
Bill continued to stare at the urn, “A bee sting?”
Hubbard nodded, “Oddest thing. When we went to the house, there was no sign of bees, wasps, yellow jackets – nothing. Just poor Belinda lying there in the attic, all swelled up like that.”
“When was the last time you saw her?” Bill asked.
“About a year ago, I had to go into Honaker on business. She was walking out of the bank as I was walking in,” he licked his lips and stared down at the floor. “I said hello, and she didn’t even look up. She was in one of her states – you know the one I’m talking about? She had that laser like focus.”
Bill nodded. States? Oh, yes, she had states. There was the manic state when she would take you for ice cream, and then explain all the wonders of the world to you, those crystal blue eyes boring into your soul. This was the state that made you feel like you were part of her world, being swept along on some tidal wave of discovery. This was the state when she would tell you: “Bill, of all my experiments, you are my most precious. My immortality.”
And, then there was the state Hubbard was describing. This was Belinda Thompson’s normal state: brooding, depressed, mind focused only on the task at hand. This was the state when she would forget to buy groceries, forget to pick you up from school. Thirty years ago, while in the grip of this insanity, she had put up no argument when child protective services had demanded he be released into the care of his mother’s second cousin half a state away in Richmond.
“You know, it hurt. I spent twenty years with her, Bill, and she wouldn’t even look up,” Hubbard said as tears ran down his pink nose.
“Maybe you should keep her ashes, Mr. Hubbard.”
The old man looked at him with bloodshot eyes, “No, no. You’re her only child, Bill. You need to decide what to do with them. I believe this urn and the house are the only things left.”
Bill nodded, “Yeah, she did a good job of emptying the accounts in the last few years. Do you have any idea what she spent it all on?”
Hubbard shook his head, “I have no idea. She lived alone in your grandfather’s house with no electricity, no phone, and no running water. Last time I saw her, she was still wearing one of the same dresses she wore when we dated.”
Bill stood and picked up the urn. It was cold in his hands, “Well, I’d better be going.”
“She was special, Bill. I know she wasn’t a good mother, but she was a genius.”
“Yeah, well, not on what mattered.”
Bill navigated the tight curves up the mountain road with annoyance – motion sickness, one more thing he could blame on his insane genius of a mother. Two weeks dead and she was still a pain in the ass.
His cell rang, and he punched a button on the BMW’s steering wheel, “Hello.”
“Hi, Baby,” Gina’s voice called from the stereo.
“Where are you?”
“Driving up Big Ass Mountain.”
Gina’s laughter filled the SUV cabin, “What?”
“Big Ass Mountain. That’s the name. People around here call it Big A Mountain, but if you check the Army Corps of Engineers map, you’ll find the real name: Big Ass Mountain.” He spun the wheel hard right and negotiated another hairpin turn.
“Well, when are you coming down from Big Ass Mountain and coming home? I miss you?”
“I’m meeting the real estate woman tomorrow morning. Sign some paperwork, and I am out of here. I should be home before you leave work.”
“Baby, please tell me you aren’t staying in that house tonight?” She asked with a note of concern.
“Just one night – hopefully I can find something worth selling. I can’t figure out what she did with all the damned money.”
“Be careful, she died in that house.”
She paused, “It’s creepy.”
Bill laughed, “Gina, I only got one thing from my mother: a complete and utter disbelief in the supernatural. Belinda Thompson is the last human being who would haunt a house. She’d most likely disprove her own existence and disappear in a puff of logic.”
“It’s still creepy.”
“Actually, I’d kind of like it if she did show up. I have a thing or two to discuss with her. It’d save me a fortune in therapy bills.”
Just short of the summit, Bill turned off on the white gravel road that led to his grandfather’s house. The man had died before Bill was born, leaving him with no close relatives other than his mother.
Bill had sent for and received a copy of his own birth certificate years before. He had been born at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in 1978 to Belinda Thompson, Occupation: Post-Doctoral Student, Father: Unknown. He had asked her several times who his father was, and, although he refused to believe her at first, he came to accept the fact that she truly had no idea.
