Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Centipede Heartbeat

Each time Lisa rested her head against Joette’s breasts, she heard the centipedes. In between heartbeats there was the tiny sound of hundreds of chitinous footsteps against bone, of miniature mandibles tearing at organs.

Joette refused to admit to it, or maybe she didn’t know.

“It’s hot,” Joette announced.

Lisa refused to take the hint. She tried to memorize the feel of Joette’s body tangled with her own: prickly shins, downy calves, the warmth of Joette’s stomach, the tight swell of the small breasts on which Lisa was resting her head.

“It’s hot,” Joette repeated. Their bed was stripped to only one thin sheet, but the July air, thick with humidity, made it almost too much to bear. Joette pulled away, leaving a gulf of mattress between them.

“What are you reading?” Lisa asked.

Joette held up her thin paperback just long enough for Lisa to make out a cover dominated by shapes and primary colors. The kind of cover that told her nothing about the book, except that probably it was for people too smart to need that one precious picture to illustrate all the words inside.

“Is it good?” asked Lisa.

“It’s okay.” Joette paused. “I’m really tired,” she added. “It’s been such a long day.”

“Oh.”

Lisa bent her body under the sheet. Her knees crept toward Joette’s, one last sally for even the feeblest contact.

Joette rolled further away, until the arm holding her book was hanging off the edge of the bed. Lisa retreated.

The centipedes were ruining everything.

***

Joette did not mind the idea of centipedes in their home.

“They’re good for the house. You know, like spiders. They eat other bugs. We won’t have to worry about silverfish or earwigs.”

“We should just call an exterminator,” Lisa replied. “Then we don’t have to worry about any kinds of bugs.”

“That’s horrible!” Joette gave her a look of such sincere disgust that Lisa felt embarrassment creep up the back of her neck. “We’re not going to commit genocide against a bunch of little guys who are just here to help us keep our house clean.”

Except for the occasional order of chicken vindaloo, Joette was a vegetarian. She opposed genocide on even a bacterial level.

“They’re not here to help us,” said Lisa. “They’re here to commit insect cannibalism and poop inside the walls. I don’t think that calling an exterminator would be unreasonable.”

Joette did think it would be unreasonable. No exterminator was called.

This was Lisa’s first failure to eliminate the enemy.

***

The problem with centipedes was that Lisa did not know how to lure them. She tried, first with bowls of sugar water as if for ants, then with bowls of saltwater, as if for slugs. Centipedes, she discovered slowly, were not that kind of bug. Like most predators, they preferred live prey.

On the internet, some people defended house centipedes. Those bodies in many shades of brown, with their feathery legs and long antennae sprouting from either end of the abdomen, had their admirers. To Lisa, they looked more like fugitives from some extraterrestrial coral reef than common household pests. Each flitting movement suggested flight, despite their closeness to the ground. Some people even sold boxes of scutigera coleoptrata to be released in the home, that they might eradicate less innocuous insect populations.

In the face of such incredible ignorance and casual evil, Lisa did not know how to explain that all insects were less innocuous than centipedes. The idea of trying and failing to save each hapless eBay customer was overwhelming, especially in the face of the seller’s long pages of positive feedback.

So Lisa did what she could, which was to concentrate on the war at home before it was too late.

***

“Yeah,” said the exterminator, peering behind the couch. “We take care of centipedes all the time.”

“Mh,” said Lisa. “Well, I’m also worried about preventing them from coming back, once you get rid of them.”

“The two main things you can do,” said the man, “are to make sure that your house doesn’t have any other infestations, since those’ll just feed the centipedes. You gotta starve ‘em out.” He pointed at an old spiderweb near the ceiling, then offered her a tenuous smile. “Also, you gotta eliminate damp spots in the house. If any of your pipes leak, or if you’ve got cracks in your foundation, or if you’ve ever had a water main break, it needs to be fixed. Pretty much anything that’ll give ’em moisture. If you can dry your house out, you can clear up your centipede problem. I’d be happy to look around for any trouble spots, but it’ll be easier at night. Centipedes, they like the dark.”

Lisa nodded, trying to steer him to the front door. Guilt nibbled at her. Moronta Pest Solutions was the only place in town that offered free estimates, and the man had driven at least twenty minutes to get here.

The exterminator ignored her edging him toward the door and headed down into the basement. Lisa followed, clicking on the light.

“Wow,” he said. Lisa looked over his shoulder. “You’ve got quite an infestation here.”

She could see only the basement.

“There.” He pointed to a lumpy shadow cast by a pile of boxes she and Joette had never unpacked. “See right there?”

Lisa squinted. There was movement, as if the shadow was alive, testing the edges of the light.

