Bad Blood

📅 Published on May 3, 2020

“Bad Blood”

Written by Brian Martinez
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


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I never thought that dying would save my life. But then death has always been a funny son-of-a-bitch.

Three weeks ago I made an appointment to see my regular doctor about an annoying cough that wouldn’t go away. It got so bad I swore that Gary, the guy who sat in the cubicle next to me at work, wanted to strangle me with my own phone cord. But I didn’t like him much, either, so I considered us even.

I walked into my doctor’s office figuring I’d gotten myself another case of Bronchitis. I expected to walk out in five minutes with a prescription for the good cough medicine that makes me feel all warm and squishy as I drift off in front of the TV. She insisted on an x-ray, though, so I humored her, figuring I didn’t have much choice if I wanted to walk out with that precious slip of paper.

“They say the quickest way to a man’s heart is with radiation,” I joked, and she laughed her way out of the room.

But when she walked in a little later, with the developed x-ray in hand, she wasn’t laughing. She popped the film sheet into the holding clips and flipped the light switch, revealing the black-and-white image of my lungs. Specifically, the gray cloud that had settled over them, like the weather at a doomed parade. I’m no trained professional, but the crowd of dark spots gathered in my lungs didn’t look right to me.

Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer is what it’s called, though to me, ‘non-small’ sounds like a nice way of saying ‘big and scary.’ And yet they said I was lucky. That they caught it early enough to give me a fighting chance, so long as we took what they called an ‘aggressive plan of attack.’

Let me tell you, I didn’t feel lucky. There isn’t enough TV in the world to distract you from a diagnosis like that. Pretty soon your thoughts start to turn in on themselves. You analyze and re-analyze every choice and cringe-inducing mistake you’ve ever made. More than anything, my mind kept returning to all those times I’d lectured my parents about their pack-a-day smoking habit. I’d leave them informational flyers and email them links to support groups. “It might be cool if you don’t die,” I’d tell them. “Maybe stick around for a bit, just to see how it goes.” I eventually gave up when I realized they were never going to change, and I was somehow becoming the bad guy for trying to keep my parents alive.

Well, guess what? Those assholes retired to Florida with a clean bill of health, and they left me holding the check. Or more accurately the medical bill. We might have been blood, but it had slowly become bad blood. They were the reason I didn’t carry a phone anymore, so I didn’t have to live with the possibility of a surprise phone call. I didn’t even bother calling to tell them about my diagnosis. Either I would do that when the treatments were over, to celebrate my victory over their second-hand gift to me, or my obituary would be the greatest I-Told-You-So in modern-day history.

You can call it petty. I call it something to look forward to.

When I signed in for my first chemo session, the girl who handed me the dictionary-sized stack of paperwork to fill out asked if I had someone to drive me home. I thought it was a pretty stupid question on account of us living in a city, where public transportation is always about ten feet away. Seeing the look on my face, she explained that chemo takes a lot out of a person.

“I think that’s the idea,” I said. When she missed the obvious- and some would say brilliant joke- and went on to describe the feelings of nausea and exhaustion I might experience as a side-effect of the treatment, I could see she wasn’t going to let the subject go easily. Being that I was already experiencing nausea and exhaustion, I did the right thing and lied to her face. “Don’t worry,” I said, “an old friend will be waiting to pick me up.”

If it makes you feel any better, it wasn’t a total lie. I consider the A-Train to be a very old, very dear, very smelly and piss-stained friend.

After filling out all that paperwork, I never wanted to use my arm again, which was right about the time a nurse brought me to the Infusion Room and told me we’d be using my arm for the treatment. My Oncologist showed up, who I found to be a man who had never smiled in his life. He told me I’d be receiving my own, personalized blend of chemo and pre-medications, including anti-nausea meds, anxiety meds, allergy meds, and steroids. I asked him if he could add a shot of whiskey to that cocktail, but the joke went over like a cardboard flamethrower.

