By Richard Bleil
(Editorial note: my friend pointed out that I had accidentally switched names mid-story. This has been updated to correct that. And provide a…personal touch…)
“This weather is perfect,” Kathy says. “I’m glad you suggested it.”
She leans in, and gives her husband Doug a kiss. After so many years, the passion in their marriage still has never dimmed. “Ewwwww……” they hear.
On the play set, their daughter Mandy makes her usual “gross face” whenever she sees them kiss. It’s all in good fun, and everybody knows it.
The sun glints off of the lake surface. The sky has just enough clouds to be playful, with just enough of a breeze to keep the temperature feeling perfect. He looks at the forest, protected by the national forest designation. He loves living in the foothills of the mountains, just a stone’s throw away from thickly forested hiking trails.
He breathes in the fresh air, and closes his eyes to listen to the rustle of the leaves. He looks at his daughter, sharing her toys with a boy in the playground, her bright eyes so expressive and filled with wonder. He takes in the image of a happy girl, joyous and sweetly playing with others.
He shifts his gaze to his wife, her brilliant eyes reflecting the sunlight. His heart is filled with love and joy, as she watches her child. Their dog gets a case of the “zoomies”, and begins running through the park, eventually running out his excess energy, and stopping to let a mother with her child pet him, making friends instantly.
Sure, they’ve had their problems, what family doesn’t? But in the end, they are happy, fulfilled, and real in their happiness.
He begins to wonder how he could have gotten so lucky. She looks at him. “What are you thinking?” she asks.
Damn. Get away from me. “I’m thinking of how much I love you,” he says, swatting the bug away.
“Aww, that’s so sweet,” she says. She leans over, and sweetly gives him a kiss. He puts his hand around her neck, and brings her to him, their embrace bringing the warmth of her skin to his OUCH!
She pulls away with a jerk. “Are you okay?” she asks.
He puts his hand to the back of his neck. “Yeah,” he says. “I think something stung me.”
“Here, let me see,” she says. “Awww…dere’s a iddy biddy red spot…did dat big bad bug bite de daddy?!?”
He laughs. “Alright, smart alek…it just caught me off guard.” He looks back in her eyes. “Where were we?”
“How is it?” she asks.
Usually, he is very present, especially during family times like supper. But today, a few days after the picnic, he seems aloof, as if he has a hard time staying present. “Hon?” she asks again. “Doug!” she snaps.
“Oh,” his mind jerks back to the present. “Yes?”
“The lasagna,” Kathy says. “Do you like it?”
“Oh, yeah,” he says, looking at his plate. “It’s good.”
“You only ate a couple of bites,” she says. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m good,” he responds. “Just…”
he seems to drift off again.
“Well, why don’t you feed the dog,” Kathy says, getting up to clear the plates.
“Sure,” he replies. He gets up and gets the dog food from the cabinet. “C’mon, Buster,” he says, “dinner time.” He starts to stand up, and realizes that the dog is not at the bowl. Usually he comes running, but…he looks over at Buster. “You alright, buddy?”
Buster doesn’t move from his place under the table. He growls at Doug, ears back, holding his defensive position.
Doug looks at Buster. “I think there’s something wrong with the dog,” he says.
“What is that?” Doug doesn’t stir. Usually a morning person, he’s been having a hard time getting up lately. Laying face down on his pillow, Kathy notices a red mass on the back of his neck near the base of the skull. “Does that hurt?” she asks. His eyes are open, but he doesn’t respond. Gently she puts her finger on it.
“DON’T TOUCH THAT!” he shouts, and jumps out of bed.
“Does it hurt?” she asks him.
“Just…just don’t touch it.”
“I’m going to get an appointment with the doctor,” she says. “Come on, we let’s get breakfast.”
“Good morning, daddy.”
She’s dressed in her ’50’s poodle skirt and for theme day at school. Doug doesn’t seem to notice, as he sits still in his pajamas. “Are you going to work, daddy?” Mandy asks. “You’re not dressed.”
Doug stares into the distance, seemingly oblivious. The orange juice is on the table, and the air hangs heavy with the smell and sound of frying bacon. The skillet is heating, as Kathy picks up an egg from the carton, cracking it on the edge of the skillet.
“DON’T DO THAT!” Doug shouts, jumping up and running at her. Kathy jumps back, startled, as Mandy is so shocked that her tears begin to well up.
“Are you CRAZY?” Kathy asks as Doug snatches up the carton of eggs.
“Don’t hurt them!!!” he shouts!
“DOUG,” Kathy snaps, “they’re EGGS! RELAX!!!”