“No offense, ma’am, but this place is crawling.”

Lisa felt sick. The questions she wanted to ask the exterminator were not questions he could answer. No exterminator would know how to dry out a human body without killing the main occupant. He could only make sure that the centipedes within her didn’t have more sinister confederates hiding under cupboards and between walls, waiting.

“I’m so sorry,” said Lisa. “I really have to consult with my husband before I can make you an offer.”

The exterminator blinked. “I haven’t given you an estimate yet.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Lisa, herding him up the stairs and toward the front door.

“If it was that infestation comment,” he said, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to be rude—”

Lisa shut the door behind him. An exterminator was not enough.

***

When Joette came home from work, her red hair plastered to her scalp with sweat, Lisa was waiting by the door to ambush her.

“I think that I have lice,” she announced.

“Lice,” repeated Joette, bending down slowly to take off her shoes. “Where would you have gotten lice?”

“I don’t know.” Lisa shrugged. “Maybe at the store, trying on a hat.”

“Oh,” said Joette. Not when was the last time you left the house? or I have never seen you wear a hat. She put her work shoes against the wall, next to her single pair of dress shoes and her worn summer sandals. “Did you actually see the lice?”

“I found an eggstring.” Lisa fiddled with her left earring. “So, you know. If one of us has lice, probably both of us have lice. I thought, if you buy some lice shampoo, I’ll do all the laundry to make sure they don’t spread.”

Joette shook her head. “I really don’t think I have lice.” She took a few steps forward. “You know what, let me take a look at your scalp. Let me make sure.”

“No.” Lisa ran a hand over her hair. “It’s embarrassing. I don’t want you looking at me like this. It’s gross.”

Joette reached out, almost close enough to brush Lisa’s face with her fingers, then withdrew. “I could never think you’re gross.”

The quiet moment that followed was devastating. It was hard to believe in the centipedes at all when Joette was so much herself. Lisa wanted to make her understand. She wanted to say, I have to starve the centipedes out somehow.

“I’m sorry,” she offered instead.

“Don’t be sorry,” said Joette. “But can I buy the lice shampoo tomorrow? It’s been a long day.”

“Sure. There’s no hurry. The lice can wait,” said Lisa, all her words tumbling over each other. “I made dinner, it’ll be out of the oven in a minute. I made your favorite lemon cookies, too.”

Joette’s expressions flickered over her face too fast for Lisa to read them. “Do you mind if I have a lemon cookie now? Or do you want me to wait ’til after dinner?”

“Have one now,” said Lisa. “Have a couple if you want. Please.”

***

Lisa and Joette played school nurse with the lice shampoo, picking carefully through each other’s hair for lice and nits.

“You know,” said Joette. “When I was a kid, it always took a couple washes to wipe the lice completely out.”

“Hm,” said Lisa. She had grown up without lice. It was not the kind of thing that children at her school passed around. “Maybe this is a better brand.”

“It’s the same one. I figured that if RID worked then, it’d work now. And I guess it does, just better.”

“It’s been a while since you were a kid. They must’ve improved the formula.”

“They must’ve.” Joette’s voice almost wasn’t skeptical.

The centipedes were not disturbed by the lice shampoo. Whatever they were eating, it did not come from outside Joette’s skin.

Lisa no longer only heard them, on those rare nights when she and Joette still touched each other. She was beginning to see them, perpetually scuttling out of range of her vision. These were not house centipedes, which suddenly seemed benign by comparison. They wore dark bodies, coiled tightly with the promise of tensile strength.

The centipedes were growing.

***

Scolopendra gigantea [scol’o*pen”dra jahy-gan-tee-uh]: the Amazonian Giant Centipede. The largest extant breed of centipede, it can grow over a foot long, and is capable of pulling down bats in mid-flight. Unlike most other types of centipede, Scolopendra gigantean is a carnivore, not an insectivore. Other insects—even other Amazonian breeds, grown by the tropical heat to monstrous size—are not large enough to feed its hunger.

In insectariums, Scolopendra gigantea are fed infant mice, much like snakes, and are known for being particularly cruel to their prey.

***

Lisa spent hours on the internet, looking for new solutions. There was a whole family of antihelminthics, toxins meant to kill parasitic worms that were safe—in mild doses—for humans to eat. There were abortifacients, from pennyroyal to tansy, to be brewed into tea. If it was impossible to starve the centipedes out, she would have to kill them.