When the doctor with the fantastic sense of humor left, the nurse hooked me up to the poison drip and gave me a few tips about how I might feel. She said the steroids might give me energy, while the allergy and anti-anxiety drugs might make me sleepy. “So an eight-ball,” I said. When she gave me a confused look I added, “Coke and heroin. The only way to party.”

“Hopefully it’s not that strong,” she said.

“And what about this stuff?” I asked, nodding to the clear liquid dripping into my bloodstream. “How will that make me feel?”

“Usually not great. But it makes the cancer cells feel even worse.”

I could certainly agree with that kind of logic. “The enemy of my enemy,” I said, and finally she smiled. Then she sat in a chair across the room and got busy forgetting I existed.

* * * * * *

Nearly five hours later I walked out of the Oncology building feeling like I’d just gone on a weekend bender with Hunter Thompson and Satan’s pharmacist. The sun had gone down, and the city’s more colorful citizens were starting to crawl out of their caves. I felt like I was swimming in slow motion through a crowd of grinning, talking fish, and they were all trying to sell me something. I had the vague thought that there was someone I was supposed to meet, until about three blocks later when I remembered that it was a lie I’d told that nosy woman at the front desk to get her off my back.

By the time I reached the stairs leading down to the subway, my head felt like an overinflated balloon about to float up into the sky, leaving behind sad children and crying hippies concerned for the dolphins that would choke on me. The light glittered up at me from the subway like a flashlight dropped in the ocean, and I followed it down into the cold, dark ground.

I didn’t have to wait long for the next train, which was good because the benches were looking way too comfortable to risk sitting on them and falling asleep. When a dirty subway bench starts looking like a king-sized bed, you know you’re in trouble.

The A-Train was crowded, but luckily not packed too tight with people. Most of them were probably heading to a game or a concert or whatever it is normal people did for fun. It was only by some miracle that I found an empty seat.

My breath must have stunk like radioactive rat’s ass, because the woman in the seat next to me turned away and gave me a nice look at the back of her neck. She pretended like I wasn’t there, which, to be fair, was pretty much true. I wasn’t all there. Not really. My brain felt like old jelly, and my veins burned like a gasoline fire. As the automatic doors closed, and the train squeaked out of the station, I could feel my head being pulled toward the floor. The invisible cowboy called Sleep had roped my neck and was swiftly taking me down, tying my hands and feet together to leave me helpless. The last thing I heard was a tinny-sounding announcement about a delay due to construction on the tracks. I distantly remembered something about a big, expensive project to dig a new tunnel and add extra subway lines, but I could barely think over the thumping of the tracks beneath us.

The rhythmic sound grew slower and heavier, and my eyelids did the same. They were impossibly heavy, unable to stay open. My head swirled with chemicals and the muffled sounds of voices drifting away to nothing as I fell and fell through the darkness.

* * * * * *

In my dream I was sitting in a cubicle, surrounded by shadows. My arms, both of them, were hooked up to tubes, long tubes that ran high above my head and into the shadows. Inside the tubes were what looked like tiny, black ants. A parade of them, marching into my veins. Making my arms itch and burn. So many ants they moved like liquid. Like oil sludge through an engine. I tried to pull the tubes from my arms but they wouldn’t budge, like they were soldered to my flesh. A permanent part of me. I looked up to see the bags they were attached to, where the ants were coming from. The origin of their death march.

Instead of IV bags, I saw two bodies dangling above me in the dark. The tubes ran from their arms to mine, their faces just barely visible.

It was mom and dad. Smiling down at me. Squeezing their arms to make the ants march faster.

Laughing as they fed me the blackness that lived inside them.

* * * * * *

Before my eyes were open, I knew something was wrong.

Usually falling asleep on the subway meant missing a stop. Life had continued on without you, and it was on you to shake off the sleep and catch up. But this time it was all wrong.

This time something had changed.

Not only had someone turned the volume down, they’d changed the channel entirely. Tuned into a different frequency, on another wavelength. The scattered voices of the A-Train crowd had fallen silent, replaced by the strange, overbearing echo of the steel cars moving through the tunnel, tick-tick-ticking like a drawn-out time bomb.