Those who knew his mother had no trouble understanding her faulty memory when it came to the father of her child. It was a question of priorities. In college, Belinda Thompson used men in the same way a casual drug user enjoyed marijuana: whenever the mood struck her, but she could stop anytime she wanted.
Her libido was a distant second to her intellectual pursuit, perhaps not even second.
Belinda Thompson was a gifted and brilliant, if not deranged, biologist. She had studied DNA with Watson – he of Watson and Crick fame, at Harvard. At Johns Hopkins she had studied animal behavior, and everyone said she was destined for a Nobel.
But, then her mood swings had become more and more dramatic, and there was a story, perhaps apocryphal, about an incident with a lab assistant involving an unkind word and a slash with a scalpel. Bill had never known his mother to be violent, but he wondered. When she realized she was pregnant, Belinda Thompson had left Johns Hopkins and moved into her father’s house on Big A Mountain, leaving the academic community behind.
The white gravel road narrowed, twisted and weaved its way between old oaks, beech trees, and pines as it hugged the steep slope of the mountain. The house came into view, and Bill rolled to a stop in front of the garage.
The house itself was large and white, a clapboard affair with two stories and an attic. The smooth white paint he remembered as a child was in a state of leprosy now – it peeled and sagged away from the warping boards. Flakes of it lay on the mossy ground around the rock foundation.
The house was built sometime in the early nineteenth century, long before building codes. A pile of flat river rocks served as the base, dragged up from the Clinch River via mule-drawn sled. That it still stood was a testament to mountain ingenuity mixed with Russell County, Virginia obstinacy. Both qualities were necessary to thrive here in the Appalachians, where winters could be long and unforgiving.
The house seemed to sag more than it had when he was a child. It was an unloved thing – its sole occupant for the past thirty years treating it as simply a refuge from the elements. Belinda Thompson took no notice of warped floorboards and rotting foundations – her focus was on the microcosm, not the macrocosm. The house could have fallen down around her ears without her noticing.
Bill got out and stretched. He pulled out his cellphone to take a picture. The signal strength indicator blinked red with no bars. “Shit,” he said. It figures.
He reached down and tried the segmented garage door. Thick piles of leaves were banked against it, and he dug through until he found the small steel handle. He lifted and the door began to move with a creak and groan of rusted springs and tired pulleys.
Dim light flooded the garage and things scurried away. Bill didn’t look closely at them, only noted whether they skittered on multiple legs or wriggled sinuously. Legs meant no worries, no legs meant worries. No legs could mean a copperhead, or, worse, a timber rattlesnake – both were common on the mountain.
Everything looked to have legs, so he stepped inside.
The space was packed from side to side, floor to ceiling with medical apparatus that looked somehow familiar to him. He was seeing them out of context – this was not the space such devices normally inhabited, and their identity escaped him for a moment.
He took hold of the nearest, a beige and chrome jointed arm attached to a pedestal. At the end of the arm was a shape that looked vaguely like a sleek version of a television camera. The “camera” casing had been cut open. A red and silver emblem on the top was stamped General Electric.
Suddenly, it came to him: dental x-ray units – old ones from the 50s and 60s. The garage was filled with hundreds of them.
Why? What on earth could she have been doing with old x-ray machines? And why had she opened the casings?
Bill looked at the door leading to the farmhouse kitchen on the far right side of the garage. He thought about winding his way through the forest of x-ray machines but decided against it. Just because everything he had seen move within the garage had legs, it didn’t mean there weren’t things without legs that hadn’t moved.
He closed the garage door and walked to the front of the house. The porch steps creaked under his weight and he tested each before stepping onto it. He treated the porch floor with the same care, but it seemed sturdy enough.
In addition to his mother’s ashes, Hubbard had given him his old key to the house. Bill’s mother had never asked for it back. He opened the front door.
A dry musty smell washed over him as he stepped inside. A battery powered lantern sat on a small table beside the door. He turned it on and blue fluorescent light filled the foyer. It was no different than his childhood memory, a bit dustier, but otherwise it was the same.
The farmhouse kitchen was on the left. A large metal sink and coal fired cook stove took up most of the room. The large wooden dinner table he remembered was gone, replaced with a simple plastic folding card table. He wondered if his mother had burned it one winter in an effort to keep warm.
