He awoke with perspiration covering his naked body. He opened his eyes and saw the sun glaring down at him. A rivulet of sweat burst through the dam created by his eyebrow and emptied into the corner of his eyes. He blinked wildly but couldn’t move his hands enough to rub away the burning sensation. Pain gave way to panic as he realized his hands and feet were bound with vines tied to stakes driven into the earth. He was spreadeagled, face up, on desert-like terrain. He had neither protection from the elements nor any hope of freedom.
Questions raced through his mind: Where am I? How did I get here? What is going on? He strained forward, resting his chin on his neck, and looked around for clues. Nothing. He lay back and shut his eyes to the glare of the sun. It did no good; the heat was enervating, relentless, unbearable. More questions: Had he been left to die out here? How long would it take? Would it be the lack of water that killed or would the heat get him first?
He felt a prick on his toe. Don’t even think about itching, he warned himself. He closed his mind to the thought of scratching and forced himself to think about baseball, politics, women — anything but the itch. But soon there came a second prick on his toe, then one on his ankle, then another on the sole of his foot. He squirmed against the ground but found only momentary relief. Prick, prick, prick, prick– his leg itched incessantly. He could no longer think about anything else. He opened his eyes to see what he could do. “Sweet Jesus,” he whispered.
A menacing-looking red ant had encamped on his knee. He flexed his leg but couldn’t shake it off. He felt another prick on the back of his ankle. He lifted his foot as far as he could and saw a half-dozen more ants milling around in the shadow. Behind them, he now saw, was a red sea, an army of ants, a column of insects targeted directly at his groin. His breath shortened; the mere thought of ants made his skin crawl. “Stay away from me!” he screamed. “Get away from me!”
The pricks multiplied until his feet felt as though they were being run through a sewing machine. He thought of his mother, the lifelong protector whom he loved more than anybody – or anything– in the world. “Please, mother, make them stop!” he shrieked. He arched his back and flailed about in unspeakable agony, but for each ant he crushed or flung aside, two more joined the attack. They climbed inexorably up the length of his body, covering his thighs, infesting his groin, fanning out over his chest and finally crawling up to his face, pausing periodically to torture him with piercing bites. An ant fell into his mouth, but he managed to spit it out. Another attacked an ear drum.
Two more moved up his cheek, stopping so close to his eye that he couldn’t bring them in focus. He could no longer distinguish single bites; his entire body seemed to be on fire. Sobbing uncontrollably, he cried pitifully, “Please, mother, help me!”
One of the ants on his upper cheek snapped at his eyeball.
He closed his eyes and screamed. And screamed. And screamed.
* * *
He awoke to the sound of tribal-like chanting. He opened his eyes and saw he was surrounded by a dozen fierce-looking, men wearing loincloths and carrying spears. They were dancing in ritual fashion to the beat of several drums. A lone woodwind provided a haunting melody. “What’s going on?” he asked, but the tribesman nearest him struck him in the face.. “What the hell –” he started to demand, but a second blow cut short his question.
His hands and feet were tied together with clever knots that tightened when he tried to wrench them apart. He contented himself with reconnoitering silently. The boundaries of the camp were marked by a dozen stakes, each bearing a severed head. His pulse quickened with fear. “What –” he started to say, but a fist snaked out and struck him in the mouth. Blood spurted from his upper lip. His probing tongue found a tooth loosened by the blow. When he spat it out, the tribesmen laughed.
The revelry ceased with the arrival of two ancient men bedecked with feathers and silver jewelry. Other tribesmen bowed before them as they passed. He, too, nodded respectfully, but this didn’t suffice. An unseen hand shoved his head forward until his nose and mouth were filled with dirt. The same hand then yanked back his head by the hair and held on firmly while the old men dabbed his face with red paint.
Unsmiling women, the first he’d seen, materialized with a large vat of what appeared to be wet, reddish clay. The old men began scooping out gobs with their hands and slapping it on his body. His mind recoiled at the possibility that they might bury him alive, but the old men put a straw in his mouth before covering his face. That, he decided, is a good sign. At least they don’t plan to kill me. He clung to that thought as they finished encasing him in clay. He managed, if only barely, to conquer his claustrophobia with the hope that the ordeal would soon be over.
Blind now and with no contact with the outside world besides his straw, he felt himself rise into the air and start spinning on an axis parallel to the ground. As time passed, the continual spinning combined with his claustrophobia to produce a sensation of nausea. The nausea, in turn, produced a wave of heat. He forced himself to breathe deeply and evenly to relax himself. He felt his heart rate slow but the temperature continued to rise. He froze at the realization. Spinning slowly above intense heat — they’ve put me in a rotisserie, his mind screamed. The savages are going to cook me alive.
The heat seemed to climb exponentially then, and he felt his skin begin to sear. He struggled futilely to break free, but the clay had hardened and left him helplessly entombed. Gasping for oxygen after one minute-long frenzy, he sucked in a huge breath of super-heated air that scorched his lungs. He coughed uncontrollably, propelling gobs of spittle out of the straw that was keeping him alive. He thought he could hear natives laughing.
“Please, mother, help me,” he whimpered. He squeezed his eyes shut to quell the pain. He saw blue spots, then red, then yellow. Then the world turned entirely to black, and he saw nothing at all.
* * *
He awoke with a throbbing headache. He opened his eyes and found he had been dozing in the main Midtown branch of the New York City Public Library. His watch read 5:15. He couldn’t remember coming into the city. What, he asked himself, am I doing here? Shaking his head, he decided to return home.
A couple gasped as he passed them while descending the stairs, but they disappeared before he could turn to see what was wrong. When he turned back around, he inadvertently ran into a middle-aged woman. “Excuse me,” he said. She stared at him, visibly flinching. “Please don’t hurt me,” she whispered, slowly backing away. Odd, he thought. New York City is an odd place.
