It’s time for Weird Fiction Monday, when I post stories that I’ve written — both new and old — for the entertainment (hopefully) of my readers! As always, I note that I haven’t done extensive editing of the tales here, so don’t be surprised to find the writing a little rough.
This particular story is much darker than many that I write, and is oddly personal, as I note in an afterword. It was written almost exactly fifteen years ago, in 1997.
The dream, again. He was shoveling, the worm was giggling, and someone was screaming.
He awoke suddenly, staring up at the ceiling, affixed to the bed by feelings of horror. His throat felt raw; the voice screaming he always heard was, he suspected, his own. If his neighbors noticed, though, they never commented.
Richard Dewar had needed no alarm clock to wake him for quite some time. The dreams chased him from sleep every morning, and kept him from true rest every night. Would they fade in time, as the memories became distant and unfamiliar? Would the memories ever become unfamiliar? Richard would not even dare hope.
Images of the people, and their eyes, lifeless, remained with him as he crawled out of bed, and echoes of the worm resonated within his skull.
“Your feelings are perfectly normal,” Richard told himself, rinsing up at the sink, but the words sounded hollow. Richard’s therapist had spoken those words, many times, but how could his therapist possibly know? She had not sat in the darkness, with the stench, and the blood, and the worm, shoveling…
He felt panic well up within him, and fought it, staring at his gaunt image in the mirror. He did this often, and it seemed to help, though his eyes looked as lifeless as he felt. Did others seem him this way? They never acted like they did, but why would they?
“You’re fine,” Richard told himself, carefully watching his eyes in the mirror for a reaction. There was none. Some moments later, he glanced at his watch, and became ambulatory again – he was late for work. Or he would be, by the time he got there. Gathering a few things together, Richard wandered out the door.
Simms’ Co-op was about a four mile walk from Richard’s home, a potentially unpleasant walk during the cold autumn and winter months. But the crisp air of the season distracted him, and it was good to separate one’s work from one’s life, and therefore worth the distance.
He stepped through the entrance to Simms’ at ten past nine, an unforgivable sin. The manager, Gabe, frowned at Richard as he entered, but said nothing of his tardiness. The registers were crowded, though; perhaps Gabe would confront him later when there wasn’t work to be done. It was unlikely, though: Richard suspected that Gabe simply thought of him as unreliable, and planned for it. No doubt Richard’s job could be filled painlessly by any of the other store employees at a moment’s notice.
The registers beckoned; grabbing an orange vest that was waiting for him at the service counter, Richard went to work bagging groceries.
The job was no intellectual challenge, to be sure. It was demanding enough to keep his mind busy, though, and that was all he needed. He would have worked for free solely for the distraction.
As always, the beginning of the day passed quickly, blandly. The normal routine was violated, though, when Detective Lambert visited in the early afternoon.
Usually the detective only telephoned, once every three days, and so Richard was startled when he saw him. He had been in the middle of packing a large load of groceries, but Gabe waved him off, with a frown. Lambert had gotten Richard his job, after all, and was a member of the co-op. When he wanted to talk to Richard, he could. Another worker, a scrawny teenage kid, took over the bagging, and Richard stepped over to where Lambert waited by the door.
“Richard,” the detective nodded.
“I tried to call you this morning, but there was no answer,” Lambert said cautiously. “Is everything all right?”
“Fine,” Richard answered, uncomfortably. Lambert’s call must have gone unnoticed while Richard had gazed into the depths of the mirror. Did that happen often? He didn’t know.
“I must have been showering when you called,” he added quickly. He wondered if Lambert could see through the lie; then he wondered why he was lying at all. Did he really need to say anything? He glanced up to see the detective’s reaction, though only briefly; he could never make eye contact with anyone for very long, anymore.
Lambert did not seem convinced.
“I heard that you’ve missed the past two appointments with Elise. Cancelled one, completely missed the next.”
Elise was the therapist that Richard spoke with; Lambert had recommended her, as well.
“I’ve been feeling much better lately,” Richard said, lying again. “I haven’t had that much to say to her.”
“She’s been very concerned about you.”
Richard could feel Lambert’s eyes upon him.
“Could you do me a favor and call her later?” Lambert asked. “Reassure her, for me.”
Richard nodded slowly, looking down. He couldn’t explain to Lambert why he really didn’t talk to Elise anymore. He couldn’t tell him that he had heard her laugh on the phone right before an appointment, and how that laugh had sounded far too familiar.