A hand operated water pump hovered above the sink like a gargoyle looking down from a gothic cathedral. He took hold of the pump handle and began to operate it.
Bill looked into the sink and stopped.
There, curled by the drain, was a centipede.
He watched as it slowly unrolled its body and began the rhythmic motion of its legs. He had seen them on the mountain many times as a child, but never one like this: it was bright red and easily a foot in length with long antennae in front and behind. A huge set of black pincers protruded from the creature’s small head.
As he watched, the centipede rose up, staring at him with eyes too small to discern. It opened and closed the pincers, as if warning him to stay away.
Bill took an involuntary step back, and the centipede seized the opportunity to crawl up and over the sink edge and drop to the floor. It skittered sideways around his shoes and then backed away from him, keeping the opening and closing pincers pointed toward his feet.
In the middle of the kitchen floor, it turned and slipped through a hole in the floor boards.
Bill realized he had been holding his breath through the whole encounter, and he drew in a deep breath. He leaned against the sink, and then jerked himself away for fear another monstrosity might be hiding under the sink edge. Get hold of yourself, he thought. It was a bug.
And, his mother had died of anaphylactic shock. Did centipedes sting? He tried to remember high school biology – yes, they did, he was almost sure of it.
He retrieved the lantern and walked back into the foyer. The parlor furniture was covered over with dusty sheets. He thought about removing them, but decided against it – there could be more of them hiding under the sheets, snaking their way through the ancient cushions and springs.
He went up the wide mahogany stairs, watching the railing, walls, and steps for movement in the blue tinted light from the lantern. Nothing moved but shadows and he reached the second floor without molestation.
The bedrooms were as unused as the parlor. He was surprised to see his room was just as he had left it thirty years before: Star Wars posters on the wall, action figures arranged neatly on the shelf above the simple desk. She hadn’t thrown anything away, which touched him for a moment till he saw the thick layer of dust on the floor – she hadn’t entered the room in decades. Everything was still in place because she hadn’t even opened the door.
Her room was similarly unused. Then he remembered – she had never slept in the bedroom. He re-entered the hall and let the light from the lantern illuminate the far end.
The attic door stood open, the narrow steps visible.
He walked up the claustrophobic staircase and emerged into Belinda Thompson’s laboratory. One wall was taken up completely with chemical bottles and specimen jars – everything from fetal pigs to things that might have once been dogs or cats. Her lab bench was as he remembered it: beakers and flasks arranged neatly, aluminum dissection trays with their thick layer of black wax scarred from pins and errant scalpel cuts. Alcohol lamps with their cotton wicks singed black.
In the middle of the room was a large table, and on it a wooden maze – the kind used for studying rats. He half expected to see a dead rat lying in one of the maze corners, expiring within inches of the cheese it had searched for in vain. But, there was no rat, no cheese – only a small, dried, lump of grey meat forgotten at the end of the maze.
An aluminum can lay discarded under the table. A generic food label, white with black lettering, covered it. The contents had been ‘Calf Brains’ and the lettering below read ‘For Human Consumption’.
Belinda Thompson had been a lifelong vegetarian. Bill could not imagine her ever deviating from that. Certainly not with something that was basically mad cow disease in a can.
All of this was odd, but the strangest thing of all was the computer. His mother despised them, refused to use them. I have pen and notebook, Billy. Computers steal your soul.
Yet, here it was: a massive tower computer with a monitor big enough for the Super Bowl, and cameras – several webcams and a digital camcorder were strewn about the rickety desk.
In a house with no electricity – something didn’t add up. He had checked with Appalachian Power earlier in the day. There was no pole within a mile of the property, and to put one in would cost several thousand dollars and take two months.
The answer to the riddle was on the other side of the table: a small metal box slightly larger than the computer tower with a yellow plastic hose leading out of it. The hose disappeared into the back wall.
Bill rubbed dust from the rear window and peered out. The hose ran down the outside wall and across the backyard to a large propane tank. He walked back to the metal box.