Fifth Avenue was alive with thousands of people embarking on the mad dash home. He steeled himself for the ordeal — he normally arranged his day to avoid rush- hour crowds — and then entered the fray. The crush wasn’t as bad as it had looked. It was almost as if the crowd was parting to give him easy passage. In fact, the crowd was parting to let him by. He saw people pointing in his direction. He spun around but found nothing behind him. They’re staring at me, he realized. Is there something wrong with me? he wondered. What’s wrong with everybody?
This is too weird, he said to himself. I’ve got to get out of here. He fled from the staring eyes and ran uptown toward the subway. His sudden flight sent the crowd into a frenzy. An elderly woman tripped and fell at 44th Street. A messenger fell over her and a businessman fell over him. Within a few moments, the rush-hour crowd had been transformed into a panic-stricken mob. “Get out of my way, you stupid bitch!” a well-dressed woman screamed as she shoved a teenage girl to the sidewalk. All along Fifth Avenue came the warning: “He’s coming!”
Running past 48th Street, he felt something hit his leg. He looked down and saw a pretzel. Then a chestnut hit him in the ear. Now the missiles came faster and harder: An apple, a ballpoint pen, a handbag, a paperweight. A set of keys struck him in the temple. As he wobbled woozily, a bicycle rider whizzed past and knocked him down. He lay on the ground and cried, “Please, mother, help me!”
He heard sirens approaching. Two police cars weaved though the gridlock and climbed the curb. Four policemen emerged with guns drawn. He forced himself to his feet and walked toward them. “Jesus,” he said, “you don’t know how glad I am to see you guys.” The cops shrank away from him, unmistakable revulsion on their faces. “Stop right there, buddy,” one of them said. “Now turn around nice and slow and we won’t have no trouble.”
Shrugging his shoulders, he turned around. And froze. In the plate glass window, he saw a hideous image: A man, or what was once a man, with something akin to a face that had been stripped of all skin. Where there should have been flesh there was merely bloody pulp pulsating rhythmically. White foam bubbled on lips that were grossly distended. Of a nose, there was no sign. Neither was there hair, just an exposed brain. The ears drooped like those of a basset hound. Most frightening of all, the eyes the entire eyeballs, actually — were bright yellow.
He blinked and he saw the yellow eyes in the window blink. He shook his head and saw the bloody head in the window shake. He clutched at his face and couldn’t feel his nose. A wave of nausea assaulted his bowels. “This can’t be happening!” he screamed. Behind him, he heard the cops approaching. He heard the thud of metal against the back of his head. And then he heard nothing at all.
* * *
He awoke and found the heart-shaped face of his mother looming over him. “Ken, my darling boy, can you hear me?” she asked. Her eyes were red and teary. “You can hear me, can’t you, Kenny, dear?” He tried to tell her he could, but his mouth wouldn’t open. He tried to caress her cheek, but his hand wouldn’t move. He was in a hospital bed, with tubes protruding from every orifice. His body heeded none of his commands. He could do nothing but watch helplessly while his mother shed silent tears.
“It’s so unfair, doctor,” she said brokenly. “He was just riding home from school when that driver hit him.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Graves,” the doctor said.
“The car wasn’t even scratched. And look at my beautiful boy.” She began sobbing. “Is there no justice in the world?”
There was a pause. “I realize this is an unpleasant subject, Mrs. Graves,” the doctor said finally, “but we must decide what to do with the boy.”
“His life is in no danger. We can keep him alive with the life-support system for –well, there’s no telling how long he might live. Theoretically, he might last for 50 years.”
“Yes, but his brain is dead. The head injuries he suffered in the accident should have been fatal. Frankly, I don’t know how they kept him alive until he got to the hospital. There isn’t anything we can do about his brain.”
“Couldn’t it improve in time?” my mother suggested. “Isn’t it possible that he might get better?”
There was another pause. “I’m not going to lie to you, Mrs. Graves, and you shouldn’t lie to yourself. The boy is a vegetable. He will always be a vegetable. No matter how long he lives, he will remain a vegetable. That’s a fact you’ve got to face.”
Her lips trembled. “He’s all I have in the world,” she whispered.
The doctor cleared his throat. “It is my professional opinion, Mrs. Graves, that you ought to let the boy die.”
Kenny Graves willed his mother to take the doctor’s advice. “Make the nightmare stop,” he thought, trying to project this thought into his mother’s mind. “Please, mother, let me die.”
His mother sat down on the bed and caressed his forehead. “Such a darling boy,” she said. “There’s no chance his brain will heal?”
“Absolutely none. The damage is irreversible.”
“But perhaps he can dream, doctor.”
“I don’t think that’s too likely.”
She needed something to clutch on to, if only the faintest glimmer of home. “But is it possible?” she asked desperately?
“I suppose anything’s possible, but– ”
“Perhaps he’s living in a dream world glorious beyond comprehension. Is that possible, doctor?”
“Mrs. Graves, I don’t– ”
“I’ve made up my mind, doctor.” She stood up and straightened her shoulders, her strength evident for the first time in days. “Keep him on the life-support system. Someday, perhaps they’ll know how to cure my boy. Until then, he’ll want for nothing.”
“No, mother, don’t do this to me!” Kenny Graves’ mind screamed. “Please, mother, help me!”
Mrs. Graves kissed his cheek and smiled dreamily. “Good night, my darling boy,” she said, “and sweet dreams.”
Preston Lerner is the author of a novel of suspense, Fools on the Hill, and several short stories in the mystery and fantasy idioms. A longtime journalist, he’s also written several non-fiction books. He wrote A Literary Horror story in issue one.
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