The poison she eventually settled on wasn’t a poison at all, but a desiccant. The promotional material was what convinced her:

 

Drione Dust is a white, low odor dust that works as a

desiccant on insects. Once sprinkled on the insects’

bodies, Drione Dust cuts away at the exoskeleton and

then robs household pests of vital moisture. This

unique formulation will last over a year, and, because

Drione Dust works by dehydrating insects rather than

chemically poisoning them, is among the safest

insecticides available. Perfect for homes with pets

and young children!

 

Lisa liked the word “safe.”

She also liked that, because it was not a poison, she did not have to sign for it when the UPS man delivered it. “Low odor,” she discovered, actually meant “no odor.” Still, she imagined that she could smell its grit, its very whiteness.

That night, after Joette went to sleep, Lisa poured the rest of the lice shampoo into the tub and pulled herself a bath. The submersion was painful, and the tender parts of her body carried a little sting for days afterward.

It was one more tiny thing that might keep the centipedes away.

***

Joette’s sickness started with diarrhea, which Lisa didn’t learn about until one morning when she heard a pause in Joette’s usual preparation for work. The shower stopped. Instead of the immediate buzz of the hairdryer through the closed door, she heard nothing.

Then—clear and quiet—retching.

Lisa got out of bed and went to stand outside the bathroom door. The dots did not connect. She thought, first, that most horrible thought: morning sickness. Joette was seeing someone else; the centipedes had reversed even that most integral part of her.

No.

Even invasive centipedes could not change a person so much, not in the less than six months they had made Joette’s body their home.

Joette opened the bathroom door, then took a rapid step back at seeing Lisa standing so close. Her breath smelled like vomit.

“Are you okay?” asked Lisa.

“I don’t know,” said Joette. “I mean, there was some blood.”

Lisa’s heart stopped, then reanimated in double-time. “Where?”

“I puked,” said Joette. “There was blood.”

Lisa thought, The drione dust. Lisa thought, It was supposed to be safe.

Then, worst of all, one final thought: This means that it’s working.

“Has this happened before?” she asked. “I mean, the blood.”

“Of course not.”

“Maybe I did something wrong with the quiche. Maybe I didn’t cook the eggs all the way through.”

Joette shook her head. “If it was the eggs, you’d be sick, too. Maybe it was the graham crackers I had before bed.”

“Do you want to go to the hospital?” Lisa asked, the air in her lungs thick with anticipation.

“No.” Joette reached out one hand and leaned heavily against the doorframe. Lisa stood her ground. The vomit on her breath was not so bad. “I just want to brush my teeth and go to work.”

“Do you want me to make you something to eat? If you still have enough time, I can make you a good hot breakfast. It’ll be better for your stomach than cold milk and cereal. No eggs, this time.”

Joette’s expression was sympathetic, which didn’t make sense, since she was the one who was sick.

“Sure,” she said. “Make me breakfast.”

Lisa stumbled through flipping pancakes and squeezing orange juice, soft things to keep from hurting Joette’s insides. She sprinkled the syrup only lightly with drione dust, then ate some of the pancakes herself. If the drione dust was working, she needed some of it, too. Once Joette’s body became a hostile environment, the centipedes would need a new home.

Lisa was only a little surprised. Mixed with syrup, the drione dust tasted exactly as white as it smelled.

***

The hospital called in the middle of the afternoon, when Lisa was napping. She was dreaming one of those domestic half-dreams that came when she was almost awake; in this one she was boiling pasta to make spinach manicotti for dinner. Every time she tried to add the pasta, the box was mysteriously back in the kitchen cabinet, too high up for her to reach without pulling out a chair.

“Is this Lisa Sucharski?” asked the voice on the other end of the phone. It was a harsh voice, particularly when contrasted with the susurrus of boiling water from her dream.

“Yes,” said Lisa. The word rose up her throat like a bubble through olive oil.

“You’re listed as next of kin to,” the voice paused, “Joette Lehman. We regret to inform you—” Lisa stopped breathing. “—that Ms. Lehman has been hospitalized.”

The woman kept talking as Lisa opened her mouth to speak. The words died in her throat and she hung up.

It took a while to find her keys buried in the loose change bowl. Then there were cardboard boxes balanced on top of her car that needed to be moved. The car started easily, and the shift didn’t stick when she switched gears. There was plenty of gas. Lisa pulled out of the garage and into the driveway, then idled there.

She sat for a long time, switching radio stations every time a song came on so that there were only commercials to listen to. Surely it wouldn’t take listening to too many commercials to finally inspire her to start driving.

Eventually, darkness fell.

Eventually, Lisa pulled back into the garage and carefully stacked the cardboard boxes back over the hot hood.

***

Alberto, a friend of Joette’s from college, drove her home from the hospital. He sat on the front steps with her, not saying much. The two of them went through half a pack of cigarettes with Lisa watching from the window before she went out to join them.