A label on the outside read ‘Stirling Generator’. It had one button labeled ‘Press and Hold Five Seconds to Start, Press Once to Stop.’
He pressed the button and held it. The box began to hiss like a radiator and a few seconds later he heard the unmistakable sound of a mechanical piston. It was an engine that ran off propane, whisper quiet. And, the computer tower was plugged into a power strip attached to it.
The computer beeped.
Bill walked to the desk and watched the monitor as the computer booted. There was no login screen, the desktop simply appeared. The screen was filled with icons, each one identical containing an artistic impression of a movie reel. The icons were labelled with the date, and Bill clicked the earliest one – May 2nd, only three months before.
Bill sat down as his mother’s face appeared full screen on the monitor.
“Hello?” She said to the camera. The room was filled with dusty light behind her. “I’m not even sure if this thing is on. Oh, wait, there I am.”
She looked the way he remembered her. The only differences were the lines in her face and the grey in her hair.
“Belinda Thompson, May 2nd. God I hate these things,” She squinted at the screen. “Okay, so my recombinant DNA experiments crashed and burned. I’ll leave that crap to Willis at Stanford – I don’t have the equipment or the patience. Anyway, I started something new last week, and I need video of it. Because this is the kind of thing you have to see.”
She picked up the webcam and pointed it at the maze, “May I present Kali.”
The picture went out of focus for an instant and then found its subject. A single small centipede was crawling through the maze.
“Kali is a common centipede. I’ve trained Kali to run the maze. At the end is a small piece of meat,” she narrated as the centipede scurried around corners and down hallways. Soon, she had found the meat and began to chew it.
Great. My mother the bug trainer, Bill thought.
“In case you were timing it, fifteen seconds to find the meat,” she said as she turned the camera back toward herself. “Yesterday, it took her thirty seconds.
She smiled and nodded, “And, it doesn’t matter if I change the maze, Kali solves it in less than a minute and remembers it.” She laughed, “I think I’ve found the Stephen Hawking of centipedes.” The recording ended.
Good grief, Bill thought. His mother had spent her last days in the throes of dementia.
He opened the next file, marked two days later.
Belinda’s face appeared and she quickly pointed the camera at a small terrarium. Kali was rolled in a ball clinging to some web like structure. Tiny round shells clung to her segmented body. “Kali laid eggs last night while I slept. Guess she’s out of the maze game for a few days.”
The next file was dated a week later. After clicking on it, Belinda’s face appeared. She looked angry, “Well, great. Turns out this particular species of centipede is matriphagic – for those of you who are biology-challenged, it means the damned babies eat the mother.”
She turned the camera toward the terrarium which moved in and out of focus. The inside was swarming with tiny centipedes. “I tried to save her,” Belinda said in the background. “Got some nasty stings, most of them from Kali herself.” She held her swollen right hand in front of the lens. “Bastards.”
Bill clicked the next file from a week later. Belinda was beaming, excited, “Oh, Bill, you are going to love this!”
Bill frowned. Did she just say my name?
“Oh, sorry, I’m supposed to keep this impersonal for posterity. But… oh, Bill… you just have to see.”
His mother was shooting this video for him. He was the audience, not her colleagues at any of a dozen universities.
“This morning, I decided to try training the hatchlings. But, I didn’t have to – they can already navigate the maze!”
She turned the camera toward the table. Centipedes ran at full speed around the corners, tiny red lines streaking toward the goal.
“We’ve always thought the only creatures capable of absorbing the knowledge of things they eat were microscopic life forms like planaria worms. These centipedes can do the same thing. Bill, this is huge. This could get me a Nobel.”
He began fast forwarding through the videos, stopping only when his mother looked distraught in front of the camera. He stopped at one point where his mother looked angry. “They don’t reproduce fast enough. I’ve started feeding them brain matter from higher animals – calf brains for instance, but they don’t mature fast enough to see any real effect. I’ve sent for some insect growth hormone. I have an old friend at Virginia Tech who used to make grasshoppers fully mature in a day – yes, I know, technically centipedes are not insects, but they’re close.”
He sped through more videos until he saw her frowning again. “The growth hormone needs radiation to work. Damn it. I have no isotopes, and since nine-eleven it’ll take an act of God to approve me. Talking to a guy about old x-ray machines, hell it’s worth a shot.”