“Are you still having the dreams, Richard?”
The words sounded like a roar in his head.
“Sometimes,” he said hastily. “Less often now – much less often. I hardly remember what I dream about these days.”
Richard’s words seemed detached from him, not uttered from his mouth. Someone else must be saying them, he reasoned; the thought made them easier to endure.
Lambert was silent for some time, just watching him. When at last he spoke again, Richard suppressed a wince.
“I’m glad,” he said, shifting the weight on his legs. “I should let you get back to work; just do me that favor and call Elise, would you?”
Richard nodded again, and chanced a glance upward for effect. He looked back down quickly, not liking what he had seen.
“Take care,” detective Lambert said, and then he was gone – and not a moment too soon. The look in the detective’s eyes had been almost unbearable, and not because of the suspicion in them. The suspicion Richard could bear.
It was the concern and sympathy that really bothered him.
Richard was haunted by Lambert’s concern for the rest of the afternoon; it lurked around him, never quite leaving. Even working did not provide an escape this time.
Richard was aware of every person around him, every breath taken, every word spoken – too aware. When Gabe came to him at the end of the work day, Richard could feel the man coming before he could see him.
“A shipment for the meat department just showed up,” Gabe said, staring. “Go out back and help move the crates into the freezer.”
Richard opened his mouth to protest, and stopped. Gabe was well aware of how Richard felt about working with meats. This task was intended to be Richard’s punishment, for showing up late in the morning, most likely for taking time to talk to Lambert, as well. He could argue, but then Gabe would tell Lambert, and Lambert would tell Elise.
Instead of arguing, Richard walked away without another word, to the back of the store. He passed behind the butcher’s counter, trying to ignore it, and went outside behind the building.
The meat truck was outside, its engine running, but the back of the truck was closed and no driver was to be seen. Richard waited out there for some time, feeling exposed, and when the feeling became overwhelming he ducked back inside to find someone.
The freezer door was open when he walked back in. There did not seem to be anyone inside it, but Richard moved to the doorway anyway, and peered inside. Within, stacks of crates were piled against the walls, packaged flesh. Gratefully, the contents were not visible. Richard’s gaze drifted to the far corner. There, wrapped turkeys had been heaped in a pile, a mountain of death. Richard’s breath frosted before him in the cold, obscuring the pile, but not completely blocking the sight of it. Why was he back here? Where had everyone gone?
“Billy-boy,” a voice whispered softly.
Richard whirled, his heart beating painfully. Gabe was standing at the door, a set of keys in hand.
“What the fuck did you call me?” Richard snarled, advancing on him. Gabe was speechless at first, and could only step backwards.
“I called you your name – it is Richard, isn’t it?” he said uncertainly.
“I heard what you said, you son of a bitch,” Richard snarled at him, and Gabe put his palms up in a sad attempt to placate.
“Now look here –“ he began, trying to sound stern, but Richard grabbed his shirt, slamming him against the cold wall of the freezer.
“Who told you to call me that?” he yelled, close to Gabe’s face. “Lambert? Dr. Carter? How did you find out?”
Gabe started to struggled, and Richard saw the look in his eyes. He shoved Gabe away from him, into the freezer. The manager stumbled over a wayward crate, and fell hard to the floor beyond it, amongst all of the other meat. He looked unhurt, but Richard did not wait to find out for sure. He moved away from the freezer, and the stack of flesh, and Gabe’s eyes, ripping his orange work vest off.
He stumbled out of the grocery store, back onto the quieting streets. He probably wouldn’t have a job come morning, and Lambert would learn what had happened. And, eventually, Elise.
The sun was setting, as it was autumn, and the weather was cool, but Richard was sweating.
He couldn’t think about it, let it bother him. He just needed to find something to keep himself occupied, and he would rally. But work hadn’t helped, not with Lambert and Gabe and the freezer.
He took a few uncertain steps towards home, and the mirror, but would that help, either? He needed something to watch, to distract his thoughts. A movie, perhaps.
The cinema was only a mile further down the street, away from the grocery store, and home. Richard had read of a new movie that he had considered seeing, a comedy, something-something-Detained. It should be playing at the cinema now, he reasoned, it must be. He started off in that direction, avoiding the stares, and the eyes, of the diminishing traffic on the sidewalk.
