Edition 15: Exponential Growth by Justin Short
Justin Short’s story is not for the squeamish or arachnophobic. Just how many bites are too many? What will it take to be accepted into a new world? Finalist in the 2013 Story Quest competition, this story gets under your skin. SY
When I first came to the valley, the elders gave me a tick. I didn’t think too much of the gift, especially since there was nowhere to return it. The place, as you know, is fairly inaccessible. A big, greenish space surrounded by acres of nearly vertical hayfields, natural silt traps, and the thorniest woods imaginable. No realistic possibility of escape. No company except that lone chair in the exact center of said valley.
The gray-haired bug-bearers arrived shortly after I took my seat. Their tick was a gray one, small and unthreatening. His tiny feet circumnavigated my torso a couple times before he injected his teeth into my shoulder. It hurt at first, but I gradually got used to the tight discomfort there.
Within the hour, one of the old men brought me my second one. This time it was a seed tick. Almost microscopic. When he released it on my skin and wished it luck, I could scarcely distinguish it from my freckles.
After another hour, one of the children came to check on me. Made sure my chair was comfortable, measured my pulse. Of course this was all a formality, because the little brat couldn’t possibly care how I was feeling. Even now she was giggling as she held out her palms. I saw two more, one in each hand. Standard deer ticks, both of them.
She dropped these onto my stomach. I covered my navel and winced as they settled near the side of my abdomen.
I managed to doze off for a few minutes. Bright sun smacking your face around, it’s hard not to. When I woke up, an overall-wearing elder was standing over me with four more ticks. He let them fall on my head, sprinkling them like they were parmesan cheese.
I resisted the urge to smash them as they centimetered their way down my neck. I could handle a few more bites, I supposed. Except the first critter was really making a wreck of my shoulder. All purple and tender, hard to look at. Not to mention the way he was swelling up. The other ones were starting to itch as well, but that’s to be expected. Not going to complain about something as minor as that.
Five hours in the valley, and that woven chair was really uncomfortable. My muscles roared. I tingled. I felt feverish. Worse than that, I had to deal with these two annoying children who were having a picnic at my feet. They snorted their laughter, called to each other in their parched language, and shoved sandwiches down one another’s throats. Quite infuriating.
When they saw me staring, they each presented me with four new ticks. The girl motioned for me to turn around so she could drop them on my back, while the boy found it funny to toss his handful into my socks like it was a game of bloody horseshoes. I felt one of the girl’s bugs digging in near my spine. Not such a great sensation.
Not quite evening yet, and there came that valley hag, bringing me a whole kettle full of monsters. Sixteen additional ticks, all ravenous and bloodthirsty. Three of them were red, bulbous fellers with nasty pincers, while the rest were deer ticks. She planted the lot of them around my neck, taking her sweet time, ensuring each one dug in before moving on. Left me with a bloodsucking necklace.
The woman mumbled a song as she deposited her arachnids. The melody seemed to be a lullaby, but the phonemes didn’t belong to any language I was familiar with. It was a horrid, scratching serenade that sent shivers to my core.
I was still recuperating when my ticks were doubled yet again. Sixty-four was the new magic number. Majority of them wound up on my lower back and legs. My stomach and ankles and shoulder and abdomen already ached like mad, and this didn’t improve matters.
The places I could see were swollen and dark. The sharp pricks of pain were a constant feature now. Really worried about some of those first arrivals. It crossed my mind they might be giving me some disgusting disease, but there was no help for it. Removing the nasties was unthinkable, given the promised consequences. Was it healthy to leave them attached so long? It was almost dark, but was sleep even thinkable in a prison like this?
I guess I thought the darkness would keep the others away. You know, maybe they would put off their task till morning.
Nope. Right on schedule, a teenage girl sauntered down the hill, lantern in one hand, more than five-dozen ticks in the other. She had them wrapped in an oversized handkerchief. The lantern flooded them in sick, jaundiced light. I watched them squirming and crawling over each other like diseased rats. Almost magically, they never crossed the line from fabric to skin. Never tried to taste her blood. She drew near and gave the kerchief a shake. Ticks rained on me.
She tried to smile. Whispered something in that nonsense language. Think it was their word for “sorry,” but a fellow never knows here. Meanwhile, my mind was otherwise occupied. Sixty-four new visitors were scrambling over my chest and shoulders, trying to find their homes. Add the day’s sunburn to the mixture, and that ever-present ticklish pain, and things looked fairly hopeless.
In spite of the creepy-crawlies, I was about to fall asleep when one of the elders returned with over a hundred ticks, this time carrying them in two old boots. He poured the parasites in my lap without so much as an apologetic shrug.