My eyelids opened like two, forgotten sarcophagi, dry and scratchy as the ancient desert. I was staring down at my own shirt, my neck bent at a sharp angle. As I picked my head up, pain shot through my shoulders and neck, the muscles sore from so much time spent hunched over. I would have cursed or cried out, but my throat was even drier than my eyes, and no sound came out when I tried.

Blinking, trying to focus, I looked around at the train car, attempting to make sense of what I saw. The train’s overhead lights had gone out, leaving the car to be lit only by a single strip of yellow emergency lights. Much stronger were the lights coming through the windows from the subway tunnel. They strobed past, illuminating the inside of the car from front to back, a slow, steady pattern like we were being scanned by an alien ship.

But the really strange thing, the thing that made me blink the sleep from my eyes and fight the pounding in my temple, was what those lights lit up.

The train car appeared to be transporting not commuters, but corpses. A few dozen dead bodies sitting upright in their seats, rocking back and forth from the movement of the train. Light flickered slowly past them from the tunnel outside, playing across their slumped, unmoving forms. I watched the bodies sway in the strobe light, feeling the moment stretch on and on, just me and a train car full of dead bodies, moving through the earth like a serpent in the night.

It had to be a dream. It was too surreal, too bizarre to be real life. I glanced up, expecting to see my parents still strung up by tubes, but saw only the ceiling of the train car illuminated by passing lights. On weak, sleep-heavy legs I stood, needing more than anything to know what was going on. To know what frequency I’d woken up in.

I don’t know if it was the cocktail of chemicals swimming in my veins or the adrenaline rush of fear, but my legs shook like a newborn deer learning to walk. I stared at the dark train car, silently begging, praying for someone to move and break the spell. Only the rocking of the train moved the bodies, swayed them in their seats, the faint sound of their clothes shifting against the metal and plastic benches.

For some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me until just then that I’d been sitting next to someone when I fell asleep. The woman who pretended I didn’t exist. I was starting to think she was right, that I was a ghost drifting through the afterlife. Which was crazy, of course, but then so was what I’d woken up to.

I looked back to the seat next to mine and found her exactly where I’d left her. Her head was slumped over, like the others, and she looked just as dead as them, her head swaying to the rhythmic rocking of the train.

But she wasn’t exactly as I’d left her. There was something different, something new about her. The neck she’d shown me when I sat down had something sticking out of it, almost like a large pyramid at the base of her skull. It was thick and short, and it came to a sharp point. Careful not to disturb her, I steadied myself against the swaying of the train and leaned in for a better look.

It looked like an arrowhead erupting from the nape of her neck, complete with a dribble of dried blood at the entry point. As I got closer, I made out tiny rows of barbs. Just when I thought the woman had the oddest piercing I’d ever seen, the thing on her neck did something I really, really wished it hadn’t done.

It moved.

Like the tail of a rat settling into its nest, the thing on her neck shifted and buried in deeper. My dry throat found its voice again as I nearly fell back, letting out a small, guttural cry. The woman’s slumped head shifted in what at first I thought was the movement of the train taking a sharp curve in the tunnel. But then it moved again, this time rising up, the neck craning, the head turning toward the sound I’d made like a sluggish dog alerted to trouble.

If I thought the barbed tail moving in her neck was shocking, it was nothing compared to the sight of the woman’s eyes. Her eyelids rose like curtains at the world’s worst play, revealing two white orbs. The centers were barely discolored by what used to be her corneas. In the passing lights of the subway tunnel I saw no recognition, no reaction to the light. The woman, if she was even aware of me, couldn’t see me, couldn’t make out my horrified expression staring back at her, no matter how much she craned her neck and aimed her dead, milky eyeballs at me, her mouth slack and her features as barren as the surface of a cold moon. The way her head tilted reminded me of a puppet. As if not moving by choice, but by something working it from inside.

With a hard realization dawning on me, I turned away from the white-eyed woman and looked at the next closest person to me. A young guy in a hoodie rocked in his seat, arms limp at his side, head slumped over. Inching closer to peek over his hood, I made out the already familiar shape on the back of his neck. A barbed tail surrounded by dried blood. The girl next to him, wearing hoop earrings and a fake fur coat, had the same on her neck.