The brightness was almost gone from the sky when he arrived at the cinema complex. The lights of the marquee seemed gaudy, almost offensive, in comparison, but they were also helpful. The movie – Unavoidably Detained – was playing, and starting within minutes.
A line had formed outside the ticket booth, and Richard moved to the end of it. A group of young girls were in front of him, and they giggled amongst themselves as he approached. Were they laughing at him? He looked down at himself, but could see nothing wrong. Nothing was visible.
The line moved slowly, the show time crept closer. Richard looked at the growing crowd behind him, turning away quickly at the sight of their stares. At last it was his turn to pay, and he muttered the name of the film through the vent in the thick glass.
“Sold out,” the cheerful attendant told him with an all too sympathetic smile.
“Sold out?” Richard muttered, and the attendant nodded sheepishly. He stood before the booth for much too long, struck dumb, and became aware of the line behind him, impatient. He should see something else, of course, and his eyes roamed the titles of the films glowing above.
“Blood,” he requested, and immediately regretted it. He couldn’t take it back, though, not with all of the people behind him, and the attendant punching up the ticket. She breathed a price through the microphone, and he slid the money to her, watching her hand snatch it up eagerly. His ticket and his change were passed to him, and he hurried from the crowd outside and into the cinema.
The entry foyer was cool, and the air chilled him, accentuating his dampness. Ahead, an usher waited indifferently for his ticket, and Richard felt drawn forward to him. The man took the printed paper without a word, tore it, and returned half to Richard’s numb hand.
The smell of popcorn lingered in the air. Its staleness, and the odor of the fatty grease coating it, made Richard gag, and he recoiled away from the snack shop, heading towards the safety of the screens.
The movie had already started by the time he entered, and the screen was alive with flickering figures. Long, bloated shadows stretched out behind the heads of the few movie goers present. The theater was nearly deserted; only one in twenty seats, perhaps, were occupied. A bloated man sitting in the back row, adjacent to the door Richard had come through, turned to look as Richard entered. The man’s eyes were invisible in the gloom, and Richard hurried away from him and closer to the screen. An aisle seat enticed him ahead to his right, with nobody nearby, and Richard descended into it. The title of the film was glowing upon the screen, and Richard closed his eyes. He needn’t watch – he had that freedom.
A scream rang out in the theater, startling him. On screen, a young woman was fleeing an unknown assailant, from whose perspective the scene played out. The girl was running down a long country road, after dark. Perhaps she had been on her way home from a late day at school, or on her way to work. She staggered a little, and the assailant drew closer; a pair of scissors flashed in the foreground.
Fear was crippling her legs, Richard observed. She wouldn’t make it to safety; she was too far away from lights, and people. The murderer would catch her.
“Faster,” a voice said quietly, somewhere nearby. The girl tripped over a branch in the road, and the killer drew closer still.
“Faster,” Richard said again, sitting forward in his chair. There was nothing he could do to affect the outcome, to save her if that was what he wanted. It was only a movie.
At last, she fell. The killer was upon her in an instant, and she screamed terribly as the scissors bit deep into her. The screen assailant chuckled as the victim’s body seemed to turn red, and then the camera was panning up to the girl’s face. And her eyes, lifeless.
Richard was up and running before he even felt himself moving. The closest exit was one of the back doors, next to the screen, and to this he fled. The door burst open, spilling him into a dim, narrow back hallway. Another exit sign glowed red before him, and Richard fumbled open the door beneath it to reach the open air.
Or not quite open air. The back door of the theater led into an alleyway between buildings, an unlit canyon. Dumpsters were scattered amongst a sea of refuse, and the smell of decay, and corruption, overwhelmed Richard, made him stumble backwards.
The door had closed behind him, though, and he had nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide from the smell, and the darkness, as it brought him back to things that he wanted desperately to forget. Of his time with the worm.
The beginning had almost been the most horrible part of it all, almost. A wrong turn down the wrong street on the way home from work, and away from a career that Richard could no longer think of because it was gone forever. A shortcut through the wrong alley at the wrong time of night: all little, simple things. If any one of those things had been different, none of the rest of it would have happened.
A giggle, emanating from the depths of an abandoned factory off of that wrong alley, and a voice that Richard could still hear in his head.
“Billy-boy,” it had called him, giggling a high-pitched, yet resonating titter. That was what it liked to call him, like a pet, even though it was not his name. A bloated shadow had beckoned to him from the factory depths, and Richard had felt himself drawn to the indistinct form. With that simple gesture, the worm had made Richard its property, a slave to its bidding.