Doug looks at her, then Mandy. Suddenly aware of what he is doing. He looks at the eggs. “Umm,” timidly he hands them back to her. “S…sorry…”
It’s been a few days since the doctor took the test samples. Doug has degenerated, but seems to continue taking care of himself, but has completely withdrawn. He hasn’t spoken in the last couple of days. Because he eats, drinks and takes care of himself, he has remained at home, but his behavior is almost robotic.
Today, Kathy is waiting for the doctor. The waiting room is standard, bare, with the obligatory outdated magazines and worn out chairs. A television shows a network news station in the corner, with a few patients waiting.
“Kathy,” the nurse calls. She leads Kathy past the desk, down a hallway. She opens a door. “Wait in here, please. The doctor will be with you soon.”
The room has the obligatory checkup table, with a light, a few stools, and a counter top running around a corner of the room with a computer an monitor sitting on it. An obligatory knock at the door is followed by the doctor walking in.
“Hi, Kathy,” he says. “I expected Doug.”
“He hasn’t been well,” Kathy responds nervously.
“Is there any change?” he asks looking at the file.
Kathy hesitates. “He’s getting worse,” she begins to cry. “He isn’t there even though he’s always there. It’s not like him. I can’t even get him dressed anymore.”
The doctor sits down. “Kathy,” he says, “there is no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to say it. The MRI results are disturbing.” He logs in to the computer, and opens a file. An image that appears to be a human spine and base of a human skull appears, except that a blob seems to be attached to it. The mass appears to be an egg sack, filled with spherical objects, wrapped around the spine and growing into the neck.
“What is that?” Kathy asks, horrified. “It looks like some kind of egg sack.”
“We don’t know,” the doctor says. “We need to do an exploratory surgery. It looks like an egg sack, but these spheres are way too large for any kind of insect.”
“Insect?” Kathy asks.
The doctor looks at her, concerned. “We also found something in his bloodwork. There seems to be infected with, well, a neurotoxin.”
“What?” Kathy asks incredulously.
“It took a while to track down,” the doctor says. “It appears to be related to the neurotoxin of the ampulex compressa.”
“Doctor…” Kathy begins.
“It’s a wasp,” the doctor cuts her off. “Sometimes called the ’emerald wasp’.”
“Oh, no,” Kathy laments. “We had a picnic a week or two ago. He…he was stung.”
“It can’t be that wasp,” the doctor says. “They only attack cockroaches with this neurotoxin.”
“Cockroaches?” Kathy inquires.
“It,” he looks at Kathy with concern. “This won’t be easy, and it can’t be what is happening here.”
“What does it do?” Kathy asks.
“I…it just can’t…”
“WHAT?” Kathy shouts.
The doctor hesitates and draws a breath. “Basically, it turns the cockroach into a kind of mind controlled incubator.” He waits a moment for it to sink in. “It can’t be what’s happening, but the cockroach becomes kind of like a zombie, eating, moving, surviving but with the single apparent goal of protecting the wasp’s eggs. Eventually it crawls off to a remote location, and the eggs hatch, feeding on the cockroach until they are big enough to fly off and repeat the cycle.”
“You think that Doug…”
“No, I don’t,” the doctor interjects. “The neurotoxin is similar, but these growths are huge, dozens, perhaps a hundred times larger than these wasps or their eggs. It just can’t be!”
“You said the host wanders off?” Kathy says.
“He’s been home alone all day!” Kathy says, standing up and running out of the room.
Kathy hangs up the phone, and sits back. She buries her face into her hands, and begins to cry uncontrollably.
“Oh, sweety,” her sister puts her arm around her. The house has had a change of faces, with Mandy staying at her grandmother’s house for the past couple of weeks. Kathy‘s sister and husband have moved in to take care of Kathy. “Was that the police?”
“Y…yes,” she says.
“Did…did they find him?” her sister asks, fearful, with a tone of lost hope.
“No,” she said. “they’re calling off the search. They…they said it’s been too long…”
“Tom, look at this!”
Deep in the forest, two highly experienced hikers have set up camp. While John is collecting firewood, he made the discovery.
“What is it?” He walks towards his friend, but stops short, and recoils a bit. The body is not only decomposed, but seems to have been largely eaten away. “Holy hell,” he says.
“Who do you suppose that is?”
“I have no…wait, I know who this is.”
“You do?” asks John.
“Yes,” Tom replies. “Don’t you remember, they asked hikers in the area to look for him. The close matches the description. This is that guy…ummm…what’s his name?”
“Doug?” John asks. “The guy named Doug? Do you think it’s him?”
“But what kind of animal is this?” John asks, kicking at the corpse.
“It can’t be.”
“What is it?” John asks.
Tom hesitates. “It’s a wasp.”
“It can’t be,” John says. “It’s too big. This is some kind of animal.”
“It may be too big,” Tom replies. “But that’s the body of a wasp.
“What…what’s that noise?” John asks.