“Welcome home,” she croaked.

Joette took a drag on her cigarette. Either she looked skinnier or she didn’t, but Lisa thought she did. It had only been a few days.

“Thanks,” said Lisa to Alberto. He vacillated between lighting a new cigarette and pocketing his matches.

“No problem,” he said finally. “Happy to help.”

Lisa looked from Joette to him and back again. “Did they fix you?”

“I should go,” said Alberto.

Joette reached over and squeezed his hand as he passed. “Thanks.”

He murmured something back, too quiet for Lisa to hear. Joette watched his retreating back rather than meeting Lisa’s eyes.

“I wish you’d come to the hospital,” Joette said.

“I’m sorry.” Lisa plucked a pill off the front of her sweater. “I tried.” Her sweater was covered in pills. There were so many it was hard to decide which ones most needed her attention. “Are you okay now?”

“Kind of.” Joette sighed. “The office suite next to ours had some kind of infestation, and they brought in exterminators to deal with it. There was a memo sent to the whole building. Anyway, the weird thing was that nobody else seemed to be having bug problems. The hospital thinks that’s what got me sick.”

“Bug chemicals,” said Lisa. “You were poisoned.”

“I guess. Well, not really.” They looked at each other. Lisa reached across the space between them to cover Joette’s hand with her own. “Why are you wearing that sweater?” Joette asked. “It’s so hot out here.”

Lisa looked away. “But you’ll be okay now?”

“I assume so.” Joette sighed. “I called my boss and told him what was wrong, and I guess he’s gonna have our cubicles tested to make sure nobody else gets sick. I got better pretty quick at the hospital; they think I just needed to be away from the exposure.”

“Well, it’s good you’re home, then. Do you have to go back to work tomorrow?”

“Nah. Apparently passing out at the office gave Mike one hell of an insurance scare, so I’ve got all the time off I need.” She smiled. “It’ll be nice to relax for a little while.”

“It’ll be nice to take care of you.”

“It’ll be nice to be taken care of.”

***

Lisa cut the dosage of drione dust in half. She couldn’t stop and admit defeat, anymore than she could watch Joette shrivel up just like the centipedes inside her. She just needed to slow them down, to buy the time until she could find a cure.

The other centipedes were everywhere. They had the grace to melt into tiny cracks and crevices when Joette came home, but when Lisa was alone, they tormented her. She could not comb her hair without finding them in her brush, could not pour cereal without pouring their segmented bodies into the bowl, could not open the washing machine without finding them scurrying among her wet clothes.

She began to talk to them. She had talked to them all along, muttering curses and threats that she did not know how to carry out. For the first time, the scope of this one-sided conversation broadened. She began asking questions, even offering advice, in place of her old orders and declarations. The centipedes did not reply in words.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked, braiding her hair so they had fewer places to hide within it. Knocked to the floor by the brush, they scurried away from her crushing feet.

“Why Joette?” she asked, pouring her bowl of cereal, uneaten, into the sink. The centipedes tried and failed to escape the roar of the garbage disposal; it was a small disappointment that they did not scream when they died. The slurry of their bodies was so thick she had to pull it out of the drain with her hands and drop it in the trash.

“How can I defeat you?” she asked, adding bleach to the laundry though she wasn’t washing whites, then starting the cycle over again, though these clothes were clean. For just a moment, there was the scrabbling of their hundreds of clicking feet against the metal walls of the washing machine. Then, just the flood of water.

The centipedes had nothing to say.

***

Joette went back to the hospital just over a week later. This time, Lisa called the ambulance herself.

“It’s so strange,” said Joette. “No one else at the office got sick. Mike brought people in. The whole place was clean.”

Lisa put down the telephone, though the 911 operator wasn’t finished speaking, to take a napkin and wipe a thin, bloody string of vomit off Joette’s chin.

“I don’t know,” said Lisa. “Maybe they could come check out the house. Maybe one of the neighbors did something.”

“Then you’d be sick, too.” Joette closed her bleary eyes. Lisa would not have said that Joette was crying, but slow tears were leaking down her cheeks. “I just don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

I know what’s wrong with you, Lisa wanted to say. The centipedes are fighting their hardest fight. All the hope she had been holding back bubbled up. And we are going to beat them.

“Do you have any gum?” Joette asked. “I don’t want the paramedics to have to deal with my puke breath.”

“They’ve dealt with worse,” said Lisa.

“God. I don’t want to have to go back to the hospital.”

“I’ll come visit you,” Lisa lied. “Alberto will come visit you. The hospital will make you better.” Lisa tried not to resent the hospital for failing to do just that. Their tests were worthless if they missed the centipedes. The doctors were not clever enough to fight them.