Others succumbed to the creature’s will after that night, but Richard had been the first – and the worm’s favorite. It had told him stories that the others never heard, of places and things beyond the understanding of mankind, even unimaginable, unthinkable. And when they, the servants, had brought back their catches after the hunt, it was Billy-boy who had the honor of feeding the pieces to the worm.
How many people had Richard killed himself, how many hunts had he performed personally? He had quickly lost count in those first few weeks. More than ten, to be sure; maybe more than a hundred. He remembered nothing of his victims anymore, save their eyes, lifeless. He was never caught in the act, though he had prayed fervently that he would be. The worm was clever, though, and skilled with its servants; Richard had never even seen a policeman during his labors – until the end, of course. When had the end come?
How long had he done the worm’s work? A year? Two? Did he even know what year it was now?
A light giggle violated the silence of the alley, and he drew back against the hard wall of the theater, drawing deep rapid breaths that he tried to conceal.
The high-pitched chuckle repeated itself, coming from the shadows near the opening to the street.
“Come here a minute,” a male voice said, slurred, and two pairs of footsteps echoed stumblingly in the darkness.
“It’s disgusting down here,” a woman protested mildly, giggling again, but the man towed her further into the alley, his arm around her waist.
“This won’t take long,” he muttered unevenly, with a small snicker. The woman laughed. “It never does,” she retorted.
They couldn’t see him, Richard realized, not in the darkness with all of the trash, and a dumpster between them.
The man had now pressed the woman up against the wall of the theater, only yards away from where Richard waited silently, and the individual figures of the couple became lost in the blackness.
Richard could hear them, though: heavy, excited breathing, the rustle of fabric, a contented sigh.
He had to leave, immediately. He couldn’t be here for this, he simply couldn’t. The alley was a blind one, though, and the only exit was past the couple – and they would surely see him. He would have to wait.
More sighs, followed by more giggles. Why had they chosen this place? What could have possessed them to stop here?
Richard closed his eyes, willing everything away – the alley, the smell, the couple. At the next giggle he struck the stone wall with his fist hard, drawing blood. The act made no noticeable sound, but rage welled up within him. Blood dripped from his injured hand, soaked up by the street.
As if pulled by invisible hooks, Richard’s eyes were drawn towards the dumpster. At the top of the refuse, amidst the old paper cups and stale bags of popcorn, someone had discarded a broken bottle. Its edges shined like a star in the dimness of the alley, reflecting the light from the distant street.
They must be stopped, Richard told himself, and he reached for the bottle.
He was moving, moving towards the unsuspecting couple, bottle in hand. The two could not see him coming in the darkness, and they had other things on their mind. But not for long.
He was only paces away, standing in the middle of the alley. If the couple turned, they would see him, waiting for them. Their rapid, excited breathing reverberated through his head, angering him, filling him with disgust.
Not their excited breathing.
With a cry, Richard hurled the bottle away from himself, stumbling in the violence of the act. It shattered against the brick wall, spraying the couple with glass, and the woman screamed.
“What the fuck?” the man said, turning clumsily.
“Get out of here!” Richard screamed at them. He staggered a few steps towards them, and then back away.
“What the fuck is your problem, man?” the man was saying, uncertain. Richard collided with the far wall of the alley, and his fingers sought out and closed around a piece of wood.
“I said GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!!!” he cried, swinging the board before himself. “RUN!!!”
The man began to advance, pointless bravado, but then the woman was pulling his arm, dragging him away.
The couple backed away down the alley, towards the light, away from Richard.
And then he was alone again, in the darkness, weeping. The board fell from his hands, clattering upon the pavement. The world dripped before him, pulsated and spun. In shades of red.
Home was where he needed to be, away from this. The alley’s exit seemed so distant, though, and his home even further. He stumbled towards it, into the painfully lit streets, amongst the crowds of the uncaring living. Crying, and remembering.
At last, the police had found the factory, responding to an anonymous tip that led them to the source of the rash of disappearances in the city. A score of fully armed and armored officers had breached the building, ready for anything. They were unprepared, however, for the scene of total carnage that awaited them on the factory floor: decaying corpses heaped ten feet high, the servants dismembering the bodies at the base of the hill of carrion. And at the top of the hill, the worm squatted, giggling, as Richard shoveled the human pieces into its eager maw.