A few videos later, Belinda looks excited, “Okay, so. It’s been a few weeks. Time for a field trip.” She was carrying the camcorder with her as she went down the steps to the kitchen.
The floorboards had been pulled up and she shined a flashlight into the crawlspace below. “Okay, so I’ve had a pit dug in the crawlspace. Six feet deep, circular. I’ve lined the pit with a network of x-ray sources that spiral down into the pit. Let me explain. The x-ray sources are only meant to run for a few seconds at a time – if you run them any longer, they burn out. I developed a sequencer that turns on one for a few seconds, then turns it off and turns on the next. Once it reaches the end of the units, all two hundred of them, it starts over. The pit can be bathed in radiation constantly.”
She smiled at the camera, “I’ve relocated my little centipede colony to the pit. I’m going to replace the floorboards and leave a tiny hole for watering, feeding, and so I can deliver the hormones. And, stop worrying, Bill, the floorboards I’m putting down now are lead lined. Momma isn’t stupid you know.”
Not stupid? Two hundred x-ray machines? Propane powered electric generators out of a science fiction story. No wonder there was no money left. The x-ray units were literally money thrown down a pit. He could sell the computer equipment and the Stirling Generator, but he would never be able to recoup the money wasted on the x-rays.
He walked to the window rubbing his eyes. The pine forest at the edge of the overgrown yard was dark, but the moon was beginning to rise. Bill squinted, trying to make sense of the shadows.
A man stood watching the house, a large dog by his side. The man raised a hand and waved.
Must be a neighbor, Bill thought. Of course, a neighbor had seen the light coming from the attic of the deserted Thompson house. The man had probably been walking his dog, and decided to investigate.
Bill returned the wave, and the man and dog turned and walked into the woods.
In the next video, his mother was beaming, “Okay, I’m going to show you the floor in just a second. But, you may want to prepare yourself. I wasn’t prepared, and, well, I peed myself. It’s a little unnerving.”
She turned the camera toward the floor and Bill took an involuntary step backward. On the video, the floor was alive with hundreds of the huge red centipedes like the one he had seen earlier.
“Imagine my shock when I woke up a few hours ago and found this living carpet in the attic,” She reached down and let one of the centipedes crawl up her arm. “They’re completely docile – which makes perfect sense. They’ve been eating cow brains, absorbing a cow’s limited intellect along with their docile nature.”
The centipede seemed to be fascinated by the camera. It moved its head like a snake, taking in the device from all angles.
“The largest of them is just over thirty centimeters. That’s about the max for a creature with an exoskeleton and primitive respiration. And, they can all run the maze from birth. I mean, look how inquisitive this one is. And, you have to see this.”
She pointed the camera back at the floor. An open can of calf brains sat on the computer desk. The centipedes below began to twist their bodies together, climbing one upon the other until they had built a tower that reached to the desktop. Bill watched as five of the creatures climbed the tower, and pushed the can off the edge.
The camera turned away as the centipedes organized themselves into a line, each taking a bite of the can contents and moving out of the way for the others.
“Cooperation, problem solving – this is a whole new species, Bill,” his mother said.
On the video, a dog barked. It sounded like it came from outside the house, but the effect on the centipede horde was instantaneous: they ran to the farthest corner of the room, piling on top of each other to get away.
“Damned dog. I told Miller to keep that mutt away from my house,” Belinda said as she crossed into the video frame. She knelt by the mass of wriggling centipedes, “There now. It’s okay. He’s outside. He can’t hurt you.”
The scene changed, his mother was looking at the camera. “They’re like children. They’ve gone back down to the pit. By this time tomorrow, there’ll be even more of them. I just can’t believe this, it’s so wonderful, Bill.” She looked down, “As you can tell, I’m off my meds – I know I need them. But, Bill, I need my highs. I do my best work when I’m manic. I’ll go back on them when the depression starts. I promise.”
He opened the next video. Her hair and eyes were wild, fully engulfed in the manic state, “Fucking dog. I warned him. Stupid asshole – it’s his fault. The dog came back. The children were in the yard exploring, and the damned dog came back.”