I looked around the darkened train car, still slipping through the tunnels, lights passing in rhythm like the beat of a funeral hymn. And in that moment, alone among the bobbing, half-dead commuters of a train that didn’t appear to be stopping, I finally realized the inarguable truth of what I’d woken up to.

“I’m dead.”

At the sound of my voice, little more than a whisper, the slumped head of every person in the train car shot up. I froze in place as a hundred heads holding two hundred white eyes scanned the dark, ears tilted, trying to locate the source of the sound. Their movements were exactly like the woman’s. The moves of a puppet. Suddenly I felt like I was going to piss my pants. I held it, though, held my piss and held my breath as the slack-jawed crowd with the tails in their necks scanned the train car from their seats for whatever didn’t belong. Whatever wasn’t one of them. What they would do if they found it- if they found me- was not something I wanted to find out.

At that point, I realized I had two options. The train didn’t appear to be making any stops, and it was only a matter of time until the blind, infected whatever-they-were people in that train caught me standing in their midst. My first option was to sit back down in my seat and wait it out, wait until the train stopped on its own or someone shut it down. There was no telling how long that would take, though, and by that time I would probably piss myself and get sniffed out by the white-eyed creeps.

The other option was to shut it down myself.

* * * * * *

There was no way of knowing what had happened to the train conductor, but considering we’d blown past the last few stops without signs of slowing down, it was safe to assume they either knew what was happening, and wanted no part of it, or they’d been taken over as well. Either way, it meant making my way up to the conductor’s car, getting inside, and somehow convincing the conductor to stop the train. Whether that meant by words or by force, I didn’t know.

One more glance at the woman I’d slept next to was all I needed to make up my mind. There was no way I was going to sit next to her and calmly wait for a miracle to save me. Not with that unblinking, slightly drooling look on her deadened face. I’d rather sit next to a crying baby on a flight from New York to Singapore. My only consolation was that I’d sat at the front of the train, and so only had to cross one car to reach the conductor.

With the slowest, quietest footsteps I’ve ever taken in my life, I made the excruciating trek from the back of the car to the front, holding the poles to keep me steady when I could, every inch of the way staring at the white, unblinking eyes around me. Watching for the slightest hint of recognition. When I passed someone standing, their stiffened arms hooked around the poles, I moved around them at the pace of a glacier. By the time I reached the door at the front of the car my legs were sore from staying so tense- and they’d already been tired from the personalized poison cocktail swimming through them.

With the sliding door finally in front of me, I knew I’d reached a crucial moment. Do or die, if you will. After spending so much time being as silent as possible, I was about to break that silence very abruptly. There was no slow, quiet way to do it, once the door was even slightly open the wind from the moving train would rush in, and there was no way of knowing how the puppets were going to react to it. Not well, if I had to guess. But there was no going back. No other way.

With my tense fingers wrapped around the cold handle, my body like a coiled spring, I wrenched the sliding door open and at the same flung myself through the open space, the wind hitting me like a full-body punch, then spun and wrenched the door shut again, holding the handle in case anyone tried to pull it open.

The wind buffeted my body, my clothes flapping like a flag in a storm as the two cars bumped and swayed together. A small chain on either side was all that kept me from tumbling off the train and into the dark tunnel. Through the door’s window I watched the car I’d just escaped from come to life like the world’s worst puppet show. Passengers lurched to their crooked feet and stumbled blindly toward the door, bumping and fumbling past each other to find the noise they’d just heard. I held on tight to the handle, relieved to see none of them try to open it. Not with any conviction. A few of them reached out and slapped at the door, making movements that resembled a functioning human, or maybe a dog trying to recreate something it had done accidentally. But luckily for me, it wasn’t coordinated enough to actually open the heavy door.

Their blind eyes stared out the window, nothing separating us but a half-inch of glass and a world of understanding. These weren’t human faces in front of me. They were something alien, filtered through a layer of human bone and muscle. I’d walked among them, tempting death with each footstep.