Wounds from my most recent ticks were still fresh, and the new batch lit me up all over again. Every puncture wound sang out. But even with a few of the buggers still squiggling around for holds, I found myself growing tired. All that worry and discomfort wears a guy out. Didn’t know how I’d manage to get any rest whatsoever with my little companions, but it wasn’t like I could control that part and after all—
Dreaming of acupuncture.
Aware of something terrible transpiring, but too exhausted to care.
It’s hard to reproduce the feeling of dread and horror and wanting to kill myself I had upon waking. One of the children was keeping track of numbers now. Big piece of plaster marked the digits at 1-3-1-0-7-2. I can’t honestly say whether or not there were exactly that many thousands of them on my body, but that’s something I had no desire to find out.
I mean, first off, I could no longer see my body. My chest and arms were crawling jungles, black squirming piles of ticks. Ticks in files, ticks in rows, ticks on top of ticks on top of more columns of writhing ticks. All struggling to find places to dig in; all moving ceaselessly.
My neck felt three times larger than normal. A thousand dots of misery danced on my scalp, every strand of hair inhabited by a bloodsucker. I didn’t raise a hand to scratch, though. Wouldn’t have mattered—I could no longer distinguish my own fingers. Hands were both dark blobs, with glove-like abominations of tick traffic covering each.
I couldn’t focus. My brain throbbed, and I wondered if maybe I was dying of dehydration. I prayed for an elder to visit me now. Hoped to see that old man coming down the hill with a pistol, wanted him to shoot me in my tick-filled mouth, if he could first see past my tick-covered teeth and swollen, ticky tongue. Let him end it all before any more of the bugs fell down my throat or slipped inside my ears or eyeballs. At least a dozen of them were struggling for a hold even now, deep inside my nostrils. Felt the wigglers above the back of my throat, in that cold, airy region. Didn’t dare inhale or exhale through my nose.
I could barely see through the red-black haze, but I sensed the old hag coming back down the hill. I opened my mouth to beg for mercy, to ask for a quick death, and no less than thirty creatures fell past my lips like living drool, spilling onto my crowded lap.
I genuinely tried to humble myself. Meant to plead with her, implore her to end this slow death, but something different came out. “Is this all you guys got?” I spat instead.
A hundred thirty-one thousand seventy-two more ticks answered my question.
A few merciful minutes later, I died or passed out or something similar. When I saw light again, I was on some sort of plush couch, and I was indoors. The air was cooler and—
They were gone! Even the ones inside my eye sockets, even the ones I’d crushed under my teeth, even the ticks in my armpits and between my toes and everywhere else.
My body was puckered and pink. Looked worse than a burn victim’s. I tried to get a sense of where I was, but could scarcely move my swollen neck. Then suddenly, a movement above me: one of the elders’ daughters was dripping a cool liquid on my head. “You’re feeling better, aren’t you?”
“Mgrpeugh,” I said.
“Don’t be upset about it. Everyone’s really proud of you.”
“You speak English.”
“Course I do. You look awful, by the way.”
She leaned down and kissed my eyebrow. “Easy. They accepted you into the village. Everything will be different now.”
In a week’s time, they let me out of the infirmary. I took myself down the cobblestone streets, moving slowly. I passed storefronts and lampposts, and paused at one point to admire a marbled fountain. The memory of a smooth mountaintop flashed somewhere inside. I heard the pilot’s frenzied eurekas as he spotted the lost village, saw the invisible crag, and felt my face redden at the part where the flames overtook the cockpit.
I shook my head and continued. In a couple places, I recognized the elders and children frolicking in the doorways of the shops. I resisted the urge to strangle them for what they’d given me.
Finally I made it to an enormous plaza, where my nurse directed me to a bench. I admired her smile and listened to the distant calls of whip-poor-wills. For once, I felt rested. The afternoon was hauntingly perfect, like an old autumn song.
A bearded man sitting nearby muttered something that sounded friendly. She didn’t interpret for me, but I had the impression he was saying “Welcome to the village.” A kind phrase like that. After spending a couple minutes sharing good-natured head nods with the old-timer, I was ready to head back to my cot.
I stood up to leave. Well, I tried to stand, but my nurse shoved me back onto the bench. I got to my feet again, and once more she knocked me back.
“What the—” I started, but she held a thin finger to her lips.
Before I could make sense of what was happening, a smiling child appeared from behind my nurse. Other faces were beyond his. Dozens of villagers, arms waving.
Without a word, the boy knelt in front of me, opened his fist, and presented me with a spider.
Justin’s fiction has previously appeared in places such as Perihelion, Mad Scientist Journal, and Broken Pencil Online. He lives in the Midwest.