“Seriously,” said Joette. “I want some gum.”

Lisa went to the kitchen, digging around the anything drawer for a stick of Juicy Fruit or Doublemint.

She went back to the front porch. “No gum.”

Lisa sat there holding Joette’s hand while they waited for the ambulance to arrive.

***

Lisa hid the small tub of drione dust in the garage. On television, whenever the police executed a search warrant, something went wrong. Either they found evidence in a car or garage even though the warrant hadn’t said they could search there, or they just didn’t search those places at all and everything turned out fine.

In real life, the police were more competent than that.

They arrested her on the back porch. Lisa slid into the backseat, understanding for the first time why policemen were always carefully guiding the heads of the arrested into their cars.

It had been a long time since she’d left the house.

***

Euphoberia, the king of centipedes, dragged its bulk across the Earth some 430 million years ago, and could reach almost four feet in length. Euphoberia fed mostly on fish and invertebrates; scientists believe that they missed the opportunity to dine on mammals by almost 200 million years. No one is sure exactly when they went extinct.

***

“No,” said Lisa again. “I wasn’t trying to kill her. If I wanted to kill Joette, I would have used poison. I used the desiccant because the label said it was safe.”

“Mh-hm,” said Detective Phó. “And what exactly does a desiccant do, Ms. Sucharski?”

Lisa closed her eyes. “It dries out arthropods’ exoskeletons, and then they die of dehydration.”

“And,” continued Detective Phó in that calm voice, “you never imagined that a chemical compound designed to kill insects would have a harmful effect on the human body?”

“It’s not chemicals,” said Lisa.

“Tell me, how have you and Joette been getting along lately? Is there any financial trouble that’s been worrying you?”

She paused.

“If you think that Joette might be cheating on you, for instance, that’s the sort of thing it would be very helpful for me to know.”

Lisa wanted to stand up and walk out. She wanted to go home.

“Joette and I love each other very much,” she said, instead of: I miss her. She works too much. We haven’t had sex or a real conversation in months. Most of all, she didn’t say anything about the centipedes. Lisa did not want to go to the kinds of places where they put people who talked about centipedes possessing their loved ones.

She meant to be cool for the entire interview, to impress them with her sang-froid. Instead, by the end of the first hour, she had stopped talking at all except to demand a lawyer. Detective Phó seemed disgusted as she led Lisa back to her cell.

***

Joette did not take long to come to her. Detective Phó let them meet in an interrogation room instead of leaving bars between them. Perhaps it was meant as kindness, but Lisa could only think of television cops tricking confessions out of people.

She had already all but confessed.

“Are you feeling better?” Lisa asked.

Joette shook her head. “Jesus, Lisa. Jesus.” She was still for a moment, and then all of her words burst forth like tiny arrows. “What the hell is wrong with you? Why did you do this to me?”

Lisa moved her hands. The scrape of her handcuffs against the table was louder than the echoes of Joette’s outrage.

“I was trying to save you.” Lisa tried to get Joette to meet her eyes. “You know that.”

“I know,” she said, looking almost ashamed. “I just… I don’t know why you did this. I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”

“But you know what’s wrong with you,” said Lisa. “We both know what’s wrong with you.” She looked around the tiny room. Detective Phó stood in the corner next to the door, her hands folded casually over her crotch as if she had testicles to protect. Lisa wondered, almost idly, who was faster.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Joette. Lisa leaned closer to her. Detective Phó took a step forward, then leaned back against the wall. Under the bright lights, the shadows of the centipedes moving behind Joette’s eyes were so clear.

“Lean forward,” said Lisa, looking past Joette’s eyes and into the insects inside. Joette did.

“Open your mouth.”

Joette did.

Detective Phó abandoned the wall and stepped closer again. Lisa waited until the centipede shadows disappeared, then sprang forward. She hadn’t counted on the heaviness of the cuffs. They clicked against Joette’s teeth and knocked her head back.

There. From underneath Joette’s tongue. A single centipede.

Detective Phó put two hands on Lisa’s shoulder and tried to pull her back. Lisa knocked her off and sprang at Joette.

She threw the centipede to the ground, where it skittered toward the wall. Joette screamed, and Detective Phó recoiled.

There was so little time.

© 2013 by Caspian Gray.

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Caspian Gray

Caspian Gray

Caspian Gray is a used car salesman who has previously worked as a funeral director’s apprentice, a pet nutritionist, an English teacher in Japan, a Japanese teacher in America, and a crystal healing “expert” in a head shop. He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he shares a home with a tall man and a small dachshund.