Children? These bugs were her children? He wanted to toss the monitor against the wall.
“The dog killed a few of them. They were simply protecting themselves, you see. Damned dog. It got what was coming to it. It shouldn’t have hurt them.”
She was looking at the floor, “They organized a defense. Attacked the dog en masse. He barely yelped. I told them to stop, he was already dead. But, they eat what they kill. And, one day later, the next generation is as smart as a dog.
“I scolded them of course. Tried to tell them it was wrong. That must be why they’re doing this,” she said. She pointed the camera at the floor. Dozens of centipedes were joined together, and as they moved, Bill could see gleaming white bones underneath.
“They retrieved the dog’s bones, and they’ve made themselves into one,” She said. As Bill watched, the bones, held together by live centipedes stood and walked across the floor. From a distance, it looked like a dog.
In the dark, it would look like one as well. Bill looked at the window. No. It couldn’t have been.
He started the next video.
His mother had been crying, “I’ve come down off the manic state. I’m sliding down now. Of course, Miller came looking for his dog. I tried to warn him, but they wouldn’t let me out of the attic. They left sentries in the hall, and they snapped their jaws at me when I tried to come down.”
There was a thumping noise on the tape, and Belinda turned toward the stairway, “They stripped his bones clean in seconds. And, I know they ate the brain. Twenty four hours later, the next generation was born.”
Another thump from the video.
Belinda was breathing heavily, “Bill, listen to me. It’s smarter now, but it knows it can be even smarter. And, it’s going to get smarter soon, Bill.”
She jumped as a floor board squeaked. “I’m so sorry. Bill, or whoever is seeing this. I couldn’t see them for what they were. They were so docile before. I mistook their gentleness for compassion. They have no empathy, Bill. Just ambition, and, when they have my mind, they’ll have the ability. You have to destroy…”
Belinda screamed as the dark shape of a man appeared behind her on the screen. But, Bill knew it was no man at all. The screen went black.
He sat and stared at the glowing computer desktop. The gentle hiss of the Stirling Generator was the only sound in the room.
Bill stood, picked up the lantern, and walked to the stairs. Blue light filled the narrow space, and he began to descend.
He did not scream when he reached the bottom of the stairs. After all, he had known what he would find. The hallway was alive with the enormous bugs. A man who wasn’t a man at all stood at the top of the stairs that led to the first floor. His dog stood beside him, wagging a tail made up of centipedes.
The man pointed toward the attic, and the centipedes began a rhythmic snapping of their jaws.
Bill shut the door and went back up the steps.
The morning light filtered through the small, dusty attic windows. Bill sat on his mother’s cot, the position he had been in since climbing back up the stairs in the hours before dawn.
He had expected them to come during the night, the monster man turning the doorknob with his fingers of living carapace. But, they had not disturbed him. His cellphone was useless, the nearest tower too far away for a signal.
He had done so much to distance himself from his mother, only to be undone by his siblings – the final crescendo of his mother’s mad symphony.
“Yoo-hoo, anybody home?” A voice called from below.
Bill didn’t recognize it, and then he remembered: the real estate woman. She had said she would meet him at the house this morning.
He ran down the attic stairs, grabbed the doorknob, and hesitated. He opened it slowly, then peered around the edge of the door. The hall was empty.
“Mr. Thompson? It’s Martha from Yates and Crabtree.”
Be quiet, please God, woman, shut up.
He reached the stairs and looked down.
A plump, middle-aged woman in a lime green pants suit stood in the foyer, “Mr. Thompson, I hope I didn’t wake you up.”
“Shhh!” Bill hissed as he took the steps two at a time.
“I beg your pardon?”
Bill skidded to a halt halfway down the steps. The centipedes poured across the floor from the kitchen and through the front door from the porch.
The real estate woman began to scream.
Too late, too late, Bill thought.
The creatures surrounded them both, she in the foyer, he on the steps. The centipedes snapped their jaws, but made no move to attack.
“Don’t move,” Bill said.
“What are they?” The woman asked.