But now. Now came the hard part.

I could see him in there. Through the thick, dirty glass of the final door, I watched as the train conductor sat perfectly still in his seat, his hand resting on a large button on the console. Since he was wearing a windbreaker with the collar pulled up, I couldn’t get a look at his neck to see what might be hiding there. But the eeriness of his posture, the crooked way he sat in his chair with his foot on the pedal, didn’t give me much hope.

After about half a minute, as I gathered my courage from the wind, the button under the conductor’s hand started to flash. It looked like some kind of alert, but I had no idea how train’s operated, so it was only a guess. After another thirty seconds passed and he hadn’t pressed the button- assumedly because he couldn’t see it- it began to buzz sharply, so loud I could hear it over the wind and the clatter of the train. The moment the noise started, the conductor slapped at the button, shutting off both the noise and the light at once.

Just like that, I understood what I was looking at. It was some kind of dead man’s switch, designed to make sure the conductor was still both alive and awake to turn it off in the event of an emergency.

Apparently he was both alive and awake, but probably not the way the designers had planned. His mindless reaction to the stimuli was what kept the train going. It was a repeating pattern: Thing makes noise. Hit thing until it stops making noise. Repeat. To be honest, it didn’t look much different from the way I looked at work, which hit a little too close to home for me.

If that thought bothered me, it was nothing compared to the realization that I was on standing on a train- between moving cars no less- that was being operated by a blind man, himself operated by some kind of parasite that had dug itself into his brain. It was only a matter of time before we ran into trouble, be it a stopped train or some other blockage the conductor would have no skills to see, much less avoid.

With a look around for something, anything I could use as a weapon, and coming up with a big, fat nothing, I gripped the handle of the conductor’s car, took a breath, prayed silently to every god I’d ever heard of and a few I hadn’t, and flung open the door.

The conductor turned to face with me with a slackened face and two, milky-white eyes that looked right through me. He was a large man, with pock-marked skin and a graying beard. He rose from the seat like his shoulders had ropes attached to them, a bad performance of Peter Pan with two uncoordinated stagehands just out of view working the pulley system. I had the bright idea that maybe he could be reasoned with, that whatever was controlling him might understand the words taken in by the ears of its host. I figured it was worth a shot trying to reason with him, at least for the sake of my own conscience. With only a second or two to spare, I thought of the most diplomatic thing I could come up with on such short notice.

“Sit down. I don’t want to kill you.”

It certainly wasn’t my worst work. I paused for a moment, to see how my extended olive branch would be received. To my surprise, the conductor paused as well. He cocked his head like a dog hearing the peanut butter jar, and opened his mouth. Except that wasn’t right. It wasn’t that he opened his mouth, but rather his mouth was opened for him. I waited to hear what he had to say in return, the first words exchanged between two different species since…well maybe ever. It might turn out to be a historic occasion. Potential planetary war avoided by two individuals breaking down the walls of communication.

Except that’s not what happened. Instead of words, a noise rose up from inside his throat like the droning song of a cicada during a hot summer. I watched in disgust as two, thick antennae pushed past the conductor’s tongue and lips, feeling the air around it. I thought it was part of the thing that was controlling him, conducting the conductor, so to speak, until it managed to crawl all the way out of his mouth, tail and all. It was a totally separate creature from the one in his neck.

How many of those things were inside him? And more importantly, was I going to throw up on myself?

It was long, nearly a foot from end to end, with a sectioned body like a blackish-pink worm, and a spiked tail that wrapped around the conductor’s neck. It made its way onto his shoulder with surprising speed, wet with saliva and fast as hell. The face, if you could call it that, was little more than an eyeless suction cup lined with rows of needle-like teeth that glistened as they shifted. As the creature tested the air with its twitching antennae, its long body tensed and coiled, I had already decided what thought needed to be communicated between our two species next.

“You are one nasty little bastard,” I said.

And that’s when it jumped at me.

