SOMETHING IN THE AIR
Is insanity contagious?
One disturbed man discovers the terrifying truth the hard way.
Awarded "Honorable Mention" in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest, 2nd Quarter 2013
Published online in SNM Horror Magazine's "December Diseases - Issue #61" December 2013
I’ve been having the visions for two weeks now, but told no one about them, especially not Terri. I think she’s . . . well, nuts about me. It’s been a long time since that happened with any woman, longer than I care to admit.
Besides, if I share it with anyone I know, they might think it’s high time the smiling empty-eyed men in white coats toss me in the cage with all the other babbling psychos recently filling the asylums beyond capacity. My friend Eddie is the third guy I know personally who succumbed to the . . . delusions is all I can call them. To call it madness is to risk peering into that abyss, and have it gaze back at me—and maybe hear it call my name next.
I consider calling Terri and pleading some nonexistent illness to cancel our date. We can reschedule sometime when the haunting phantoms aren’t dancing merrily in the darkened corners of my new little imaginary world. I even grab my cell, my shaking fingers ready to punch in her number. But a behavioral aberration involving hallucin- ations can’t be contagious. No way I’m letting a sudden attack of the heebie-jeebies ruin my chance of taking our relationship to the next level.
If Terri sees the fear hovering behind my eyes, I might end up losing her too. Besides, the lonely silence of isolation is no longer solitary or quiet. And the assorted bizarre company that comes with solitude lately isn’t looking to make friends.
Is something in the air affecting us all? Or something in the water we drink? Maybe some invisible alien race spiked the countless beers I’ve recently been pouring down my gullet in vain hope of wiping out the increasingly terrifying visions. Or is every breath we take sucking a pervasive contagion into our lungs, to journey through our bodies and eventually poison and ravage our already fragile minds? Particles in the atmosphere, contaminated with motes of infectious insanity.
I shudder and toss my cell on the bed, dreading a dinner date that already tastes like mushy rotten fruit in my mouth. I dress in clothes that will hopefully hide the ripples of unknown monsters crawling beneath my flesh. Then I leave to pick up Terri and take her to our favorite Chinese restaurant with invisible spiders skittering up and down my spine, their venomous pincers poised to strike and fill me with deadly poison.
We sit across from each other over plates of steaming food that should taste like heaven. Instead, my Mongolian Beef feels like scuttling cockroaches squishing around in my mouth. The sour-and-bitter odor rising from my plate smells like pus-dripping lesions on rotting vermin. I want to projectile-hurl what little I managed to choke down.
Terri touches my hand, stroking it as she flaunts her irresistible dimples and radiant grin. It’s a shame her gleaming canines look like serpent fangs in the dim lighting that’s theoretically supposed to be aesthetic and set a mood.
It’s putting me in a mood, all right.
“Come on, Jack.” Her soft touch should feel like velvet or silk. Instead, it’s cold and slimy, a scaly reptile’s slithering caress. “You know you can’t hide it from me. Something’s bothering you.”
The tears almost come then. I barely rein them in, struggling just to breathe. I twirl my fork around the beef noodles, unable to erase an image of squirming maggots waiting to ride my fork up to my mouth and poison me. The looming shadows cavort in my peripheral vision, waving gleefully at me as if encouraging me to join in their unfettered ribaldry.
“Jack! Are you even listening to me? Hello?” She waves a hand in front of my face, but it’s even wispier than the dancing shadows, almost transparent. She forces a quavering laugh that sounds like chunks of masonry grinding together.
I finally tear my eyes from the wriggling larva on my plate and raise them to meet hers, knowing she’ll see and know, certain I’m going to lose her. I struggle to speak, afraid of spewing out either nonsense or partially digested dinner, or both.
“Jack, you know you can tell me anything. Don’t bottle it up inside, whatever it is. I promise I’ll understand. Remember? No secrets.”
I nod, struggling to hold down the broiling contents of my queasy stomach. Bile burns in my throat, and I finally choke out an answer.
“I know. I’m . . . gimme a minute, okay?”
“God, baby, you’re creeping me out. Talk to me. I’m right here.”
I moan. “I’m creeping myself out, Terri.”
Did the chefs actually kill the beasts we devoured before cooking them? They feel like they’re alive, desperate to escape my innards and be reborn into a world that will gleefully slaughter and serve them all over again.