The police had hesitated in the face of this madness, and that hesitation cost them dearly. The worm had been expecting them, and more of its servants were waiting in ambush behind wayward stacks of boxes. During that initial confusion, they attacked, wielding knives, axes, saws. Five members of the force had been killed before the others responded, opening fire indiscriminately at the ambushers, the working servants, and at the worm itself.
Richard was spared the initial onslaught; the worm’s death throes knocked him down the mountain of carcasses and behind it, away from the hail of gunfire. The other servants immediately began to wail as the worm fell, their screams nearly drowning out the gunshots that exterminated them.
Richard would have been killed as well, but as the worm’s carcass shuddered its last, he had curled up into a ball upon the cold factory floor—
— and cried.
He had started weeping, unashamed, right there before them all, his mind free and his own again. The sight of him there, apparently filled with remorse, had given the officers pause, and they did not kill him, as he later would often wish they had. Instead, they took him into custody, and they put him under observation, and they interrogated him multiple times, and they performed many psychological tests upon him. And just when Richard thought that there was no more that could be done to him, they did the most damning thing of them all:
They let him go.
What else could they do? Nothing like the worm had ever been encountered before, anywhere, throughout recorded history. No one knew where it had come from, no one knew if there were more. But it had been real, and multiple officers had seen it eating, and it had left a carcass behind that was outside the understanding of modern biology. Richard had told the police what it had made him do, how it had guided him to slay all of those people, how it had made him feed it the remains with a shovel. He had expected to be imprisoned, as the criminal, but instead he had been liberated, as the victim.
After all, he had cried when freed of the worm’s power, right?
He had been horrified of what he had been forced to do, and remorseful, and that is why he had cried. Right?
Ahead, Richard’s apartment building awaited him. He burst through the main entrance and staggered up the stairs towards his room, his sanctuary, upon the fourth floor, desperately needing to be there. If he could get upstairs, if he could see himself in the mirror, see his own eyes, then everything would be fine. He could block it all out, make it all go away.
The police had helped him find a job after the worm, and a home, and detective Lambert, the officer in charge of the assault upon the factory, checked on him every couple of days, and Richard talked to a therapist once a week. They did all of this because of his sorrowful cries that one night, the night in the factory, and that was the truly terrible part of it all.
He hadn’t cried in remorse, or sorrow, or horror, which is what they had thought of him.
In truth, he had felt nothing, nothing at all at the moment of his liberation—he didn’t know why he had fallen to the floor and wept, and that was his secret, the real terror of his existence.
They had let him go because he had cried, only because he had cried. And his tears had meant nothing.
The door to Richard’s apartment was before him. Even struggling with his keys nearly reduced him to fits of screaming hysteria. It gave way at last, and he stumbled into the room, towards the mirror, to look himself in the eye, gain some control.
“You’re Richard Dewar, Richard Dewar,” he told the wild-eyed face in the mirror, breathing erratically. “You’ve had bad things happen to you in your life, but they’re over now, over now, you’re fine, you’re fine-“
An image shifted in the reflection before him, a bulk moving towards him in the darkness of the bedroom. Richard whirled, his back to the dresser, to face the apparition, but nothing was there, nothing at all.
He chuckled, and at once the feeling of oppression left him. He felt calm again, in control. There was nothing there; everything was in his mind, everything was just his normal, overworked, imagination. Then why didn’t he look back towards the mirror? There was no reason not to.
He turned slowly, evenly, to face his image again. Hovering over his shoulder, two eyes gazed into his own, and a wide mouth grinned at him.
“We have a lot of catching up to do, Billy-boy,” the worm said.
I originally wrote this story in 1997 in a dark period when I was struggling to overcome a number of tragic events in my life (though nothing as dramatic, or criminal, as those that Richard Dewar suffered). The story was an acknowledgement that tragedy haunts us as surely as any ghost or demon could.
I was reminded of the tale when I recently realized that I had fallen, unawares, into another long term cycle of clinical depression. Though I thought I had “beaten” depression back in 2001 when I first received treatment, it had crept insidiously back into my life. Looking back on “The Worm”, the story can also be regarded as a picture of how depression had clouded my psyche, and how that depression can seize upon us again in a moment of weakness.
I’m doing much better again, but this story will remind me to be strong and ever-vigilant against darkness of the spirit.
This is very good! It reminds me of Steven King’s early short stories. I’ve always been impressed by the ability of certain people to turn their pain into art.
High praise indeed! Thank you very much!