* * * * * *

The thing sprung off the conductor’s shoulder aimed right for my face, its wormy mouth open and teeth rotating. I barely had time to move. Purely by instinct, my hands shot up in front of my face, blocking it from being hit. Instead, the creature wrapped around my wrist and squeezed tight, like a boa constrictor with a mouse in its grip.

Its antennae twitched wildly, tail whipping at my arm as it struggled to reach my face. I felt its needle-teeth clamp down on my exposed wrist. My nerves lit up as it bit down hard, teeth digging in. I screamed. Tried to smash it against the train wall. I was desperate to get it off me, but it moved, making me slam my own injured arm into the wall. I screamed again.

It pulled its suction cup mouth from my arm and hissed like a cockroach, its tiny teeth wet with my blood. I tried to shout back at it, tell it to crawl up its own ass, but it went again for my face. Served me right. Now wasn’t the time for witty comebacks. I did everything I could to shake it off, smash it against something, but it was too fast. Too slippery.

Suddenly I remembered the conductor was still there, and I turned to find his puppet hands reaching out toward me.

He wanted to restrain me, to help the creature that had just crawled out of his mouth do its job. I raised my fist to punch him right in his creepy beard, realizing too late it was the arm that currently had a demonic worm wrapped around it.

I’d screwed up, exposing my face to the slimy beast to do God knew what. But just when I thought it was over, just when I thought I was the next puppet in the world’s nastiest children’s show, something funny happened.

The creature on my arm seized up, its long body going so tense it cut off the circulation to my hand. I felt waves of peristalsis pulse through its form. A sound almost like a wet cough came from its needled mouth, and as I watched it twist and convulse around my arm, I noticed even the conductor seemed to be listening to the sick sounds it made. The creature’s skin shifted to a gray pallor. Then its grip loosened, no longer restricting my blood flow.

Whatever it was doing, I didn’t wait to find out. I reached out, grabbed it around the middle and squeezed as hard as I could. It squished and popped between my fingers like a rotten tomato. Once it had completely stopped squirming I dropped it. It fell to the floor with two, soft thumps- one for each half.

I stared down at it in disbelief, ignoring the smell of my newly-painted hand. I looked up at the conductor, expecting him to lash out at me, to demand revenge for whatever the hell had just happened to his tenant. But the large button, which must have been flashing while I’d fought the creature on my arm, began to buzz for attention. He cocked his head, listening blindly to the noise, then fumbled back into his seat as if I was no longer there.

He slapped the button to make it stop buzzing. Back at work like nothing had happened. But he was too late. The emergency brakes engaged, nearly throwing us both to the floor.

With a long, dry screech of metal, the train came to a stop in the dark tunnel. I breathed a hesitant sigh of relief. We were no longer in danger of smashing into something up ahead, but being that we were sitting dead on the tracks, the risk was now that another train would smash into us.

Not exactly a big difference results-wise.

I stepped over the dead worm-thing while keeping a close eye on the blind conductor. Without a button to press he’d become just as useless as all his blind passengers behind us.

Mounted under the console was a heavy tin box with first aid equipment inside. I used it to smash in the conductor’s head, starting with the tail in the back of his neck. He didn’t scream- the creature did enough of it for the two of them.

* * * * * *

After taking care of the conductor and his passenger, I opened the dented, metal box and used one of the bandages inside to wipe the slime off my hands, the other to wrap my bleeding arm. Then I found a heavy flashlight that worked well and felt solid in my hand.

I checked in on the train passengers through the window. They’d returned to their seats and were once again sitting blind and half-dead, as if awaiting instructions. What those instructions would be I didn’t know, and didn’t want to know. There was only one thing I did know: I needed to get off that train and find my way out. Maybe warn people about what I’d seen down there. But that was a very distant second. If there was time.

I climbed down between the train cars, nearly falling off in the process. My clothes got dirty with oil and grease but I didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was leaving the train of the damned behind, and getting above ground.