My head spins. Terri recedes as my surroundings close in around me, like forced perspective technique in film- making. It’s vertigo with a cruel Machiavellian twist. I swallow bile as my mind drifts out of my body, begging for release from its torture. Every screak of the jinghu in the background Chinese music is a rusty saw cutting off my head, screeching violins in a Hitchcock movie soundtrack. Every pluck of a sanxian string is another one of my teeth being yanked out by a demented sadistic dentist.
“Jack? You’re scaring me, baby.”
I shake my head, and the tears come. I’m going to lose her for sure. No woman wants anything to do with a man who can’t control his emotions, especially in public. The vision of her receding from me is a cruel precursor to the day—and it’s coming soon, if not this very night—that she runs away from me screaming.
“I gotta . . . get out of here, Terri. I can’t . . .”
To my intense relief, Terri doesn’t argue or try to make an issue of my unexplainable behavior. She just gets up, helps me stand, and holds onto me every step of the way out. She props me up against my car, then runs back inside to pay the bill.
Someday perhaps she’ll find a man truly deserving of her special kind of love—unless she finally breathes in too much of the invisible poison, and the visions start plaguing her too. If she does find him, he’d better treat her like the goddess she is, or I’ll emerge from the abyss and gleefully tear him to pieces limb by limb—starting with his tongue, saving his eyes for last so he can watch me rip him apart.
I figure she’s already lost to me.
She drives me home and walks me to my door, and somehow knows better than to ask if I want her to come inside. She even kisses me goodnight, and surprise of all surprises, tells me she can’t wait to see me again, and help me with whatever problem I’m having. She’s just so much stronger than I am. She pulls my door key off the key ring and hands it to me, promising to bring my car back in the morning. She’s unaware that I don’t need it anymore.
My lips tingle, the taste of sweet intoxicating blood and bitter venom lingering as she heads toward my car. Then, with a hopeful wave and a cheerful smile, she leaves.
Shuddering with a mix of dread and anticipation, I turn and go inside to face the spectral grinning demons and listen to the frolicking shadows scream at me some more.
I don’t turn on the interior lights. Why make it easier to see the phantoms capering all around me? I sit in the recliner in front of my blank wallscreen. I don’t turn it on either. It no longer provides the intense vivid level of entertainment that my persistent new companions bring, in colorful 3-D and ear-shattering surround sound.
I flinch and cringe when the landline rings. Its mundane jangle is unfamiliar and incongruous amid the ominous whispers, menacing screeches, and agony-filled shrieks. I don’t check to see who it is.
Why bother checking? Everyone I know is a stranger now.
“Jack, it’s Lisa.” Sobbing, whimpering, echoing the voices of the damned playing like a looping horror movie soundtrack in my head. “It’s . . . about Kirk. He . . .” More wrenching sobs. “I’m sorry to call so late, but . . . Jack, they came and got Kirk. He was threatening the girls, saying all kinds of crazy shit, scary shit, and I . . . I had to call them.” A bleating cry. “I didn’t know what else to do. Please, Jack, I need you right now. The girls need you. I can’t . . .”
I vaguely remember Kirk. Brother-in-law. Husband to my sister Lisa, father of my two nieces. Nice house, good home, just fifteen minutes away. We were all close once, at least until I breathed in too much of the pervasive contagion.
Has it really only been two weeks? Seems like a succession of eternities.
Good thing I left the wallscreen off, so I can’t be swayed by the tears in Lisa’s eyes, the anguish on her face. She blubbers some more. When she finally shuts up and ends the call, I say, “Delete message.” Then I fall in the recliner, lean back, close my eyes, and let the party begin.
Maybe I’ll visit Kirk and Eddie when the light of day finally returns and pushes back the shadows for a while, but what’s the point? If I don’t find the courage to slit my wrists soon, I’ll be seeing them every day on the ward—from the inside.
A funny thought strikes me, and I start laughing, knowing that if anyone were here with me they would call it a mad cackle. I can’t stop laughing, might never stop.
What’s so funny, you ask? Let me put it this way: try not to breathe too deeply. I think there’s something in the air.
Who knows? Maybe whoever reads this, my final journal entry, is next.
Maybe you’re next.
As always, I and the multitude of fellow inmates in my head heartily welcome your comments below.
The Reality Bender and Burning Willow Press December 23, 2017
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