“Centipedes. Just don’t move,” Bill said. A shadow fell across the porch behind the woman.
She turned as the monster man walked inside.
He held out his wriggling hands and caressed her face.
Centipedes began to crawl up her legs, some inside the lime green fabric.
Monster man turned her around to face Bill as his fingers pressed and probed her flesh.
She stared at Bill, eyes wide, face ashen. The lower half of her body was alive with movement.
Suddenly, the movement stopped. The centipedes began to drop off her body, exiting the waistband of her slacks, the cuffs. Only the monster man remained, his hand idly brushing her hair.
Bill watched as he drew back with his right hand, extending an index finger made of a single centipede curled around three pieces of bone. The centipede released the bones and went rigid, pointing toward the back of the woman’s head.
“What’s happening?” She asked.
Monster man drove the centipede finger forward and Bill heard the crunch of bone meeting something very sharp.
The woman’s left eye turned outward, as if she suddenly had the ability to look in two directions at once.
The centipede finger let go of monster man’s hand and wriggled its way into her skull.
She stood wavering forward and back on her feet, like she was trying to steady herself on a pitching deck. She tottered to her right, falling against the wall beside the staircase. The woman rocked back onto her feet and stared at Bill with her forward looking eye.
She reached around to the back of her head, and Bill could tell she was digging in the hole left by the invading centipede. Her fingers emerged dripping with blood.
She pressed her fingers against the wall and began to finger-paint. A few seconds later she took a step back and pointed at the wall. She had written two words on the wall: NO WOMB.
No womb? What?
She reached down and hooked her right hand in the waistband of her pants, pushing them down below her navel. A single pale scar extended horizontally across her abdomen.
No womb. The woman had no womb because of a hysterectomy.
They had been disappointed.
The woman’s good eye began to bulge, and Bill looked away as the centipede left her brain through her eye socket. The woman toppled, falling backward like a tree felled by an axe. And, then they were upon her, devouring fabric and skin, carting the bones away to the kitchen and the pit below.
They had forced him back upstairs, getting close enough to bite, but pulling back at the last second.
He lay on the cot, staring at the ceiling.
Just before dawn the next day, he heard the car pull up. He ran down the steps, no hesitation at the door this time. Bill could see the centipedes emerging from the kitchen as he ran headlong into the front door, ripping it open.
Gina stood on the front porch in her white dress, worried look turning to a smile as she saw him. The smile faded as he grabbed her hand, dragging her toward the car.
“Bill, where have you…”
“The car, get to the car,” he pulled her, felt her body tensing, her muscles pulling tight. He turned and looked. Monster man was pulling her by her other hand toward the house. The world went black.
He lay beside her as the late afternoon sun filtered through the window. The attic floor was not comfortable, but he did not dare move her. She had not regained
consciousness, and that was a blessing in his mind. He looked again at the words written in his own blood on the floor beside them: AFTER BIRTH, WE WILL LET YOU GO.
Gina’s stomach moved and convulsed. It had grown steadily since he had woken up, the thing inside pushing and prodding, exploring its home.
Belinda Thompson had been a great scientist, but her children had surpassed their mother. Their evolution was a dead end – they needed a skeleton inside their skin, a real respiratory system to oxygenate their blood, to become a single organism, not a collection of individuals.
This had been a trap, baited with his mother’s body – the one feast they had foregone. If the coroner had bothered to check her skull, he would have found it empty. The centipedes needed a womb, his mother’s was too old, the real estate woman’s uterus had been removed.
After birth, we will let you go – he knew it was a lie. Matriphagic, that was the word his mother had used. They eat their mothers.
Bill walked to the lab bench. He picked up a scalpel and walked behind the computer desk. The Stirling Generator hissed, its piston surging back and forth generating electricity. He turned it off, then leaned down and cut the propane line with the scalpel. Gas with the smell of raw sewage hissed into the room.
He walked back to the lab bench and lit an alcohol burner.
Bill lay back down on the floor. Her stomach had grown even larger, he could make out the fingers through her skin now – each tipped with pincers.
He brushed her hair away from her temple and rested the blade against the soft skin there. When the gas smell got strong enough, he would push the blade in deep.