At that point, I noticed something interesting- the big bite wound in my arm wasn’t bothering me at all. I studied the bandage under the beam of the flashlight and found the blood had already stopped flowing. Even though the skin around it was red and inflamed, it didn’t hurt at all. In fact, it was almost numb to the touch. It made me think of mosquitoes, and how their saliva works like an anesthetic so we don’t feel them working on us. From what I recalled, they even inject us with anticoagulants to keep the blood flowing. Could these things do something similar? Numb us up but heal the entry wound instead to preserve the host?

I didn’t want to think about that, either. Not until I got the hell out of hell.

With the flashlight in hand, I looked both ways down the tunnel, where we’d come from and where we were going. They both looked equally unpromising. I decided to move forward, telling myself it was a sign of optimism or some bullshit. The truth was, I didn’t want to walk along the train and past all those windows, to catch even one glimpse of all the lifeless puppets in there. Just the thought of it sent a chill up my tired back.

The tunnel lights were a lot further apart than I remembered. Where before they’d passed by in a steady, hypnotic pattern to light up the train car of seemingly dead bodies, on foot they were a few minutes apart, meaning I spent more time in the dark than I did the light. The flashlight helped, though even combined the lights weren’t enough to beat back the shadows of that cold, dead place. Dirt and small rocks crunched under my dragging feet, echoing off the walls. It felt like an eternity down there in the dark. Emptiness behind, infinity ahead.

But the real problem was, I wasn’t alone in those tunnels.

Living in the city, you get used to the sounds of rodents and insects. The scratching of rats, the pitter-patter of roaches searching for food. You don’t like it, of course, but you kind of accept the inevitability of dirty things in your life. They can be kept at bay for a little while, killed and contained and kept away from your food, but eventually they always find their way back in.

Except what I was hearing wasn’t rats. And it wasn’t roaches, either.

All around me, coming from the shadows and off the walls, was the shuffle of rocks and dirt. Invisible things sliding through the darkness. Crawling and slipping along the ground and over the train tracks. I knew exactly what they were, what they were looking for, and I considered turning off the flashlight to make sure they didn’t find it. Then I remembered it didn’t matter anyway. They were blind as bats. More so, since they were actually blind. It probably didn’t matter if I kept the flashlight on, just that I not make any noise.

I decided to keep it on so I could see better and not trip in the dark, thus making noise and attracting attention. Still, I didn’t aim it directly down at the ground. There was no point in pushing it, and I really didn’t want to see the ground moving around my feet.

* * * * * *

After what must have been eight or nine years- or twenty minutes, depending on how you do the math- I found a door. It was unlocked, thankfully, and it led to a maintenance area that looked like it hadn’t been used in over a decade. It was a large room, carpeted in dust and rat droppings, without a single light bulb to light it up. I didn’t know what a damned thing in it was used for other than a few broken-down generators and an old mop, but I wasn’t planning on sticking around to find out. I hurried through the stale-smelling place, through another door, and up a stairwell thick with cobwebs and cigarette butts, tripping over my own feet the entire way.

After a few turns and another door, I found myself ejected unceremoniously into a subway station I’d never been in. It really didn’t matter, so long as it got me that much closer to ground level. Though as I weaved my way across the platform and up another flight of stairs, I noted that the station was completely empty. Not even the ticket booth was occupied. The sight was troubling, but at that moment I cared only about getting to the surface, about reaching the air, and the light, and God help me, even the people. My legs were tired and my head pounded and my lungs felt like they would burst, but I charged up those final steps faster than I’d ever run before. Like an overdue baby ready to be born.

Finally I was free. Above ground and out of the grave. The night air felt cool and refreshing on my hot, sweaty skin, and even the city’s smoggy air was an improvement on what I’d been breathing. I gave myself a few seconds to enjoy the victory and take in the feeling. I’d made it. I’d looked death in its eyeless, suction-cupped face and lived to talk about it.

When the novelty of being alive wore off, which took all of ten seconds, I spotted a police officer standing near an intersection. The traffic was at a stand-still, and my guess was she was there to direct it. Seeing a real, live authority figure, the responsibility of warning someone about what I’d seen hit me like it hadn’t before. People needed to know what was going on. To stop it from spreading. And if I was going to be the selfless hero to do it, recognized for the rest of my life as the man who saved them all, then all the better.

“Officer!” I shouted as I ran up to her. “Down there. The subway. They need help! Creatures. Horrible things.” My words were a mess, coming out a few at a time and mostly out of order.

But as she turned to face me, to look not at me but through me, with those clouded-over eyes and that blank expression, I knew my words didn’t matter. None of it mattered, because no one cared. Not the officer in front of me. Not the people standing blindly around us. Not even the drivers in all the cars stopped all along the street, as far away as I could see.

The city was eerily quiet, yet still full of people. But to call them people was an exaggeration. They were puppets. A city of puppets, standing around waiting for their strings to be pulled. The only sounds I heard were the idling of car engines and the useless changing of traffic signals. That and the crawling. The shuffling and slithering of legless things in the alleys and under the ground.

I backed away from the police officer before she could open her mouth and birth the inevitable. When I found a somewhat secluded place in a small park, away from all the white-eyed, slack-faced puppets, I sat down on a bench and buried my face in my hands.

Was I the only one not taken by those things? And if so, should I feel lucky about it, or somehow offended? Was I actually beneath the standards of blind, brain-sucking worms? As I sat on the bench, contemplating what to do next, where to go or who to call, I rubbed my aching neck. Between the chemo cocktail and my adventure down below, which included the cardio-heavy act of beating a man to death, I was tired to my bones.

My fingers touched something. Something on my neck. I jumped up from the bench, panic coursing through me, and slapped and clawed at the back of my head to pull whatever it was loose. I would die before I let one of those things turn me into a puppet. No way I was letting them win after all I’d gone through.

But nothing came. There was no tail, no creature. I looked at my hand and found it stained with dried blood. Touching my neck again, carefully, I felt a large wound there, all caked with scabs and coagulated blood, and only a faint stinging to go with it, more from my clumsy slapping and clawing than anything.

It didn’t make sense. But then, then I thought of the anesthetic in the mosquito saliva. The coagulant. And I thought of what happened in the conductor’s car when the creature bit my arm. It was almost like an allergic reaction I’d witnessed. A violent response to something foreign and dangerous.

A reaction to my blood. To the chemical cocktail floating in my veins. The chemo had turned my blood toxic, not just a bad taste but a dangerous one. Those four hours under the needle had been like being fitted for armor, a radioactive shield protecting me from the tiny, vile dragons of the world.

The enemy of my enemy.

As I stood there, trying to understand how dying had saved my life, how the monster inside me had protected me from the ones outside, I became aware of footsteps on the sidewalk nearby. They were normal footsteps, not the shuffling of puppet feet, and as I stood silently in the small park I watched a hooded figure walk past. She was fairly tall, a young woman in a purple hoodie, and when she turned to casually glance at me without stopping, I saw beneath her hood.

She had no hair, only eyebrows, and a hard stare that said she’s been to hell and back. She was gorgeous, in a princess warrior kind of way. With those gray eyes she’d stared down the same death as me, taken the same poisons, killing herself to live. After we locked eyes for one, intense moment, she simply nodded, then kept walking until she disappeared around a corner. Two ships passing in the night.

I took a deep breath, filling up my diseased lungs with night air, inflating those twin monsters inside me. Monsters locked away in a rib cage. Then I found a phone and dialed a number I hadn’t dialed in years, watching the puppets walk blindly past. Fake lives with fake meaning.

My father picked up, though it was on speakerphone as usual. My mother was in the room, too. They both started talking at once, asking about the things they were hearing about on the news. I cut them off, stopping them from talking over each other, and told them to listen to me very, very carefully.

“There’s good news and there’s bad news,” I explained to them. “The good news is, I have cancer. The bad news is, you don’t.”

I hung up before they could say another word. Then I went off to find the princess warrior. It was time to start a new tribe. A poisonous tribe. One free of strings.

Rating: 7.82/10. From 11 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Brian Martinez
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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